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Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit talks with host Steve Curwood about growing up on the bayou outside of New Orleans. He produced a CD to help restore the coastal wetlands of Louisiana. He plays some live music and recites the Cajun version of the Night Before Christmas. (19:14)
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Chef Susan Spicer talks with host Steve Curwood about reopening her New Orleans restaurant Bayona in time for the holidays, and what Christmas-time comfort food she’s going to be cooking up. (06:50)
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New Orleans storyteller Angela Davis talks with host Steve Curwood about rescuing people in the city during hurricane Katrina. She also tells us a Louisiana ghost story. (13:34)
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The trumpet-playing coroner of New Orleans, Dr. Frank “Jazz” Minyard, talks with host Steve Curwood about how he’s faring during this holiday season. He plays his rendition of The Christmas Song. (07:55)
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Tab Benoit, Susan Spicer, Dr. Frank Minyard, Angela Davis
[MUSIC: Hadley Castille & The Louisiana Cajun Band “(Cajun) Jingle Bells” from ‘Cajun Christmas’ (Delta Music, Inc – 1997)]
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
2005 may well have been the roughest year on record for New Orleans, but the Crescent City still knows how to celebrate. Christmastime in New Orleans, indeed the whole river delta of Louisiana has its own special traditions, including this poem loved by Cajun Blues guitarist Tab Benoit since he was a child.
BENOIT: Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
They don’t a thing pass, not even a mouse
The children been nezzled good snug on the floor,
And mom pass the pepper through a crack in the door.
CURWOOD: And New Orleans’ trumpeting coroner, Frank Minyard tells us what Christmastime means for him.
MINYARD: Well, I’ll be playing my horn again, that’s the main thing.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth’s Christmastime special, “Longing for Louisiana.” Stick around.
[MUSIC: Hadley Castille & The Louisiana Cajun Band “Giddyup Ball” from ‘Cajun Christmas’ (Delta Music, Inc – 1997)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and welcome to our Christmastime special, with our guests from New Orleans - the city that taught us how to party.
Maybe Louisiana residents know how to have a good time because of their French heritage, steeped in good cooking and conviviality. Or perhaps it’s because this city has survived such disasters as Hurricane Katrina to the killer flu epidemic of 1918, that it has the slogan laissez les bontemps roulez, let the good times roll.
For New Orleans, Christmas in the year of Katrina can be defined this way. A city where three quarters of homes and business are without power. Where more than a hundred thousand homes and business are uninhabitable. Where only a quarter of the population has moved back. A city where so many have lost everything and where connections to friends and neighbors and relatives are stretched - sometimes broken - in a diaspora that touches every corner of America. A city where nearly half the residents suffer some sort of post-traumatic stress.
But Louisianians are a hardy lot. They know how to survive. They beat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, and they are not going to let the floods keep them down. Take the New Orleans’ coroner, Dr. Frank Minyard. He had to process more than a thousand bodies in the three months after Katrina, including people he knew. 2005 brought him the toughest Christmas ever. Making it hard – he says - to turn to his passions like music and good food to lift his spirits.
That’s why Susan Spicer, chef and owner of the restaurant Bayona, made sure she reopened in time for the holidays. Even if it meant being separated from her husband and kids. She wanted to do her part to get the city back to normal again and served the same holiday treats she’s dished out since the early 1990’s.
Storyteller Angela Davis stuck it out in the city, too. And today she brings us a ghost story. But she nearly got away without telling us that she rescued and housed almost thirty people in the days following the hurricane.
But first we turn to Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit who spent the aftermath of the hurricane playing benefits to raise money for Louisiana residents. His CD “Voice of the Wetlands” was presciently produced a year before Katrina to call attention to the plight of the vanishing buffer between the city and the sea.
Welcome to Living on Earth, Tab.
BENOIT: How ya doing?
CURWOOD: Now, you’re hometown is Houma, Louisiana?
BENOIT: Houma, Louisiana, yeah.
CURWOOD: You were born there?
BENOIT: Yeah. I’ve been there all my life.
CURWOOD: So you get around by boats, or bateaux, whatever?
BENOIT: Well, you used to. (laughs) My grandparents used to catch a boat, they called it the school skiff, you know, and that’s how they got to school. I remember when they were telling us about it – I guess I just had a picture in my mind, you know – and I asked them, was it yellow? (laughs)
BENOIT: Did it have the little stop signs on the side of it? (Laughs)
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Tell me a bit about what life was like for you coming up. I want to hear – you got kids, by the way?
BENOIT: Yeah, one.
CURWOOD: When he or she gets a bit older, what’s the story you’re going to tell them from your childhood you want them to know?
BENOIT: Well, I hope I’ll be able to show him, you know. We grew up on a bayou, first of all, we didn’t grow like in a neighborhood where you could walk to your buddy’s house. So to kind of get away from your parents and go explore your own, you know, your own life, we’d go back into the marsh and into the swamp and learn a lot of things.
I learned so much about life from being out there, you know? Seems like every square foot there’s something moving. I mean, it’s alive and you feel it, and it gets into you. I mean, that’s where I learned so many things about myself, and that’s where I get my inspiration from.
