Musician and historian Ned Sublette couldn't say no to a Tulane University fellowship that brought him and his wife to New Orleans from 2004 to 2005. "We acted as if it wouldn't be there tomorrow," Sublette writes in the introduction to "The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans." "We couldn't know we were scrutinizing, day by day, the last year the city would be whole."
Four years on, the Crescent City is still putting itself back together after Hurricane Katrina. Sublette too. "The Year Before the Flood" is his tribute to New Orleans as it was. Part memoir, part history lesson, it's a scrapbook of the bustling port city at its most joyful, boisterous and deadly.
He begins with his childhood in segregated Natchitoches, La., and keeps up a counterpoint through the book between the discrimination against blacks in the South and the rise of black music in popular culture.
Sublette is a musical archaeologist at heart, and as we settle in with him into his new digs in the rough-and-tumble Irish Channel neighborhood, he weaves detailed stories on the Neville Brothers, the madness of cornetist Buddy Bolden and even Master P and the rise of No Limit Records.
He's as comfortable in the barroom as in the library, and he shines when delving into the social underpinnings of the second lines. Not just an "ambulatory party," second lines stem from community aid clubs that used to offer insurance to their brass-wielding members, and still arrange employment for musicians for birthday parties and funeral marches.
Mardi Gras too gets a cultural unpacking. Situated at the top of what Sublette calls the "Saints and Festivals" belt that includes Cuba and Haiti, French-speaking Catholics and English Protestants neatly divided New Orleans into two parts -- Canal Street, he notes, was "practically a national boundary" -- but by the 1850s both sides were participating in the pre- Lenten carnival that is now the single most recognizable aspect of New Orleans.
Mardi Gras, after all, was not "a simple festive impulse. Parading in New Orleans is about taking control of the street." Early Mardi Gras revelers grew from loosely arranged mobs of callithumpians -- literally noisemakers who could also provide cover for mob action -- into organized krewes that identified themselves through class and race distinctions.
In the Reconstruction era, krewes named Comus, Rex, the Twelfth Night Revelers and others sought to emphasize white superiority and turn back the clock against what little racial equality had been gained by the Civil War.
"It was a brilliant strategy," Sublette writes. Wearing masks and elaborate costumes, "they countered the progressive linearity of history, in which slavery was finished, with the eternal cyclicality of festival and myth, in which what was will always be."
Countering that were krewes such as the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club -- now a century old -- where the predominantly black members dress in blackface. A burlesque of a burlesque? Sublette admits there is no easy explanation.
Even though Sublette had returned to New York City by the time Katrina made landfall, the storm is still the long shadow hanging over the work. After all the festivals and the second lines and the music and the gunfire, it's the speechlessness of a dislocated city that echoes the loudest. Sublette quotes a saxophonist friend who's returned to his home: "The silence . . . was probably what was the most unnerving. There was simply no sound."
Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.
The Year Before the Flood A Story of New Orleans Ned Sublette Lawrence Hill Books: 496 pp., $27.95