filling the holes of history with the poetry of music

May 28, 2009 by

The following is cross-posted from the very cool music and literary blog, It was an honor for me to be invited to contribute there. Since Humid City is an all-things-New Orleans kind of joint, I thought it might be of interest here. I hope that’s right. Either way, here it is….
Filling the Holes of History with the Poetry of Music

I’ve noticed that my mind tends not to interpret straightforward things in an always-straightforward manner. This is sometimes bothersome, but sometimes it is more internally enlightening than you would expect. Case in point: while participating in a panel at the recent Tennessee Williams Festival, I was asked the following straightforward question:

“What is your favorite New Orleans fiction?”

A dozen or so great novels and short stories flashed through my mind, but what came out of my mouth was:

“My favorite New Orleans fiction is its nonfiction.”

The answer was skewed but true. Folks familiar with the written history of the city are just as familiar with its unreliability. It is our great inside joke. The history of New Orleans, as it is written, is perforated with fabrications, half-truths and wild guesses; much of which can never be fully proved, disproved, accepted or denied. And so our written history, like so many other aspects of life in this great city, places a leap of faith at its very foundation. It is a source of both great frustration and smug pride; our tendency towards mystery feeding fuel to the relentless self-love and unflagging survival instinct that sustains us, while our bald-faced lies provide fodder for the bitter defiance we offer those who dare question our continued existence in such a death-defyingly hostile, yet culturally rich, home territory. We feel no obligation to explain our motives or apparent contradictions to those who assume themselves better or smarter than us on the basis of half-baked geographical notions; nor will we allow ourselves to be defined, understood or deciphered by their bothersome facts and figures. Truth springs from the soul of a woman or a man. You might learn more facts in a college, but you will certainly learn more truths in a prison yard. We may run low on verifiable items of identifiable logic, but we have an abundance of raw truths that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. The more questionable the written history of the city, the more entertaining and beloved we declare it in our hearts. The bigger the lie, the wider the grin.

New Orleans is a place where history is organic and in a constant state of flux, where a hundred years hence is every bit as relevant as a hundred years forth, and the veracity of the present tense is always in doubt. The great fabrications of New Orleans history are told with such passion, bravado, style, joy, winking-certainty, pure love and musical flare that you cannot help but prefer them over the starkly tedious veneer of mere facts.

Truth with a capital T will never truly be available in the convenient form of soulless documentation. In New Orleans we discovered that particular “truth” before most. Those deeper truths must be revealed through the soul itself, at its basest manifestation, the gift of absolute and undiluted honesty only accessible through the art and music that the soul directs us to make; undisciplined and wild as it may be – and so often must be.

Most written histories tend towards calculated distortion anyway. The world’s archives are filled with accounts of the grand triumphs and stunning failures of the wealthy and powerful, written by and for that tiny minority fortunate enough to have thrived at the top of the heap – their stories disingenuously disseminated to the masses as if what is born of privilege could possibly belong to us, too. Meanwhile, the lives of the vast majority of human beings are recounted only as a matter of trivia, in the sterile language of statistics. In reality, it is the passed-over story of the common man and woman that has had the greater influence over the human condition, that has prevailed over the truer course of human history, that has given us everything that is good about the world today – in spite of, and not because of, that tiny percentage that grabs all the glory for itself by virtue of flashy deeds, corrupt power and hard cash.

In New Orleans, our written histories are at least entertaining – and the telling has always been fair. Nothing of interest is left out – the antics of the rich and poor alike being exaggerated with equal flourish and flare. Our written accounts have been designed to light the way for a continuous exercise in raw imagination. In New Orleans, imagination and creativity have always forged the surest route to the heart of our collective consciousness, frivolous and suspicious as it may sometimes seem – and so-called “facts” be damned as required.

It is the job of the New Orleans fiction writer to fill the gaping holes of history with poetry, and therefore reveal and preserve its deeper truths.

But the job is not complete until he places his soul in the hands of the city’s music. Again, there is that lack of logic and leap of faith at the foundation of “all things New Orleanian.” In music, we succeed in filling a few of those holes with sound; and in doing so we pay tribute to the common man and woman whose importance is too often forgotten or diminished by the rushed and jumbled scribbles of proper historians.

The Sound of Building Coffins is a novel whose voice and method are so informed by music that when discussing its origins it is considerably easier to site musical influences than literary ones. Without further ado, let’s see if we can’t patch a few of those pesky holes.

