May 26th, 2010 by Blake
If you want a deep, funky, mind-expanding primer on the music of New Orleans and it’s history, you can’t do much better than Michael Ventura’s 1985 essay Hear That Long Snake Moan. It was first published as part of Ventura’s book Shadow Dancing in The U.S.A., and I read it around the time it came out. But I was too young to relate to it fully, and I hadn’t ever been to New Orleans, so I think for the most part it left me scratching my head.
But last year Holly Bentdsen (the singer from The Pfister Sisters) reminded me about it and sent me a copy. Holly said it was the best thing she had ever read about New Orleans music. I read it again and it blew my mind. Here’s an excerpt:
So. We are in New Orleans, circa 1890. We know the depth and range of the African metaphysic as it is alive in the black culture of that moment. The twentieth century is already taking hold. Congo Square has been empty for fifteen years, to become a quiet park and then, in our day, a sports auditorium. (That Indian holy ground seems destined to be the place where people release themselves in abandon.) Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain have seen the last time that thousands would gather in a Voodoo celebration. What observers would describe as genuinely African drumming and dancing would continue in New Orleans into the first part of the twentieth century, but it would no longer be focal to the life there. The African metaphysic was about to blend with black-American needs, European instruments, and Euro-American musical forms to create the first great wave of American music.
The brass band was already an American tradition when Sousa’s marches swept the country in the 1890s. In New Orleans, the brass band blended with another living African tradition, vivid in Voodoo: ancestor worship. Not to hire musicians, not to sing, not to feast at a death, would have been sacrilegious. The liturgy was Christianist now, but the impulse for the ceremony was African – or, to use another word, pagan. For it is no accident that what most closely resembles an old New Orleans funeral is an Irish wake – these are the two modern cultures that are most in touch with their non-Christian roots.
The more socially acceptable, light-complexioned, and financially well-off Creole musicians – many of whom came from free people of color and not from slaves – tended to play their instruments “correctly,” to read music, and to play for white functions. The darker, poorer, slave-rooted Negroes – as they were called at the time, distinguishing them from Creoles – played a very different music, closer both to Africa and to the blues. These were the people who came directly out of the Congo Square dances and the Lake Pontchartrain celebrations, and they played their Western instruments with the simultaneity, interchange, and percussive force of African music. They looked to their instruments for a different sound entirely, and got it. They played a lot of blues – which was the sound Africans had created when, in the United States, they had been deprived of their drums, forbidden to sing their tribal songs, and usually even forbidden, during slavery, to have their own Christianist churches. The blues was everything African that had been lost, distilled into a sound where it could be found again. And the blues was the losing and the finding, as well. One man could play the blues. So it was a form that allowed one man to preserve, add to, and pass on what in its native form had taken a tribe. Its beat was so implicit that the African, for the first time, didn’t need a drum. The holy drum, the drum that is always silent, lived in the blues. One man with a guitar could play the blues and his entire tradition would be alive in his playing. Louis de Lisle “Big Eye” Nelson, considered the first man in New Orleans to play a “hot” clarinet, told Alan Lomax from his final sickbed in the 1940s, “The blues? Ain’t no first blues. The blues always been. Blues is what cause the fellows to start jazzing.”