The Spirit of New Orleans

Posted on February 7th, 2010 in Articles | Tags: articles, new orleans

Down on the Bayou where the mighty Mississippi kisses Lake Pontchartrain and spills into the Gulf of Mexico. There sits that jewel of the Southland. What the French lost to the British who gave it to the Spanish who lost it back to the French who sold it to America for….. Well, some folks say Jefferson conned Napoleon in a card game and won it for some jambalaya and a chicory coffee.

New Orleans, N’Awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the northern capitol of the Caribbean, Groove City. Man, they have things down there you wouldn’t believe. A mythic place of Mardi-Gras and mumbo, Voodoo and the moss-covered, alligator-spiked pathways of back-country swamp drained and sprinkled with gris-gris dust to house a wild, unruly population. A city with they own cuisine, they own architecture, they own music..streets with names like Dorgenois and Tchoupitoulas.

People in crazy costumes parading talkin ‘bout “throw me somethin’ mistah,” dressed like Indians chanting ‘bout “Madi,Madi-Cudifiyo,” sittin in the young twilight on the ‘poach’ of they camelback shotgun house eatin po’ boys bout to ‘make’ groceries for the crawfish ‘burl’ they gon’ have on ‘Sadday.’ They sing through horns down there you know. Yeah Padnah! Something called Jazz, started by a cornet man named Bolden. They say Bolden could play so loud the sun was scared to set. Some folks say the air is so thick down here you can eat it with a spoon.

Drummers drag rhythms in dirgey solemnity down neighborhood streets as horns moan, mock and moo. Man, hot notes echo against the sky with such weight as to be objects. Objects of sorrow so passionately played that the dead begin to cry. Then that trumpet calls and everyone falls in behind the band for a second line parade and those musicians get to hollerin and shoutin and folks get to struttin and steppin and the living let go of the dead and sorrow soon becomes laughter. In New Orleans we bury our dead above ground. 
They always walk amongst us…. but that music… It always ends happy. So when a strong rain brings angry winds howlin’ down the Mississippi or up from the Gulf, those misty winds carry the dreams of ghosts, yes, but not just the goblins of Marie Laveau the Voodoo queen, or the tortured spirits of the legendary, lascivious lovelies of Storyville sporting houses, or even the undead demons of corrupt politicians who have steeled our idealism over three colorful centuries. They also bring the spirits of Saints, of those who have lived here in quiet dignity and sanctified religiosity, of those who have raised kids in the shadow of the St. Louis Cathedral and Sundayed in Jackson Square or of the River Walk lovers holding hands… of many who have fallen in love here, proposed here, honeymooned here. Not just the howling ghouls of the frat-boy drunks on Bourbon Street, but they also bring the angels of all who have romanced in and with this beautiful land on the Delta.

Yes, the ‘haints become more famous but the Saints endure. Where were you when 85,000 people gathered in the last open seated stadium in professional football to witness John Gilliam run our very first kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown? When Tom Dempsey kicked that 63 yard field goal with half-a-right foot? When Tom Fears, Hank Stram, and Jim Mora prowled the sidelines? Were you there when Howard Stevens, Danny Abromowicz, Rickey Jackson, and Archie Manning donned the black and gold? Ahhh..those New Orleans Saints! Confined to a purgatory of their own making, looking for the fast track to hell. Maybe a brand new dome would appease the gods of football—-a Superdome.

Fathers bounced kids on their knees while explaining how we would certainly blow our 30 point halftime lead by game’s end…..and the Saints did not disappoint. Were you there when the Dome Patrol brought us to the upper chambers of purgatory in search of playoffs, playoffs..playoffs? Yes, ‘haints become famous but Saints endure. Just ask Deuce. If 4 years is a long time: (your high school years, your college days, the length of the Civil War..WWII)…then 43 years is an eternity. You ever wait for something so long that waiting for it becomes the something? You ever see grown folks put bags over their heads in public, covering up to hide from themselves like an old alcoholic who won’t admit? We can’t help it. We’re with our Saints even when we ‘aint. New Orleans people are stubborn and hate to leave home. 
Down here, people like to brag about how they handle tragedy. Epochal hurricanes like Betsy and Camille are discussed as if they’re people. “Betsy was bad but Camille, ‘Lawd Have Mercy,’ the water was up here to my neck.” Nobody brags on Katrina. She swept through here like death on a high horse. Those flood waters seemed to run all the demons, goblins, AND saints away forever. There goes old Jean Lafitte, the pirate, relocated to Houston; there goes old Jelly Roll Morton off somewhere in Memphis with that diamond still sparklin in his front tooth.

But quick to return is the unbending will and irrepressible spirit, sin-dipped in Tabasco sauce and spiced with file’ in possession of an unshakable, unbreakable soul that Louis Armstrong first announced to the entire world through a red hot trumpet, that Danny Barker broadcasted on a burnished banjo, and Sidney Bechet shouted and screamed through a scorching horn said to be a soprano saxophone. And here comes that chastened Noah’s arc of a dome rising from ignominy to become again a beacon of community. And, oh yes, they are still down here marching in those funny-named streets blowing history AND the present moment through singing horns. And people still dance with abandon, exuberance, and unbridled human feeling because that music tells ‘em “what has been may be what is, but what will be cannot possibly be known.”

We live the moment. Laissez les bon temps rouler! — Let the Good Times Roll. I think I hear that trumpet calling the children of the Who Dat Nation home—not Gabriel’s or the horns that blew down the walls of Jericho—that jazz trumpet conjuring up the spirit world with a Congo Square drum cadence. Ghosts, goblins, and ‘haints aggravate. Saints congregate. I hear them now bringing that 43 year second line to a glorious crescendo. “Who Dat Say What Dat When Us Do Dat?” It’s like waiting 43 years to hear somebody say ‘I Love You’ back. And they do. Let the tale be told ‘bout the black and gold won the Super Bowl.

And those jazzmen still play sad songs, but they always end happy…they always do.

Wynton Marsalis