So hopefully, you know, I’ll be able to bring him out there and let him feel the same things, ‘cause I think that’s one thing that we tend to get away from and we tend to believe that we as humans are the top of the food chain. But if you go out and stand in the middle of a swamp in the summertime without a weapon in your hand, guess what? You’re not the top of the food chain anymore, you know?
BENOIT: Not all that long ago I was walking back there without a weapon and I’d taken half a step right over a coiled-up snake. A pretty good sized one, at that. And so I’m standing with one foot in the air hovering over a water moccasin, you know? And I’m pretty far back in the woods, in the swamp, by myself.
CURWOOD: So there you are, your leg is in the air, you decide you better not move…
CURWOOD: And what did the snake say to you?
BENOIT: The snake said, hey, you know, don’t worry man. I ain’t going to bite you.(Laughs). You okay, you alright, you know. I don’t smell any gunpowder, you ain’t got a knife on ya.
CURWOOD: So there you are, very much of the Louisiana wetlands, and you decide to produce a CD. I think you call it “Voice of the Wetlands.” And you originally produced this to raise money and raise awareness about the loss of wetlands in Louisiana. And what, on this CD Dr. John is there, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, those are a few of the musicians who recorded the CD with you. Could you play something off the CD for us?
BENOIT: I sure could. [TUNES GUITAR] This is a Doug Krenshaw song that me and Waylon Thibodeaux plays the fiddle on this on the album, a great song. Kind of a good ol’ Louisiana standard, you know?
[SINGING AND PLAYING GUITAR: Live rendition “Louisiana Man” from ‘VOW: Voice Of The Wetlands” (performed live in-studio New Orleans - 2005)]
“Well, at birth mom and poppa caught a little boy Ned
Raise him on the banks of a riverbed.
A houseboat tied to a big tall tree,
Home for my mamma and my papa and me.
The clock strikes three, papa jumps to his feet.
Already mamma’s cooking papa something to eat.
At half-past papa, he’s a ready to go.
He jumps in his bateaux going down the bayou.
Got the fishing line across the Louisiana River,
Gotta catch a big fish for us to eat.
Settin’ traps in the swamp catching anything he can
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man.
Muskrat pie hanging by the dozen
Even got a lady making muskrat cousin
Got em’ out drying in the hot hot sun
Tomorrow papa’s gonna turn em into money
Well they call mama Rita and my daddy Jack
Little baby brother on the floor, that’s Mac
Brin and Lin are the family twins,
Big brother is on the bayou fishin’
The river floats papa’s great big boat,
And that’s how my papa goes into town.
Takes up every bit of night and day
To even reach the places where the people stay.
Got a fishin’ line across the Louisiana River
Gotta catch a big fish for us to eat.
Settin’ traps in the swamp catching anything he can
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man.
CURWOOD: Hey, that’s alright.
BENOIT: Thank you, man. And thank Doug Krenshaw for that one.
CURWOOD: Now what were the holidays like when you were growing up? How’d you celebrate?
BENOIT: We celebrated similar, I guess, to other places in the country. Maybe the food’s a little different, you know. I mean, my favorite gumbo is that day after Christmas, you take the turkey and make gumbo with what’s left over the turkey. That’s still the best gumbo around.
CURWOOD: And I guess when you were a kid there was a poem that was pretty common in households in Louisiana around Christmastime, the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas.”
BENOIT: Yeah, I used to hear this a lot from my grandparents as a kid. It’s been a while since I’ve heard it, but I’ll give it my best shot.
[MUSIC: Hadley Castille & The Louisiana Cajun Band “Up On The Rooftop” from ‘Cajun Christmas’ (Delta Music, Inc - 1997)]
Twas the night before Christmas,
And all t’ru the house
There don’t a t’ing pass,
Not even a mouse.
The chirren be nezzle
Goodsnug on the flo’
An’ Mamm passed the pepper
T’ru de crack on de do’.
Then mama in de fireplace
Done roas’ up de ham
Stir up de gumbo
And bake de yam.
Then up through the bayou
Dey got such a clatter
Make soun’ like old Boudreau
Done fall off his ladder.
I run like a rabbit
To go to de do’
Trip over the dorg
And fall on the flo’
As I look out the do’
Into the light o’ de moon,
I t’ink, “man, you crazy,
Or I got ol’ too soon.”
Cuz dere on de bayou,
when I stretch ma’ neck stiff
Dere’s eight alligator
and they pullin’ de skiff
An’ little fat drover
Wit’ a long poling stick
I know r’at away
Got to be ol’ St. Nick.
Mo’ fas’er and fas’er
De gator dey came
He whistle an’ he holla,
An’ he called dem by name.
Ha Gaston! Ha Tiboy!
Ha Pierre, an’Alcee’
Gee Ninette! Gee Suzette!
Celeste and Renee!
To de top o’ the porch
To de top o’ the wall,
Make crawl alligator,
And be sho’ you don’ fall.
Like Tante Flo’s cat,
T’ru de treetop he fly.
