Music in the Aftermath
The other morning I woke up to a tinkling piano and the quavering strains of a lament. "Lou-EEE-ziana, Lou-EEEE-ziana, they're trying to wash us away…" I turned the radio off. Don't get me wrong, I love Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," which you can hear performed by the late New Orleans pianist Jeff Naideau here, or with a bluegrass tinge by Old School Freight Train here.
The song, with its Newmanesque mix of gritty detail and front-porch philosophy, is a perfect sonic centerpiece for meditations on Hurricane Katrina. That chorus is especially poignant, echoing like a prayer, with plenty of room to speculate on the unnamed "they" causing all the heartache — The forces of nature? The government? People like Newman (who does have family roots in New Orleans but mainly grew up in Los Angeles), writing lost souls 'histories long after the fact?
But even a song so right gets old after every benefit, news report and blog has employed it. My tired ears got me thinking about other songs that might do art's magic of helping people ponder the unthinkable in its aftermath. Music's way of cocooning each of us within its vibrations even as that same resonance unites us lends it a particularly healing quality. So although I've had plenty of moments of wondering how art, or anything but getting diapers and granola to homeless infants and old people, could matter in the wake of this catastrophe, I still trust in the soul's urge to wash itself clean of tragedy's mud in a bath of song. So here are some suggestions for musical contemplation in the wake of the waves.
I'll leave specific New Orleans nostalgia and knowledge to the experts, like American Routes DJ Nic Spitzer and radical historian Ned Sublette. (Though I can't resist one tip — for a much rawer take on that 1927 flood than Newman's, try this vintage Memphis gospel track.) Instead, I've been drawn to music that strives to capture the kinds of creeping peril that the Gulf Coast disaster represents — the horror of unexpected devastation, of loss by water and wind, but also what this deluge says beyond its own borders about all of life's fragility. My selections might seem a bit morbid, and in fact I'm convinced that global warming and skyrocketing population density mean more such disasters lurk in our future. But I've always used music to face my fears head on, and that's why some of my choices for this flood mix have a rather dark tone.
Start with "Who By Fire?" Leonard Cohen's stirring meditation on mortality's randomness, performed in full goth glory by Human Drama. Pushing the mood further downward (catharsis is healing, gang!), Big Star's "Holocaust" invokes the despair that engulfed the nation as we watched our own citizens dying from neglect. In times like this, one must come to peace with the darkness, so I'd select the fatalistic yet soothing ballad "Just the Motion" by Richard and Linda Thompson as relief. Percy Mayfield's similarly creepy-pretty "The River's Invitation" is strangely prescient of the despair Katrina victims have shown after losing loved ones. Follow that with David Byrne's instrumental "Body in a River" and you'll be feeling somber, indeed.
Ah, the river. Though it was Lake Ponchartrain that caused most of the trouble in New Orleans, river songs better serve reflection on our current crisis. Bards just can't resist that tributary metaphor, so much like music itself, with its elements of crescendo and ebb. Jump around eMusic's categories a bit and you'll discover many invocations to the river gods. I'd start with the great Paul Robeson intoning the gospel gem "Deep River", then counter that with Robeson's antithesis, the androgynous and currently very hot Antony, swooning through "River of Sorrow." Folk elder Greg Brown waxes existential on the tall tale "River Will Take You," while jazz genius Andy Bey captures the mesmerizing flow of the river motif on his version of Nick Drake's "River Man". Rock & roll survivor John Hiatt looks to the blues as inspiration for his river lament, "Crossing Muddy Waters." To rise above the pull of all this current, blast the Cult's mythologizing "River" and prepare for the flood.
Flood is another subject songwriters love, and though many use it metaphorically, it also has inspired some song-stories as disarmingly specific as the current crop of Katrina coverage. One of the eeriest is Rose Polenzani's , "The Flood," a mother's account of survival or mystical death, depending on how you read the Chicago rocker's open-ended verses. Jam-rockers Carbon Leaf go more psychedelic on their own "Flood," Emerging Canadian talent Adrienne Pierce offers an even more interior account of being swept away in her eerie little ballad "Death By Water" Finally, I've got to mention Portastic's "Hurricane Warning (Ignored)" a boppy number that foregoes ominousness for a blithe cool built around the transcendent refrain, "So you're scared of a little rain?"
I am, in fact, scared of Katrina's rain and what it means for our environmental survival. Accordingly, my flood mix tape includes an apocalyptic section, starting with the chestnut of all environmentalist rock ballads, Peter Gabriel's gloomy "Here Comes the Flood," reverentially covered by Midwestern balladeer Tyler Owen. This slow build leads perfectly into the sturm and drang of Australian prog-rockers Cog, who really nail the whole Judgment Day scenario with "The River Song". With Cog having blown the world apart, there's nothing to do but contemplate the wreckage, something post-punk cult faves Talk Talk do exceedingly well on the moody, disjointed "After the Flood".
After all this wet and sorrow, a moment of hope is probably in order, yet I find myself resisting clichés about standing tall and bouncing back. Personally, I'm just not ready for a full emotional recovery. I did, however, find one song that manages to grieve and recover at the same time. That's "Mourning Song," by country-leaning rocker Michelle Anthony. Starting slow, like a bad morning, Anthony's verses build toward the release for which we all are longing; she offers resolution, if not serenity. Her nearly breaking alto communicates the simple truth that life goes on, even when you can't believe it. This is her blues, our blues — the sound of making a choice to say the unspeakable, get it out, and move on.