The very soul of New Orleans
In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the dark waters rose in late summer 2005, it didn’t take long for people outside New Orleans to begin inquiring -- not just about the safety of loved ones or the state of the infrastructure but something larger -- as distinct as it was amorphous.
The concern was not simply what would be physically erased in the wake of disaster -- and forced diaspora -- but what would happen to the culture. Its “ways” -- the music, the language, the rituals and rhythms -- all of what animated this unique piece of our nation’s history and identity: the country’s conversation piece.
That culture was a body itself, one that many were already eulogizing -- a bit too early as it turns out. And though there is far more work to be done and many New Orleanians who were displaced have chosen to remain estranged (finding it far too painful or financially too difficult to return), others made their way back because life doesn’t make sense anywhere else.
The layered meaning is intended. New Orleans is a place that proudly moves on its own axis. As a testament to that singularity, a new series of books, “The Louisiana Musicians Series,” published by the Historic New Orleans Collection, or HNOC, is an attempt to preserve not just the corpus of work but that unique if not peculiar “soul” of New Orleans’ culture.
As well as a publisher, HNOC, in the city’s French Quarter, is a museum and research center that since 2004 has focused on researching and examining the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South region and has also published a collection of books dedicated to fine artists of the region, “The Louisiana Artists Biography Series.”
Just last month, HNOC published its second volume, Ben Sandmel’s “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B; Emperor of New Orleans.” It’s a deeply researched and exquisitely drawn portrait of not just the singer’s “years trudging in torment” -- from club-circuit scuffler to homeless to “Emperor” (more on that momentarily) but of his relationship to the city that made him who he was: Context is essential when considering New Orleans, and Sandmel helps us understand the world out of which the charismatic K-Doe -- whose single chart-topper was 1961’s “Mother-in-Law” -- emerged.
After a long stretch of struggle, ever-spinning braggadocio, K-Doe “christened himself Emperor of the World” and “thus emerged,” writes Sandmel, “as a flamboyant figurehead of New Orleans’ rich tradition of grass-roots surrealism....” Even still, suggests Sandmel, “in a city where excess and eccentricity are adored ... the late Ernie K-Doe still occupies a niche as a supremely outre character.”
K-Doe’s saga follows the series’ first title, 2010’s “Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man” by Harold Battiste Jr. (with Karen Celstan) and winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Assn.'s outstanding contribution to publishing. Battiste, founder of All For One Records, the first black musician-owned-and-operated record label in the country, hails from New Orleans but made the Great Migration-trek with hundreds of thousands of African Americans out of the South, joining other Gulf State musicians here strengthening the musical Louisiana-to-L.A. connection. Over the decades, he moved freely between the worlds of jazz and pop -- working with artists such as Sonny and Cher, Dr. John, the Marsalis Family and Sam Cooke while remaining true to his New Orleans influence and lineage.
Both volumes are elegantly imagined. They are as rich on images -- more than 100 photographs drawn from personal collections, defunct publications and reproduced ephemera such as 45s, sheet music, old display advertisements and concert posters -- as they are in their intent and scope.
What’s remarkable is how these books evoke an animated sense of a people, place and that way of life so many feared might be washed away. Lyrically evoked, Sandmel’s take on Ernie K-Doe isn’t simply a study of the performer’s vocal prowess and outsized persona, but it allows the reader to wind through the streets of New Orleans during its golden era of R&B; -- the late 1940s into the 1960s -- to really hear the distinct rhythm of the patois, feel the humidity of some after-hours hole in the wall where the musicians vamp and history was revving up.
Series editor Sarah R. Doerries says she hopes to preserve the vast cross section of music that flows out of the Gulf South -- including classical, gospel, funk, Cajun, zydeco, even New Orleans bounce -- as well as an indelible image of the vastly diverse personalities who make it. She recalls that when Battiste had been shopping his manuscript around New York he’d been told, “his story wasn’t ‘juicy’ enough ... that he didn’t have a drug problem or a sex scandal,” she explains. “Harold is a fundamentally good man who has experienced many of the struggles typical of an African American man from the South in the mid-20th century. As the publisher for a history museum, we find that story just as valuable as a ‘juicy’ one.”
K-Doe’s story, which intersects with Battiste’s, takes the other path at the fork in the road: Only in New Orleans would a man be able to embark on quite as spectacular a third act: rise up from homelessness and parade around his city in flowing capes, plumage and crowns, all without much to-do about it. In 1994, K-Doe and his second wife, Antoinette, would erect a monument to his hit, “The Mother-In-Law Lounge,” so he would “always have a place to perform.” After his death in 2001, Antoinette commissioned a “statue” in his image, essentially a mannequin that she would transport around New Orleans; the two appearing frequently in the city’s society pages. The Lounge was underwater after Katrina but reopened a year to the day the hurricane touched down, only to be shuttered in December, 2010 after Antoinette’s death in early 2009. But K-Doe’s spirit, like New Orleans’, has proved indomitable.
It’s impossible to separate the man from the place: Those who made pilgrimages to the Mother-in Law Lounge, when K-Doe held court and in years after the flesh-and-blood singer was long gone, could at times be overheard, searching for the right words as they took in the excess -- the vivid eccentricity, the inexplicable set in motion. In awed response, they might remark simply, “There’s a lot of love in this place.” For those who know it and know it well, the same is often said about New Orleans.