Mysterious Ways

Today’s audio update: Tim Cahill sings the blues about tough times in New Orleans.

Louis Armstrong

NEW ORLEANS—We’re on a mission from God. Or from Slate magazine. We’re a little unclear about this. In any case, our mission, which we have chosen to accept, requires us to trace the history of the “deep” blues, from its birthplace in the Mississippi Delta to its ultimate migration to Memphis, Chicago, and eventually the far corners of the world as we know it.

Our quest has brought us first to New Orleans, the southern terminus of Route 61, the so-called Blues Highway. We’ll be moving north, into the Delta.

Along the way, we’ll be forced to drive luxury rental cars, eat the best local food, and stay in many fine hotels. This life is hell, but someone’s got to do it, and in this case, it’s Christian Kallen and myself, two guys old enough to recall the blues revival in the clubs of Chicago in the mid-’60s, and the San Francisco dancehalls of the ‘70s.

We were working very hard, of course, but New Orleans was working effortlessly to hold up its image as America’s party central. At Brennan’s Restaurant, we dined on blackened redfish and a butternut squash bisque served at the table by a tuxedoed waiter. On the way to our French Quarter hotel, the venerable Monteleone, friendly young women in abbreviated costumes leaned out of doorways and invited us inside, where, they gave us to understand, pleasure that surpassed understanding awaited us. We explained that it was necessary to get some sleep. We were on a mission from God.

Yesterday’s absinthe bar is today’s pizza palace on Bourbon Street

Some have said Bourbon Street has become expensive and tacky, but it warms the soul to see some befuddled inebriate stumble out into the street, blinking in the morning sun, while Christian and I brush by on our way to breakfast. We watch the man stumble down the street, jostling folks on their way to work, and marvel at his endurance. There’ll always be a New Orleans.

We are making for Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, which the hotel concierge has advised us to avoid at night. A guide book adds, “The park is dangerous even during the day. Don’t hang around.” In fact, it is a graceful urban grassland with rolling hills and neatly trimmed shrubs and banana trees all surrounded by a walkway completely bereft of malefactors at 10 in the morning. Local malefactors, I suspect, sleep late.

Congo Square itself is a round area surrounded by benches and covered over in patterned brick. In the 1740s, “enslaved African vendors” gathered in the park of a Sunday, and these gatherings continued during both the French and Spanish colonizations. By 1803, Congo Square had become famous for its drumming, its singing, its dancing. A sign says the “African cultural expressions” of these gatherings gave way to “Indian Mardi Gras traditions, the Second Line (a blues piano variant heavy on the Island rhythms), and New Orleans Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.”

Congo Square is now Armstrong Park, after favored son Louis

New Orleans jazz is a complex and embracing art form that began about the same time as the blues and encompassed many of its excellences. America’s jazz ambassador was Louis Armstrong (born 1900 or so, died 1971). There was a statue of the great man just off Congo Square: a blocky, awkward piece, I thought. The trumpet held in his hand is the truest part of the sculpture.

It was Armstrong who taught jazz stylists to sing so that their voices sounded like their horns; he taught them how to play the cornet or trumpet so that it sounded like a voice. This is not the Louis Armstrong of “What a Wonderful World.” It is young Louis Armstrong, playingBasin Street Blues.”

Indeed, we strolled along Basin Street, into the Saint Louis Cemetery  No. 1, the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans, established in 1789. New Orleans is 5 feet below sea level, which means that holes dug in the ground immediately fill with water. Coffins were punctured and sunk with weights, which didn’t stop them from floating up out of the cemeteries and down the streets of the French Quarter on stormy nights. The solution was to bury people above ground, in what are called vaults. Whole families are buried in these vaults, some of them 10 feet high and shaped like pyramids. A sign says this is the “final resting place of the faithful departed awaiting resurrection on the last day.” Some of them were awaiting it in fine whitewashed vaults with their names on them; others were waiting in low nameless broken-down slums, tombs falling in on themselves and open to the sky above. A more sensitive person than myself might get all claustrophobic and thoroughly spooked out in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. He might say, “OK Christian, let’s go, OK, OK?”

Further along Basin, there is a one-story building composed of crumbling pink brick. The Basin Super Market’s motto is: “We Sale Liquor Meat Poboys & Friedrice.” This was the site of Lulu White’s brothel, back in the days when this area was part of the red-light district called Storyville. The great Jelly Roll Morton played at Lulu’s, as did other jazz greats. It’s true: Some of the greatest jazz artists in history played piano in a whore house.

Lunch found us in the French Quarter at the Royal Café, where it was necessary to eat lunch on a balcony surrounded by wrought iron. Christian and I commiserated with one another over a beer. New Orleans was about music, all right, but it was a fusion of many styles: jazz, blues, second line, Cajun, zydeco, swamp blues, swamp rock. We wouldn’t be finding any of the unadorned deep blues we wanted here.

While I was working on my boulette, which is crawfish tails mixed with shredded potatoes and spices sautéed a golden brown and finished off in a roux-based white sauce, workers blocked off the street below. A group of three men set up green plastic washtubs for seats. They were all white. One older man was barefoot. A younger fellow in jeans and a fedora was missing the majority of his teeth. They set up small amplifiers and began to play. The song was bluesman Jimmy Reed’s immortal “Baby, What You Want Me To Do,” played in the deep Delta style. A mule-driven carriage clopped down the street, the mule’s halter festooned with fresh flowers. A black man driving the carriage stopped and sang a few verses in a strong baritone voice.

“I thought,” Christian said, “you didn’t think we’d hear any deep blues in New Orleans.”

“He works in mysterious ways,” I said.