When a big ol’ houn’ dorg
Come a run hisse’f by.
Like dat up de porch
Them ol’ alligators climb!
Wit’ de skiff full o’ toy
And St. Nicholas behin’.
Then on the top de porch roof
A soun’ like de hail
When all dem big alligator
done sot down
Den down de chimney,
I yell with a bam!
And St. Nicholas fall
An’ he sit on de yam!
“Sacre,” he exclaim
“My pant got a hole!
I done sot ma’se’f
on dem red-hot coal!”
He got on his foots
And he jump like a card
Out to de flo’
Where he lan’ wit’ a splat.
He was dressed in muskrat
from his head to his foot
an’ his clothes was all dirty
wit’ ashes and soot.
A sack full of playting
He t’row on his back
He looked like a burglar
An’ dass fo’ a fact.
His eyes how day shine!
His dimple how merry!
Well maybe he drink de wine
From de blackberry.
His cheek was like a rose
His nose like a cherry
On second t’ought,
Maybe he lap up de sherry!
Wit’ snow-white chin whisker
An’ quiverin’ belly
He shook w’en he laugh
Like dem stromberry jelly
With a wink in his eye
An’ a shook o’ his head
Make my confidence dat
I Don’ got to be scared.
He don’ do no talkin’,
He go straight to his work
He put playt’ing in a sock
An’ he turn wit’ a jerk
He put bot' his han'
Dere on top o' his head
Cas' an eye on de chimney
An' den he done said:
"Wit' all o' dat fire
An' dem burnin' hot flame
Me I ain' goin' back
By de way dat I came."
So he run out de do'
An' he clim' to de roof
He ain' no fool, him
For to make one more goof.
He jump in his skiff
An' crack his big whip.
De 'gator move down
An' don' make one slip.
An' I hear him shout loud
As a splashin' he go
"Merry Christmas to all
'Til I saw you some mo'!"
CURWOOD: (Laughing) Oh, Tad Benoit, that’s amazing, the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas.” I wonder if Clement Moore knew what he started with that poem. It sounds like a great tradition to have when you were a kid there on the bayou.
We’ll have more stories and music from Tad Benoit just ahead. And Chef Susan Spicer will cook up some holiday comfort food, New Orleans style. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Evan Johns “Cajun Drummer Boy” from ‘Xmas Hits The Spot’ (Real World – 1993)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And welcome to our Christmastime special, “Louisiana Longing.” Blues guitarist – Cajun blues guitarist – Tab Benoit is back with me now. How ya doing, Tab?
CURWOOD: So, Tab, when I think Cajun country, I think history. The story of the French-speaking people called Acadians who were forced out of Nova Scotia by the British, and their journey to the Louisiana Bayou to join the French colony there. Tell me a bit about how Cajun culture got the blues.
BENOIT: Well first of all, if you go back and listen to traditional Cajun songs and translate the lyrics, those are the saddest songs in the world. It seems like, you know, all these songs are about somebody dies, and a lot of times it’s like a kid or, you know, a guy’s wife. And if you listen to the way that they’re singing, I mean, the traditional Cajun voice, it’s like a cry, you know, it’s like crying out. That’s blues. It comes from the feelings, the bad feelings, we have, and trying to fight your way through it by using music, you know?
Everybody kind of lists the things that we’re losing right now by all this destruction in South Louisiana, but nobody seems to be mentioning the music and the culture and the food. I mean, lord, the only real ethnic American food is Cajun food. It was born right here. And, you know, just the cultural things, I find, have been kind of pushed aside like they never existed, you know? I mean, this music went worldwide and changed the music of the world. I mean, how important is that, you know?
CURWOOD: Before you have to go, Tab, I’m wondering if you can play us another song?
BENOIT: I sure can try.
[SINGING AND PLAYING ACOUSTIC BLUES GUITAR: Live rendition “When A Cajun Man Gets The Blues” performed live in-studio New Orleans (2005)]
My Sally, she has left me for good.
After I gave her my love for so long.
She’s out there with somebody new
And I just can’t sit here alone, no, no.
But it’s so hard to drive with these tears in my eyes
And it takes a long time to get to Baton Rouge.
And all I want is to hear somebody sing my song
Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues
When I’m feeling the weight of the water
Lord I know there’s blues in the Quarter
If I could hold back my tears and make it there I’d be alright
But I might need you, New Orleans, every night
And I don’t know where I’d be without you
When you’ve been there for me all the while
From Lafayette, to Thibodaux, to Lake Charles
And from Cocodrie to Shreveport to Grand Isle
Now when I’m feeling the pain, the bayou’s calling my name
And that’s an offer I can’t refuse
I say it’s hard to miss you Louisiana
Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues
I say it’s hard to miss you, good ol’ Louisiana
Ah, when this Cajun man got the blues
CURWOOD: That was great. That was really just terrific.
BENOIT: Thank you, man.
CURWOOD: Tab Benoit, that must be the song you play when you want to bring the house down.
