Socialist Worker

New Orleans: melting pot for the soundtrack of the century

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1968

“Fats Domino is saved,” was one of the headlines that came out of the New Orleans tragedy.

Most people under the age of 40 have probably never have heard of Fats Domino — now ain’t that a shame.

Fats was one of the most popular exponents of the New Orleans style of rock’n’roll in the 1950s. He sold over 65 million records and his hits included Blueberry Hill, Whole Lotta Lovin’ and Ain’t That A Shame.

Elvis Presley once insisted “rock’n’roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

New Orleans has not only given the world the wonderful music of jazz, but from the 1950s onwards, it has been a major contributor to the rise of rhythm and blues, rock and roll and funk.

The region has also spawned a host of localised musical styles — Cajun, Zydeco and swamp pop music — which have become popular throughout the world.

Just like gumbo, the region’s culinary delicacy, the music is a mixture of styles and ingredients. To make any sense of it you have to unravel the complex melting pot of cultures and the influence of French, Spanish, American and African musical traditions.

New Orleans remained one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the South. Its festivals, street dances and clubs both catered for the growing youth market for music and provided musicians with plenty of work and inspiration.

Music from the city has always been built from the bottom up — drums first, bass second with piano, guitar, horns and accordion all thrown in.

Yet at the same time you can’t fail to notice the endemic racism and poverty of the region — a fact Hurricane Katrina demonstrated all too well. This too has shaped the music. Check out The Neville Brothers version of A Change Is Gonna Come or Chocolate Milk’s call to arms, Action Speaks Louder Than Words .

Again listen to the music of one of the great Cajun musicians Iry LeJeune. His crying-style of vocal and his accordion playing are deeply moving — a white man’s blues?

The massive migration of blacks from the South to the cities of the North during two world wars meant that the styles that emanated from the city have influenced musicians across the US and beyond.

You can hear the influences of New Orleans in the music of Little Richard and James Brown.

Commentators have been quick to say that Hurricane Katrina has destroyed the music scene in the city. It may well destroy the Disney Land style French Quarter with its retro jazz and blues clubs.

But the history of New Orleans music has been one of progression, development and change. Over the last ten years or more the South has been going through a musical revival—it has been the nucleus of the revival of Nu Soul and hip hop.

When the rapper Kanye West said on US prime time TV the other week “Bush doesn’t care about black people”, you can be sure that New Orleans is going to influence music one way or another for a long time yet!


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Sat 17 Sep 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1968
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