The Murder Ballad, Parts 1-7 by Jelly Roll Morton
It always surprises me when someone decries my use of profanity in The Sound of Building Coffins as somehow inauthentic to the era. This perception only shows how effective past societal stewards have been in sanitizing their own histories through the simple (and dangerous) use of blanket censorship. The faux sterility of word and thought evident in early literature, nonfiction and recorded music have led many to believe that people didn’t begin to drop the f-bomb with any regularity till the late 1960s – when widespread censorship of the arts, not coincidentally, began to finally let up.

Fortunately, that great collector of indigenous American culture, Alan Lomax, sat down with (and liquored up!) jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton in 1938, successfully nudging him into playing and singing a little of what he once played and sang in the Storyville red-light district cathouses of New Olreans at the turn of the century. At this prompting, Mr. Morton swaggered drunkenly into a nearly 30 minute blues epic simply entitled “The Murder Ballad.” Recorded directly onto aluminum discs that allowed only 4 minutes of recording at a time, “The Murder Ballad” was broken into 7 parts by necessity – but the result was a stunning, profanity-laced musical harangue of jealousy, rage, murder, prison, rape, regret, contrition, hope and death – all told from the point of view of a female prostitute turned murderer.

For those who still cling to the belief that the dropping of the f-bomb was not common till the advent of the Summer of Love, here’s a few verses from “part one” of Morton’s shockingly visceral “Murder Ballad”:

If you don’t leave my f**king man alone
If you don’t leave my f**king man alone
You won’t know what way that you will go home

I’ll cut your throat and drink your f**king blood like wine
Bitch, I’ll cut your f**king throat and drink your blood like wine
Because I want you to know he’s a man of mine

I told you once, I’m not gonna tell you anymo’
I told you once, I’m not gonna tell you anymo’
Right into the barren ground your big black ass will go

Since I could not find a full transcript of the lyrics for Morton’s “Murder Ballad” anywhere on the net, I transcribed every word of it myself and posted it to my own blog in its entirety, uncensored. It is there, if you’re interested – but be warned that the language is at times very strong, even for this modern age. The music itself can be downloaded from iTunes.

Another interesting reference in “The Murder Ballad” comes with a very regionally specific reason to fear a prison death:

I won’t be buried like all of my family was
I won’t be buried like my family was
I won’t be buried like my family was

They will put me in a box in the prison yard
They will put me in a box in the prison yard
Not even a tombstone, or not even a card

There won’t be no body followin’ behind my self
There won’t be no body followin’, it will be me by myself
They’ll lower me in the ground, I won’t be on the shelf

When Morton speaks of “no body followin’ behind” and “I won’t be on the shelf,” he is referring to the more preferable method of having one’s remains disposed of in New Orleans; namely, the “oven” method. This is where the body of a family member is shoved into a shelf in a mausoleum-like structure – then, after a year and a day of cooking to dust in the New Orleans heat, the way is clear to shove the next deceased family member “followin’ behind.” It is not desirable to be buried in the ground in New Orleans – when the city occasionally floods, bodies have been known to float up and out of their graves. At the turn of the century, deceased prisoners were disposed of cheaply and without ceremony, buried in the ground, sometimes several bodies deep.

The Complete Recorded Works of Edna Hicks
There are few voices that can provoke my imagination like that of Edna Hicks. Edna Hicks was born in New Orleans in 1896, the half-sister of the better-known New Orleans blues singer Lizzie Miles. Although Edna was not very well-known, her recordings are haunting and superb.

The short recording career of Edna Hicks began in 1923 – she produced a total of 32 issued sides for various recording companies in less than three years. On August 16, 1925, while on tour in Chicago, Edna was cleaning out a pot-bellied stove with a rag doused in gasoline. She did not detect the ember that was still alight in the stove’s belly, and so, on that day, she burned to death. She was only 29 years old.

Nearly 100 years later, it is hard not to consider her sad and violent death while revisiting her small but wondrous body of work. Her voice is so full of joy and hope on these recordings – and yet there is a dark cynicism that lurks at the edges of it all. It is almost as if she suspected how the end might come, and understood full-well the importance of living life to its fullest in light of its brutal brevity.