BENOIT: I tell you, the place where I wrote that song the house is down, you know? I wrote that out at my camp, and it’s flattened and leveled by tidal surf from Hurricane Rita. So. It’s always meant a lot to me, that song in particular, because I think it was just a matter of, you know, my heart speaking out as to how I felt about where I live and where I come from. And trying to put all of it into perspective, not just for everybody else but for myself, you know?
So it’s a very special song to me and it’s actually a hard one to sing right now, you know? And a hard one to play. It’s not that easy to jump into it. But it’s more important than it’s ever been, you know, and it’s just an example of the kind of things that we don’t want to give up on, and the things that we want to try to preserve. And the things that we want to try to say and be honest about, you know? It’s basically getting your heart out there and being naked to the world and letting everybody see your true self and what you’re about. You know? Songs have a way of doing that.
CURWOOD: Indeed. With me has been Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit. Tab, it’s been really great having you. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
BENOIT: No problem. Thanks for having me, it’s great to talk to ya’ll, and I hope we get to do some more of these things, you know?
[MUSIC: Tab Benoit “We Make A Good Gumbo” from ‘VOW: Voice Of The Wetlands’ (Ryko – 2005)]
CURWOOD: We’re going to take a small diversion now, from music to food. Our guide to the cuisine of Louisiana is chef Susan Spicer – and yes, that is her real name. By Thanksgiving after Katrina she had re-opened her French Quarter restaurant, called “Bayona,” and she’s here to tell us what she’s cooking up for Christmas. Hi Susan, thanks for joining me.
SPICER: Nice to be here, thanks.
CURWOOD: Hey, Susan, what happened to you and your restaurants there in New Orleans?
SPICER: Well, what happened was the restaurants sustained very little damage because they were in the parts of New Orleans, you know, the French Quarter and the CBD that really didn’t get much flooding. But my home and the home of a number of other chefs, my partner Herb Saint, we lived in Lakeview so our homes were all flooded. I know about five or six chefs that lived in the same neighborhood that all lost their homes.
CURWOOD: When things are really rough like this, there’s nothing quite like comfort food to make us feel good.
CURWOOD: You must have thought it was really important to get the restaurant going again. How long did it take you to get opened up again? And how’s that going?
SPICER: We opened up the Friday before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was kind of a symbolic time for me to be open because we’d been open every year for Thanksgiving since we opened the restaurant in 1990. And I felt like even if we didn’t have any customers, even if it was just, you know, family and employees, I was gonna cook that darn turkey and serve it here.
And as it turns out, we probably could have sold the restaurant out two or three times from the number of calls we got. Because obviously there aren’t a lot of places, there weren’t a lot of restaurants open for Thanksgiving. And we had, the whole dining room was full of people that have been coming for years and years and years, and it was, for me, it was a very emotional, you know, good thing to get back open for that, and to cook the suckling pig and the roast turkeys and my mother’s stuffing and, you know, things like that. And my mother, of course, did come for Thanksgiving.
CURWOOD: What are you making at the restaurant at the holidays? I imagine you’re making your famous stuffing. What else?
SPICER: Well, something that always says holiday time in New Orleans, to me, is oysters. The weather is cool, they’re usually peak season, so I like to do a lot of different things with oysters. I do a sautéed oyster and spinach salad. But right now we’re doing sort of an oyster au gratin, with Italian sausage and bread crumbs with Parmesan cheese and béchamel and spinach.
CURWOOD: Ooh, I’m having trouble. I think my mouth is already starting to water.
[MUSIC: Michael Doucet & Beausoleil “Flammes D’Enfer” from ‘Bayou Deluxe: The Best Of…’ (Rhino – 1992)]
CURWOOD: Now you’re down in your kitchen, where you can make that wonderful oyster dish.
SPICER: Yep. I’m down here, I’ve got some oysters. I have oysters in the shell.
SPICER: And now I’ve got one open and I’m …
SPICER: That’s me sucking the oyster out of the shell.
CURWOOD: Right down the hatch, huh?
[CLANKING KITCHEN SOUNDS]
SPICER: Mmm-hmm. First we’re going to heat up the béchamel in a pot. You know, we’re gonna just take a little butter and flour and add some milk to it.
[WHISKING UP AND UNDER]
SPICER: Cook it for a minute without getting any color on it, and then add your milk a little at a time so it stays nice and smooth. You want to bring it up to a boil because that’s when it’s going to really get nice and thick, and you can sort of tell, you can adjust the consistency at that point. But it has to come up to the boil. You can add cheese right to this, or any kind of different flavoring. We’re going to put a little bit of Pernot, which is also kind of a traditional flavoring with oysters. It’s looking good. And a little salt and pepper, and a grating of fresh nutmeg, too.
CURWOOD: Alright, I’m ready for the next step.
SPICER: Next we’re heating up a little olive oil, and we’re going to wilt our spinach. Just add your garlic and shallot for just a minute…
[SIZZLING UP AND UNDER]
SPICER: And then throw in a good handful of that fresh spinach.
SPICER: You’re going to wilt it right down in the pan. You want to toss it and season it with just a little pinch of salt and pepper.
