Aug. 4, 2008
Professor: Katrina boosted New Orleans musicians' productivity, creativity
New Orleans artists are reluctant to credit Hurricane Katrina as a source of inspiration. But after the disaster -- which marks its third anniversary Aug. 29 -- many New Orleans musicians experienced their most productive months in decades and scaled new creative peaks, a University of Iowa professor asserts.
The flood displaced many artists, jolting them out of comfort zones. It also drove up demand for New Orleans music as the country clung to connections with the city, said Don McLeese, a journalism professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences whose career as a music critic has spanned three decades.
McLeese's assessment of the hurricane's impact on New Orleans musicians was published in the May 2008 issue of the journal Popular Music and Society.
"People tended to take New Orleans for granted as a party town with a specific kind of music. When they realized such a treasure had been severely damaged, if not lost forever, they were forced to reconsider what New Orleans meant as a cultural resource for the country," McLeese said. "New Orleans was on everybody's mind, and there was this real hunger for its music. Musicians found themselves busier than they had been in years."
Take for example Allen Toussaint, the once-prolific songwriter and producer whose signature tunes once defined the city's rhythm and blues, but whose career had been on autopilot since the late 1970s. A flood-forced move to New York resulted in collaboration with Elvis Costello. He released the critically acclaimed "The River in Reverse," a response to Hurricane Katrina, and embarked on the busiest year of his 68-year lifetime, including an extensive international tour.
"Toussaint lost his home, but reclaimed his career," McLeese said.
Following Katrina, at age 65, Irma Thomas -- known for '60s hits like "(You Can Have My Husband, But Please) Don't Mess With My Man" and "It's Raining" -- released "After the Rain." The album, which won a Grammy for best contemporary blues recording, was a milestone in the soul queen's career, McLeese said.
In part, the artists were successful because people were turning to music for help envisioning what a "new" New Orleans would look like, McLeese said.
"People always thought of New Orleans as 'The Big Easy,' Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras and Jazzfest -- home of this old-time, good-time music," he said. "In Katrina's wake, you couldn't watch the devastation, deaths and flooding and associate New Orleans with good times. So people were looking to artists to tell them, 'What does New Orleans mean now?' and to keep the city's legacy alive."
The shakeup pushed many New Orleans artists out of complacency, compelling them to use song to express the emotional polarities of mourning and hope. The result, McLeese contends, was a collection of terrific new sounds.
"All sorts of strong emotions come through in the music," he said. "When you hear them sing of a return to New Orleans, it's as if they're singing of a return to the Promised Land. But there are also feelings of disbelief, anger and frustration, as evidenced on a Costello/Toussaint track that asks, 'How long does a promise last? How long can a lie be told?'"
McLeese believes the boldest musical response to Katrina came from New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The group recorded a reinterpretation of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and released it on the first anniversary of the hurricane.
"It sounded nothing like Marvin Gaye, and nothing like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had done before," he said. "They substituted Gaye's silky soulfulness for a brassy assertiveness that gave the material new urgency."
McLeese also noted the sense of community that emerged among New Orleans musicians in the wake of Katrina. They formed strongholds in cities like New York, Nashville and Austin. In Austin, displaced musicians formed a group called the New Orleans Social Club, which recorded the album "Sing Me Back Home." The group performed a free concert that attracted thousands of New Orleans supporters at Austin's annual South by Southwest Music Festival.
"It's ironic -- New Orleans seemed to have a stronger sense of musical community when its musicians were scattered all over the country, because they had this tragedy in common," McLeese said. "It's kind of like they were Johnny Appleseeds, sowing the seeds of this music across the country."
McLeese is a former critic-at-large and pop music critic for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and staff writer for the Chicago Reader. He long wrote features, reviews and a column on country music for Rolling Stone and has contributed to nearly every major national magazine covering popular music. From 1987-99, he wrote or revised practically every entry on popular music for the World Book Encyclopedia.
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