“Temptation Rag” – Bunk Johnson & Bertha Gonsoulin
Bunk Johnson was one of the great sources of our semi-imaginary history of jazz, quoted frequently and reverently by many a serious scholar on the origins of jazz. You would think that his tendency towards self-glorifying fibs would make him less important to the city’s image of its own past, but, in fact, that only made him more indispensable to it.
If that doesn’t makes any sense to you, you haven’t spent enough time in New Orleans.

In this version of “Temptation Rag,” a duet between Johnson, who plays trumpet, and Bertha Gonsoulin, who plays piano, Bunk weaves an elaborate tale of seduction, betrayal, joy, tragedy and redemption – alternating between keys both major and minor, and told, mercifully, without a single word. It is a tiny and obscure masterpiece, well worth seeking out.

3 songs by Blind Willie Johnson
The voice of Blind Willie Johnson has always scared me to death. The first time I heard the sound of it, I guessed him to be a man born into a world of tragedy and pain. My guess was smart money. Johnson’s mother died while he was still a baby, and at the age of seven his stepmother threw lye-water in his face, blinding him for life. Playing a musical instrument being one of the few ways a blind black man could earn a living in the early 1900s, Johnson taught himself to play guitar – using a pocketknife for a slide – and got busy.

Blind Willie Johnson was born in Texas, but he traveled to New Orleans often and recorded about half of his sides in a little recording studio above the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street. When he wasn’t singing and playing into the single microphone dangling from a ceiling light above the music shop, Johnson spent most of his time here drinking, womanizing, and playing his unique brand of gospel blues for change on the bustling street corners of the city’s business district.

When I am in a certain frame of mind, the music of Blind Willie Johnson fits my soul like a glove, and there are three of his songs that nearly work as a soundtrack for The Sound of Building Coffins. The first is his definitive version of “Motherless Children Have a Hard Time,” which, in my mind, speaks to the predicament of the Morningstar children of The Sound of Building Coffins perfectly, especially to the weight placed on eldest sister Malaria, or, as Johnson sang:

Sister will do the best she can when mother is dead

As far as I’m concerned, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is one of the greatest blues songs ever recorded – its power derived, in part, from its chilling lack of words. Johnson’s incessant moan glides in and out of the woven web of his otherworldly slide work in a way that is hard to describe – suffice it to say that the only verbal information truly needed resides in the song’s title. For me, this haunting performance describes fittingly the hard and thankless life of the Morningstars’ mysterious phantom benefactor, a man who lives a solitary existence in the swamps of the Bayou St. John so that he may endlessly serve those who can never know his name.

The third song of Blind Willie Johnson’s that feels straight out of the novel is “Let Your Light Shine On Me,” a song that seems to impossibly set right all grim wrongs depicted in the balance of Johnson’s catalog of recordings. It is quite simply the finest song of faith and redemption that I have ever heard.

Spiritland by Coco Robicheaux
When I had my jazz record shop in the French Quarter, Spiritland by Coco Robicheaux was always in heavy rotation on the jukebox. One of my goals in writing The Sound of Building Coffins was to portray the Vodou religion respectfully and without cliché. Although my fictionalized depiction of the faith includes elements of the fantastic, I strived to put across its beauty and sublime mystery without the cheesy horror trappings that have so unfairly plagued the faith’s reputation for many years in the form of cheap Z-grade cinema. Aside from the knowledge I’ve obtained from my wife – who was initiated into the faith in Haiti ten years ago – there is much truth to be found in the poetry of Coco Robicheaux’s magnificent songwriting, especially in his masterpiece, Spiritland. It continues to amaze me how simply Coco can lay out the gorgeous and all-inclusive simplicity of the religion – while at the same time saying so much about those mysterious holes that pervade the history of New Orleans itself. Witness:

I see my smoke, see it rise and swirl
With my imagination in the spirit world
In dreamtime the fire feels hot to the hand
Shines in the eyes of aboriginal man

We could sing these melodies
Older than our memories
But we must use our voice and hands
To make the music of the Spiritland

Related Links and Sources:
Coco Robicheaux’s website
His Spiritland CD can be bought only from Orleans Records
“Temptation Rag” by Bunk Johnson can be found on the CD In San Francisco
“The Murder Ballad” by Jelly Roll Morton can be downloaded from iTunes or purchased from Rounder Records on The Complete Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 3: The Pearls.
The Complete Recorded Works of Edna Hicks can be found at iTunes or at Document Records
The Complete Recorded Works of Blind Willie Johnson can be found at iTunes or from Columbia/Legacy Records.

Louis Maistros

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