March 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
New Orleans Noir: The Classics is another astounding dark anthology from Akashic Books, this one including stories by Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and others.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"For anyone who has never been to New Orleans, this is a great introduction to its neighborhoods and history."
"He had it made. Then it all went away…it always goes away. If you know anything, you know that."
So speaks a character in "Pleadings," one of the stories of loss—sometimes unbearable loss—collected in this noir anthology. It's one of my favorite quotes about the noir tradition. Maybe it doesn't apply to everyone in a noir tale, or even always to the protagonist, but you can bet it perfectly describes someone's fate.
Even when this particular scenario isn't played out precisely, the concept of noir is no stranger to New Orleans culture. The city possesses a well-known fascination with death and funerals and cemeteries and the dark side in general, coupled with our unfortunate notoriety for being Murder Central, particularly post–Hurricane Katrina.
This darkness has been recorded in works by a glittering constellation of writers that have passed through New Orleans—including Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Ellen Gilchrist, James Lee Burke, even O. Henry.
But New Orleans is perhaps best known for its music (when you're not dreaming of its mouth-watering food). Much like its literature, its musical traditions drip with noir: the songs can be gritty, bitingly sarcastic, or brimming with heartache, and when they're not-so-noir, they're filled with the raucous joy New Orleans has become renowned for.
I've put together a playlist that matches up with most of the stories in this anthology. paralleling their divergent moods. These songs range from old traditional jazz tunes performed in the underground clubs of Storyville (our once-infamous red light district) from as early as 1897, up to a Grammy Award–winning track by resident New Orleanian rapper Lil Wayne. In between are Americana and folk songs, rock 'n' roll hits, one country song, a Mexican ranchera song, brass band favorites made to be played in the streets, and originals by well-loved local musicians that could only be inspired by a city as unique as "the city that care forgot."
A Marriage of Conscience. "La Llorona", traditional Mexican ranchera sung by Chavela Vargas. Based on the legend of a woman who is driven mad by her love of a man who leaves her and her children for another woman, whose family is as rich as he. In her fit of madness, she drowns her children and then kills herself. The first line is translated, "I saw you in passing at the temple. In that beautiful lace, I thought you were the Virgin," just as the woman in Lanusse's story is praying in earnest to Mary in New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral.
But because the story's about placage, a 19th Century tradition in which white planters took women of color as virtual second wives—yet wives without rights—the Rolling Stones' sexist and racist "Brown Sugar" would be a brutal but telling second choice.
Little Convent Girl. "Down by the Riverside," from Dirty Dozen Brass Band's Funeral for a Friend. A popular song performed in New Orleans second lines. When a person dies, their friends and family follow a brass band in the streets to and from a funeral ceremony. At first, the procession is stately and mournful. But after the body is "cut loose," the tone of the gathering changes: the band erupts into joyful music and mourners begin to dance, celebrating the past life of their loved one and passing through town while neighbors come out onto their front porches and wave handkerchiefs or join in the celebration.
Whistling Dick's Christmas. "Christmas in New Orleans," performed by Louis Armstrong. The famed New Orleans musician's love song to the city during holiday season. Satchmo is said to have learned trumpet from local musicians in honky tonks as a young boy, and would watch bands play through the screen doors of whorehouses in Storyville. After the girls tried to shoo the boy away several times, they realized he wasn't watching them—he was watching Jelly Roll Morton play the piano.
The Purple Hat. "House of the Rising Sun," performed by the Animals. In Eudora Welty's bar scene, a man says, "New Orleans, as I've always had a guess, is the birth-place of ready made victims." This old folk song (authorship unknown)-turned-hit is about a life in New Orleans gone awry, probably in a bordello. In both story and song, gambling and drunkenness are the main culprits. Along with that thing Tennessee Williams' streetcar's named for.
Pleadings. "St. James Infirmary," performed by Louis Armstrong. Both the story and the song are about somebody's baby and take place in a hospital. The story is incredibly sad, and the song is the saddest song in the world. Many versions feature a narrator telling the story of a young man "cut down in his prime," due to gambling or risky behavior resulting in venereal disease. This Louis Armstrong version focuses only on the hospital scene. It is the saddest of the sad recordings (and is my absolute favorite).
Ritual Murder. "Summertime," performed by Sidney Bechet. At the beginning of Tom Dent's courtroom play, the narrator says, "In the ghettos and neighborhood clubs where we gather to hear music, we play 'Summertime,' and in each community the bands play it differently. In no community does it sound like the 'Summertime' of George Gershwin. It's blusier, darker, with its own beat and logic, its joys unknown to the white world." This version is recorded by the great Creole jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans, and perhaps the first and one of the best-known saxophone players in the world.
Rich. "Rich Bitch from the Garden District" by Paul Soniat. Paul is a self-taught local piano player, and the track is a great representation of the contemporary New Orleans piano playing-singer tradition. The song is about a (comical or tragic?) love affair between a rich bitch from the Garden District and a boy from the lower 9th ward, an unlikely but not unknown occurrence documented here with light, sarcastic humor. The story's about something else altogether, but it's a fun song and this playlist needs lightening up! And it includes a lot of things the story is about—living in the Garden District, belonging to the Boston Club, making your debut, generally taking "rich" for granted, yet not being so rich your life can't go awry.
Spats. "Mean Woman Blues," sung by Elvis. In this story, an embittered woman goes after her cheating husband's dog. It doesn't get any meaner than that, as the hit song attests.
GDMFSOB. "Good-Bye Earl" by The Dixie Chicks. Because GDMFSOB's about a husband "extraordinarily in need of being dead…a dedicated philandering deadbeat pornographer" with a heart made of India rubber. Someone who, like Earl, has the potential to be "a missing person who nobody missed at all."
Jesus Out to Sea. "St. Roch Blues" by Hurray for the Riff Raff. This deeply moving song by local folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff was written after several friends of the band were killed in the violence that permeated the city post-Katrina. It was recorded in a small chapel in the 9th Ward's St. Roch neighborhood, after which it's titled.
Last Fair Deal Gone Down. "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" by Robert Johnson. A well-known Delta blues song, the style of which still seeps from blues clubs in both Texas and Louisiana. The lyrics are simple but striking: "If you cry 'bout a nickel, you die 'bout a dime / She wouldn't cry, but the money won't mine" and touch on the hard times that gave birth to the blues tradition in the South. Another good one for this story might be "Didn't He Ramble," because it's partly about a musician named Fats who dies. Fats would certainly have had a jazz funeral and they'd have played this song on the way back from the cemetery.
Pie Man. "A Milli" by Lil Wayne. This Central City story is about a 14-year-old kid who already has an ankle bracelet. Hollygrove, New Orleans–born rapper Lil Wayne dropped out of school and signed to Cash Money Records at the age of 9. At age 12, he accidentally shot himself with a 9 mm handgun. He started making mix tapes and distributing them on his own. One of these mix tape tracks, A Milli, became a Grammy Award–winning hit. It's perfectly representative of "dirty south rap": minimalistic (there are only 3 tracks: bass, a little percussion, and vocals), to-the-point, and, well, filthy.
*If you can find them (they're not on Spotify), check out Lorrae Desmond's "Cannibal Mardi Gras" to pair with "Desire and the Black Masseur" and Leadbelly's "Yellow Gal" to go with with "Miss Yellow Eyes," for some extra listening!
Julie Smith and New Orleans Noir: The Classics links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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