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The Music of Pain and Redemption in an Abandoned City

In New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans ($27.95, Oxford University Press), John Swenson writes about Stevie Wonder’s appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008:

Most of all, though, Stevie Wonder came to New Orleans intending to perform a healing on the city. Before he began, he invoked a moment of silence for those lost in the flood, then started out with a song meant to be appropriate to a weary moment in our history, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” He had the crowd in the palm of his hand and got them grooving hard to “Too High.” He returned to his evocation of the spirit in another philosophical song, “Visions,” which was fitted with a new arrangement and Isaac Hayes-style funk vamp over which he delivered a series of preacher-like declamations organized under the refrain “I Can’t Believe…”:

Four dollars a gallon for gasoline but no health care…

I can’t believe…

Some places are building more prisons than schools…

He swang from the vamp into a hard chorus:

STOP IT!

STOP IT!

Stop the hate

Stop the crime

Stop the war

With a dramatic flourish Wonder led the band into an early climax on “Living For the City.” Just about everyone on the ground, which was crowded despite the imminent rain, was singing, and most of them were dancing, the very young and the very old. The spirit of abandon was giddy, joyous. A young girl standing next to me suddenly turned and blurted out: “I can’t believe I’m listening to music my father likes!”

Wonder finished and said with a big smile, “Is this what you wanted me to do?” He followed up with “Jammin’,” and Wonder was in overdrive, grooving the crowd hard. He clearly believed his music was laying a healing power on the city. Rain began falling hard, and Wonder began singing and playing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” playing a full verse and chorus with new lyrics like “Don’t let the rain confuse the issue” and “You brought your umbrellas” as umbrellas sprouted above the crowd. He moved aggressively into “Higher Ground.” The line “soldiers keep on dying,” written about Southeast Asia a generation ago but resonating with families whose children were dying in Iraq that day, sent a palpable shudder through the crowd. As he played beautiful versions of “Golden Lady” and “Ribbon in the Sky” while dark clouds occluded the afternoon sun, I thought of how often the sight-challenged Wonder had a vivid, almost supernatural understanding of the meaning of visual detail, the kind of things sighted people take for granted. Wonder played a magnificent “Overjoyed,” which broke into an instrumental jam on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” with Wonder showing off his jazz chops on grand piano. He broke into clave for “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and then swept into an extended finale of a medley, beginning with “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered.” The crowd sang the refrain, “You Can Feel It All Over,” and indeed you could. Wonder punctuated the mood with shout-out tributes to New Orleans musical legends from Louis Armstrong to the Neville Brothers. He did “Sir Duke” and “My Cheri Amour.” Irma Thomas came out, and the two finished with “Superstition.”

It rained hard, but nobody in the enraptured crowd seemed to care.

* * *

In New Atlantis, Swenson also describes in loving, intimate detail dozens of other smaller gigs which took place in clubs, studios, bars, parks, streets, and homes as New Orleans musicians struggled mightily to revive their culture in the wake of “the federal flood,” known elsewhere as Hurricane Katrina. Along the way he explores the junctures of African-American and Native American life, of hip-hop and brass band music, of the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory and the soul of the city.

Note by note and brick by musical brick, the reader is pushed deeper into the pain of an abandoned city, following musicians who return to New Orleans only, on many occasions, to have the police arrest them simply for playing music. Meanwhile, drug-fueled violence spirals out of control. In the midst of all this, Swenson shows us around town, encouraging us to find hope and inspiration in the current mutations of centuries-old musical traditions.

The book ends with another tragedy, the BP oil spill of 2010, which saw musicians again rush into the gap to righteously place blame as they raise money for ignored communities. In the wake of that fossil fuel fiasco, Dr. John sums up the situation we face: “There’s a two-way possibility here. Either something’s going to happen or it ain’t. If it don’t happen, the future is weak. If something happens, it could be wonderful, a renaissance of spirituality coming true that this planet has always needed. I don’t have no expectation. I have only belief in what is a possibility.”

Lee Ballinger is co-editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com.

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Lee Ballinger, CounterPunch’s music columnist, is co-editor of Rock and Rap Confidential author of the forthcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing, interviewed Honkala for CounterPunch. RRRC is now available for free by emailing Ballinger at: rockrap@aol.com.

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