[CLATTER OF PLATES]
SPICER: So now we’re going to take the spinach and we’re just going to line our dish. Make a nice little green cushion. Alright, now I’m laying down these beautiful oysters. I have Italian sausage, which we’ve poached – you know, we poach it, take it out of the skin, and then kind of crumble it up. And then I’m going to drizzle the béchamel. And then I had these yummy nice moist bread crumbs. The reason why I add the butter and olive oil with the bread crumbs is if you just put them on there dry, they sort of, you know, they’re kind of like sawdust. They don’t have a really very nice…and they won’t brown as well. And that is the finished product there, getting ready to go into the hot oven.
CURWOOD: Mmmm, yes. How long does it stay in the oven now?
SPICER: Well, since it’s a fairly shallow individual little casserole dish, I would say five to seven minutes at about…it’s about 400 degrees. It’s a pretty good combination. Oysters and spinach are a very traditional combination, and there’s a lot of different ways you can do it. And actually right now the oysters are better than ever because the hurricane blew a lot of salt water into the oyster beds. Oysters are grown here in what they call brackish water, which is where the fresh water meets the salt water. And so, you know, sometimes, like if it’s rained a lot, it can be I guess a little bland. But with the infusion of a lot of the salt water from the Gulf they are just really delicious right now. So, okay, I think our gratin is ready.
CURWOOD: Alright, great. So why don’t you pull it out.
CURWOOD: Ohh. How soon can it be tasted?
SPICER: (Laughs) Well, it depends on if you want to burn the roof of your mouth or not.
SPICER: Pretty good, if I do say so myself. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: Susan Spicer is the chef of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans. Thank you so much.
SPICER: And thank you, Steve, for visiting with me here at Bayona.
CURWOOD: Happy holidays.
SPICER: Same to you.
[MUSIC: Art Neville “Christmas Gumbo” from ‘Christmas Gumbo’ (Flambeau - 2004)]
CURWOOD: Storyteller Angela Davis is my next guest. She calls herself the yarnspinner, and over the past two decades she’s been telling stories, mostly about New Orleans. Thanks for taking the time to be with us, Angela.
DAVIS: Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: Now, you’re from New Orleans, and I understand you were there when Hurricane Katrina hit. What happened to you?
DAVIS: Well, I watched Hurricane Katrina rage around a lot. I saw trees snapping like toothpicks, crashing into my neighbors’ homes. I decided to wait out the storm because my daughter was trapped in New Orleans, and when I found out she wasn’t leaving I made a decision to stay behind because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back into the city once the hurricane was over. And lucky for us, she’s well and I was able to go back into the city to retrieve her.
CURWOOD: Well, that’s an awfully short version of the story, c’mon. We’re back and the wind is blowing, things are slapping into your neighbors’ houses, and what happens next?
DAVIS: Oh, the chimney came ripping off the roof. I kept an eye on the water. It didn’t flood in my neck of the woods – which is Mandeville, Louisiana – but the water got pretty high closer to the lakefront, I understand. Homes were pretty devastated in my neighborhood due to the trees, and once I got into the city – it took me about three hours to actually make the trek over there to retrieve my daughter. But each day following the storm I was over in the city rescuing people. It was a harrowing experience.
CURWOOD: Rescuing people? Just because you had a car that would go?
DAVIS: Yeah. I had a car, and I was able to go in. We had about 27 people staying in my home at one time. We had no power, we had no water. But I’ll tell you, after I picked up my daughter the first day, we were coming back across the causeway between Kenner and LaPlaz , and there was a young woman carrying her gasoline can. And she was just walking out on this lonely stretch of the highway, and I said – I just pulled over and gave her a ride – and once she got in the car she pretty much crumbled. She started to cry and tell me what had happened to her during the past three days while she was caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And I remember stopping her in the middle of this conversation. I said, “Look, sweetie, you’re going to be okay. Just like I stopped to give you a ride, there’s gonna be someone at the gas station” – and the gas station was 60 miles away in Sorrento, by the way – “there’s gonna be somebody at that gas station to give you a ride back.” Now, the interesting thing was, when we got to the gas station in Sorrento, not only did she find gas and a ride, but there was free food. There was a family out there from New Roads, Louisiana, and they were serving fresh food – hot jambalaya and bread and free water – and they were giving it out free, just from the goodness and kindness of their heart.
I went over to them and I said, “Listen, how is it that you're all out here?” I thought some church had put them up to doing this. And they said, “Well, we just wanted to do something for the people of New Orleans.” And so they got in their kitchens, cooked up this food, and let me tell you, it was the best jambalaya I had ever had. Edna was able to bring plates of this food back to the people waiting for her in the car with the gas can. And she got her ride.
One of the things I told her, I said, “Listen, honey, there’ll be someone here for you every step of the way.” And I want you to know, I was listening to these words. It was as if somebody was talking to me while I was telling her this. And the thing that I felt about this is that, you know, if you’re doing your part – whatever your small part is, like that family from New Roads – this world would, you know, be a wonderful place. If everybody just does their small, wonderful part.
