Would I go back to live? There’s nothing there. And the situation for musicians was a joke. People thought there was a New Orleans music scene — there wasn’t. You worked two times a year: Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. The only musicians I knew who made a living playing music in New Orleans were Kermit Ruffins and Pete Fountain. Everyone else had to have a day job or go on tour. I have worked more in two months in Austin than I worked in two years in New Orleans.
A lot of things about life in New Orleans were a myth. I lived in the Gentilly neighborhood. I am not a fish. I cannot live under 6 feet of water. In the 9th Ward and Gentilly they are going to do mass buyouts, bulldoze everything and make it green space. In my estimation, those are golf courses and other places where African-American people won’t be welcome. There’s nothing wrong with my house except that water destroyed everything we had in it. The foundation is fine. The house is still there. Same thing with our neighbors. So what are they talking bulldozing?
For a lot of us, the storm is still happening.
Up until the storm, Aaron, myself, Art and Kermit Ruffins were some of the only musicians who had ‘made it’ who were still living in New Orleans. Now you got cats that come down there every now and then to be king of a parade or whatever. They couldn’t find helicopters to get people off of roofs, but they found helicopters to bring certain people in for photo ops. I’m not mad at anybody, but at the same time we put a lot into that city and never got what I think we should have got out of it. Now I’ve landed in Austin.
New Orleans and Austin musicians have had an affinity for each other’s groove for a long time, going back to my days with the Meters when we played Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. On any given night we would end up with five or six guitar players onstage with us, be it the Winter brothers [Edgar and Johnny] or the Vaughan brothers.
Gaynielle Neville and I now appear in a weekly Tuesday set called “New Orleans Cookin’ & Jukin’ ” at Threadgill’s in Austin. Gaynielle cooks red beans and gumbo, and we perform with their group Tribe 13, which includes Austin vocalist Papa Mali.
The way we have been accepted in Austin is such a pleasant surprise,” We were treated like family.
I linked up with the Guthrie family about 18 months ago. I was looking for songs for an upcoming solo album and discovered the Native American rock band Blackfire. They had recorded Arlo’s “Mean Things Are Happening in This World.”
That song jumped out at me, so I did my version. For years I have wondered how can I get in contact with Arlo and Willie Nelson — people who have the same kind of attitude and consciousness I have and who want to use their art the same way I’m trying to use mine. I got that consciousness from Woody Guthrie.
People are talking to me, but some of the people I know went through much more than I did. There are 3,000 children missing in New Orleans. [The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children places the figure at 1,300.] Hundreds of bodies are waiting to be identified. The people of New Orleans have been scattered to the four winds. Their lives were determined by people in Washington and Baton Rouge before the storm hit.
Without African Americans having ownership, economic equity and the same type of things the French Quarter gets — like tax cuts — the city will never be the same. The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Wards should have their own tourist commission. Build our own hotels and restaurants in those areas. The key is ownership. Then I would think about going back and living there. But we’re still practicing American democracy. How can we ever bring it to somebody else?
CYRIL NEVILLE’s cds include New Orleans Home Cookin’ and Fire This Time,
Excerpted from an interview in the Sun-Times.