[MUSIC: Tuts Washington “When The Saints Go Marching In” from ‘Mardi Gras Time’ (Ryko – 1998)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: Angela Davis, the yarn spinner, is going to tell us an honest to goodness New Orleans Ghost story. Also, the Jazz playing coroner of New Orleans will join us for some stories and music of New Orleans Christmases past. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Michael Doucet “Auld Lang Zyne” from `Christmas Bayou’ (Swallow Records - 1991)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and our Christmastime special, “Louisiana Longing,” continues with storyteller Angela Davis. Angela, it seems to me that New Orleans celebrates just about everything, including death and dying.
DAVIS: Yes, well, you know, there’s a thin line between the living and the dead. And so we don’t say that they’re dead, they’re just in another area that we can’t see. That’s why we celebrate it.
CURWOOD: So, please, Angela Davis, the yarn spinner, tell us a story that shows us how in New Orleans your vibrant musical culture blends death with rebirth.
DAVIS: Well you know what? I’m going to tell you the story of a hot day in an old New Orleans cemetery, and it goes like this:
“Thank you for coming here.”
I jumped and looked up. A moment ago I was the only living person in the whole cemetery, and now there was a man standing before me dressed in a black three-piece suit, a black tie, and his skin was dark, about the color of a plum.
I didn’t know what else to say to him, so I said, “Thank you. I’m collecting herbs.”
I heard a rumble in the distance and I turned looked behind me. An early summer thunderstorm, black and boiling, filled the horizon.
“Be rainin’ in a little while.”
The gentleman limped with his cane among the groves over to the mausoleum. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a massive keychain, started fingering through those keys one by one. He stopped at an old skeleton key and inserted it in the gate. The lock slowly turned, stiffly, and he pushed that gate open with his cane and in the dim shadows I could see he was motioning for me to follow.
Well it didn’t take much to motivate me. I heard another crack of thunder and the next thing you know I was right behind him. There were empty tombs on either side as we walked through. And at the end of the passageway it looked like there was a nice altar at one time. Broken stained glass was all over the floor, and there were two benches for mourners. We sat down on those benches. There was a long silence.
I looked down that passageway and I could see the rain was falling heavy, coming in slanted sheets. Daylight was turning dark and greenish just like it does before a hurricane hits. I said about as much, and we were quiet awhile, listening to that storm raging outside. The sky grew darker. The winds were whipping and roaring ferociously outside our shelter.
“Well,” he sat up straight and slapped his heavy hands on his thighs. “Looks like we gonna be here for a while, doesn’t it?”
And then he turned and looked me dead in the eyes. Now, I’ll never forget that look for as long as I live.
He said, “I hear you a storyteller. You know any ghost stories? Why don’t we pass the time telling ghost stories.”
This is the tale I told him, “At the Seams”:
Everybody knows old Joe Johnson was a great comedian. He could make you laugh! Have you rolling on the floor with yo sides aching and tears coming outta yo eyes. Old and wise, he was a big ol’ wide man with a grizzly beard, and he liked to play practical jokes on his poor friends Tina, John, Carla and Lewis.
They were talented youngsters. They climbed with him out of that trashy neighborhood in the city where they were born. Tina became a great singer. She sold gold and platinum records. And John? Oh my, John was a writer, and he was a regular on the bestseller list. Carla? Ohh, Carla was a world-class actress. That girl won an Oscar. Lewis, like Joe, was a comedian. He had his own television show before launching himself head of his own entertainment network.
They climbed up out of the hardness of the streets, polishing their language and smoothing their ways, putting some distance between them and the city. But not old Joe. You see, he remained behind like a diamond in the rough, with his old taste and his old speech and his old way of dressing. Despite his talent, Joe was always in a pile of mess or a heap of trouble. He went from one house to the other, one bankruptcy to another, one job to another. There was always something with that man.
His friends watched and now they helped him out when they could. But they had to be mindful of their own careers. But you gotta keep in mind the way old Joe lived. See, he wasn’t going to be around forever. Matter fact, he died. Now, you have to know how many times he wrecked his car. See, the end just wasn’t a surprise to nobody. They found him and his twisted remains of that car in and ditch. And his will asked that he be buried at St. Expedite with his four friends as pallbearers.
Well they decided to do it on a cool, rainy day. I remember just like it was yesterday. They brought him down to the crypt with this jazz band. Big old crowds came down from the projects. They were dancing to that New Orleans jazz and a thumpin’ of that big bass drum. But that night after the funeral they sat in a local restaurant in a private room reminiscing over wine. And they were talking about old Joe’s practical jokes.
See, he had some common ways, and Whoooo!, the way he loved them poor people? The way he put it, their ways, their music, their lives! And someone who had an idea, a great idea, they said, “Let’s make something good happen out of this. Why not make a song and donate the money to the poor in our own neighborhood?”
So what song could they sing? Now, they thought about it, and the answer all came to them at the same time: “Going at the Seams.” It’s an old spiritual and it had been Joe’s favorite whenever the bottom fell out on old Joe. Now this city might be a sleepy backwater, but it ain’t dead! And in the middle of the night, Tina’s agents called in some back-old debts, and they went out and got this jazz band off of Bourbon Street. And as a final touch, Lewis stopped by the convenience store and got a bottle of cheap whiskey.
Everything was set. Tina, John, Carla and Lewis sat on this little platform in this recording studio, surrounded by all these little microphones, passing this whiskey bottle around and reminiscing. Now, the engineers were in the glass booth playing with the dials. The jazz band, they were tired, and slumped around waiting for everything to get started.
At that moment, the door opened and old Joe walked in. He was dressed in his black burial clothes and his shiny black shoes, starched white shirt and black tie. That mortician had done a good job, ‘cause you could hardly see where the stitches were from the accident. Whatever, Joe looked like his old self, rocking from side to side, waving his arms and roaring in his deep voice. He reached for that bottle of whisky.
His four friends were petrified. They didn’t know what to do. The jazz band waved and shook hands with him, patted him on the back, took out their instruments and got ready to play. One brought an extra chair and a mic for Joe, who beamed back, “Thank you very much, thank you very much. Hey guys, that’s a good man. Get that man a drink!”
Joe grabbed the half-empty whisky bottle and he took himself a long swig. A dark liquid stain appeared about the waistline in his suit, and the room started to smell like whisky. Tina, John, Carla and Lewis, they didn’t know what to do. Joe turned to that jazz band and he said, “Hit it, boys!” He nodded to the engineers in the control booth, and in a real voice said, “Roll that tape.” And Joe started to sing.
“At the seams, keep them from going at the seams.”
He looked at his four friends and motioned for them to join in. That old song tucked him! Joe laughed. Tina closed her eyes. Lewis tapped his foot on the floor to keep time. And that jazz band just fell into the groove. They were rockin’ that place. John looked at Joe. He saw his whole body singing. Saw it doing a little coming apart, too. Carla looked over at Joe and she saw some stitches popping out round his ears. That dark liquid drizzled down Joe’s ankles to the floor.
That band just kept on playing, they never even noticed. Old Joe got out of that chair, he grabbed that whisky bottle in his hands, and he said, “Ya’ll made it, and I didn’t. Now I come back to claim what’s rightfully mine! Here’s to success!” All of a sudden there was a massive ripping sound that tore right through the center of Joe’s body, and he fell to the floor with a mighty thud.
The song was a success! It sold millions of copies. The critics loved it, the jazz band said, “Ooh, it sure was nice to have someone imitating old drunk Joe to come on and help out with the session.” Oh yeah, old Joe had finally hit the big time!
I turned to look at the stranger, and he was nowhere to be found. I felt the sunlight shining on my face. Light poured in through a broken window and I felt like I was just waking up from a long nap. I looked around; no sign of that stranger with the silver flask. I made my way back out into the cemetery, and the most amazing thing is this: there was no rain on the ground. There wasn’t even any indication that there had been a thunderstorm!
Phww. I left those herbs in the cemetery, and you know, I haven’t been back since. And every now and then I think back to that day and I wonder, did I make it up? Or did it really happen? I guess I’ll never know.
CURWOOD: Whoa, that’s quite a ghost story. I’m not sure that I’m gonna ever feel the same walking by a cemetery, especially one of those above ground numbers there in New Orleans. You think Joe’s still out there?
DAVIS: Absolutely. He’s ready to hear another story.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Angela Davis calls herself the yarnspinner. Thank you so much for taking this time with us, Angela.
DAVIS: Thank you. I’ve had a lot of fun.
Angela Davis' Website
[MUSIC: Tuts Washington “When The Saints Go Marching In” from ‘Mardi Gras Time’ (Ryko – 1998)]
CURWOOD: Now if New Orleans has more than its share of ghosts, the city’s coroner, Frank Minyard, would have likely run in to some of them. For the past thirty years the trumpet-playing coroner, as he’s called, has seen his share of tragedies in a city with one of the nation’s worst murder rates. But nothing prepared him for the carnage of Hurricane Katrina. Over a thousand bodies were processed by his morgue in the aftermath of the storm.
Frank joins us now. Hey, Frank, thanks for coming on the program.
MINYARD: Thank you for having me, Steve, it’s a pleasure.
CURWOOD: Now, you were born and raised in New Orleans, and I understand you just moved back into your home in the French Quarter. What’s it been like for the past few months?
MINYARD: Well I’ve been living up at St. Gabriel, where we were doing the processing of the remains. In a FEMA trailer, I might add. You know, it’s been okay. I mean, the living conditions were good, but I can’t say how happy I am. I’m very happy to be home again.
CURWOOD: I want to take you back now to the end of August. Katrina is coming, it hits. How soon did you know that things were going to be very different for you?
MINYARD: Well I rode the storm out across Lake Pontchartrain from the city – I have a small farm over there – like I do every hurricane. I go there in case my fences get down, you know, and my animals get out. I was over there Sunday night and Monday. Tuesday morning, the worst happened – my fences were down, my animals were out.
But I left to come back to the city to the office, coroner’s office. That was a nightmare for me because the roads were all flooded. My truck drowned. I had to get out of the truck and start walking in chest-high water, and then I started swimming, and I spent four and a half hours in the water on Canal Street, which is our main thoroughfare.
A boat picked me up when it got dark Monday afternoon and took me to the coroner’s office. And that’s when it dawned on me that this was not an ordinary situation that we’d been through so many times before. That we had a catastrophe here, and it was going to be a human catastrophe. And of course, you know, we’ve lost a thousand bodies. A lot of people.
CURWOOD: You get to the office, what do you find?
MINYARD: Well, the building, no electricity. And I had a few of my employees who rode out the storm there. And we stayed at the office four days before we were rescued by helicopter. That time was very tough, there was no food, no water. Of course, no electricity. And we were surviving…the little water we could get from other people in the building, and some of the food. It was a tough four days, you know, just being stranded and knowing there was going to be lots of people dying. And we were worried about ourselves, really, whether we were going to die. And then you start hallucinating about food.
CURWOOD: What did you dream about for food? Or hallucinate?
MINYARD: My food dream at the time was just Cornflakes and milk. (Laughs) Just anything, you know?
CURWOOD: Now your mother, who was also born in New Orleans, and died I guess a number of years ago, was a noted Ragtime pianist.
MINYARD: Yeah, she died two years ago at the age of 99. And she gave concerts with me – we’ve been doing them 30 years – charity concerts, raised money for different charities in the city.
CURWOOD: You know, by the way, you’re a coroner and a jazz trumpeter, so give us some insight into this New Orleans tradition of jazz music at the funeral procession and everything.
MINYARD: Well, it started a long, long time ago. I think it has African origins. And the whole idea is to have a group of guys get together who want to play at a funeral of someone who they think is worthwhile. You cannot purchase a jazz funeral, you can’t buy it. Just when somebody, you know, who has done a great service to mankind and lived in this city and promoted this city, when he passes on they get together and they play.
What they do is they use an old gospel number from Protestant churches, “Old Ragged Cross,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” numbers like that. And they play behind the hearse, walk very slowly and very solemn, and then at some point when they get to the graveyard somebody in the band says, “Cut him loose.” So we cut him loose, and with that he severs all of his worldly ties and he’s gone on to a more grand and glorious world than he could ever have here on earth.
And we turn around and take that same old gospel number and we jazz it up, and it really ignites the people. Everybody starts dancing. So now we are celebrating our dearly departed friend’s life. I mean, I was raised doing that, my family all did that. And when my mother died two years ago we had one for her.
CURWOOD: Now, how often are you getting together with your band to play?
MINYARD: Well, we don’t know where they are. I use mostly the Preservation Hall band when I play, but the band is spread around. I haven’t played in three months.
CURWOOD: You haven’t played in three months?
MINYARD: No, I haven’t played since the, you know, since the tragedy. I picked it up, oh, about six weeks ago, and I started playing “Do You Know What It Means” and I started crying. So I put it down.
CURWOOD: How does one cope? I mean, usually when disaster strikes a person or a household, their network of support, their friends, the rest of their family, they’re in relatively good shape. But here you have whole families, whole neighborhoods, a whole city that’s lost everything almost all at once. How do you cope?
MINYARD: Pretty hard to kill off the spirit of New Orleans. It’s in every one of our hearts and souls. Everyone not only who was born here, but who has lived here any amount of time, I think that spirit that we have to carry on is like no other place in the whole world. That spirit is going to get us through it, and we just got to keep relying on our natural instincts to get back to what we had. We’ve lost almost an entire city here, but it’s going to come back. I can’t tell you the way, or who’s going to live in it, but it will be back.
CURWOOD: So how are people you know, and how are you, gonna bring yourself into the holiday this year?
MINYARD: Well I’m going to start playing my horn again, that’s the main thing.
CURWOOD: Was there a lot of music in your house around holiday time?
MINYARD: Mm-hm. Between my mother and my grandmother, they both played the piano, there was music all the time. Not just holiday, all the time.
CURWOOD: Your favorite holiday tune from that? You close your eyes and you can hear your grandmother and your mother, what would you be listening to?
MINYARD: “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire.” And I learned to play it when I was, oh, twelve, 13 years old, just from hearing grandma play it. Grandma played it really well.
CURWOOD: Can I hear it now?
MINYARD: I would love to do that.
CURWOOD: With me has been Frank Minyard, who for the last 30 years has been coroner of New Orleans Parish in New Orleans. Thank you, sir, so very much.
MINYARD: Thank you for having me, Steve, it’s a pleasure. And merry Christmas from New Orleans to everybody listening. Merry, merry Christmas.
CURWOOD: Our Christmastime special “Louisiana Longing” was produced by Susan Shepherd. Special thanks to Michael Lea of River Road Recorders and Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Thanks also to Jeff Town of Echoes. Living on Earth's technical director is Dennis Foley.
For more information about any of our guests, the music, or stories you heard, call our Listener Line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 20 Holland Street, Suite 408, Somerville, MA, 02144. You can also visit our web page at Living on Earth dot org and hear the program anytime – or get a download for your iPod. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G. I'm Steve Curwood, thanks for listening. And Happy Holidays from all of us here at Living on Earth.
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