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Figured I should start a new topic, I hope to be giving periodic reports on the wonderful music I hear in this town.  Just wanted to mention that I finally got a chance to hear John Rankin do a full two sets last night.  JohnM had done a review of his latest CD and recommended that we give a listen.  Great player.  I found out he does a regular Tuesday night gig at the Columns Hotel, which is worth visting even without music--built in 1883 and completely renovated to resemble a high-class New Orleans hotel at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rankin plays a little bit of everything.  He started his set on a 7-string electric with a few electronics thrown in, bebop riffs and space sounds all tied together.  Then he put down the electric and picked up a six-string acoustic and played some old ragtime (Moonshine Rag) in the Scott Joplin vein, followed by some stuff he wrote himself, then a long string of jazz standards with a bassist and a vocalist--Cheek to Cheek, True Love, Someone Exactly Like You, some Thelonius Monk, some Mardi Gras party songs, some melodically dense and chordally rich songs from his own pen.  

On Sunday evening I saw Rankin at a memorial concert marking the 20th anniversary of the death of James Booker, the intensely weird and talented piano player.  The memorial opened with the American debut of a German documentary film on Booker, then after intermission there were performances by 5 pianists and 1 guitarist.  The pianists included two former visitors to PTCBW: Josh Paxton and Henry Butler; Henry was clearly the king that night, he brought down the house with his 3 numbers.  Rankin did a guitar medley of piano tunes that Booker had recorded; it reminded me of the stuff that Del Rey likes to do in performance.  I was hoping he'd get into the piano rags at his Tuesday evening gig, but he seems to reserve that night for his jazz playing.

So, another recommendation if you ever come to Nawlins, Tuesday's at 8 p.m. at the Columns Hotel  for some great guitar playing.  It's an unusual gig because it starts at a reasonable hour, and ends in time for you to hit one of 20 other clubs where the music doesn't start until 11, if that.  Rebirth Brass Band holds court at the Maple Leaf Bar every Tuesday, great stuff.

From music heaven,

Hi Lindy,
Great to hear from you, it all sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.  If or when you see John again, please tell him hi for me.  I haven't seen him in a long time.  Keep filing those reports here.  It's fun to hear what's going on elsewhere.
All Best,


--- Quote from: waxwing on February 04, 2004, 05:07:28 PM ---P.S. What's the latest from N.O. Gearin' up for M.G.?

--- End quote ---

I'm trying hard to clear my plate of all work so I can do the 12 days of Mardi Gras as they should be done.  On weekdays most of the action is in the evening, with 2 major parades taking off down the same parade route.  Then next weekend looks like non-stop partying, with live music taking place all over town on indoor and outdoor stages, women doing their Janet Jackson imitations on Bourbon Street, and all kinds of mock parades such as the all-Elvis Impersonator Parade and the Barkus (instead of Bacchus) Parade in which dog owners make costumes for their pets and strut their stuff down a local parade route. 

Lately I've been trying to find out when and where I can find the African American skeleton krewes on Mardi Gras morning.  This is an old, old tradition where local men dress up as skeletons and visit the homes of families in black neighborhoods, mostly in the Treme district, and warn little boys and girls to obey their parents, study hard, don't fight with their brothers and sisters, and so on.  The kids are scared out of their wits, I'm told, and so are half of their parents.  This stuff is supposed to take place really early in the morning, any time after 4 a.m. on Mardi Gras day. The Mardi Gras Indians show up sometime after breakfast, and the second lines go struttin' through the neighborhoods for the rest of the day.   

While asking around about this stuff, I've heard one person after another complain about this big 'ol Interstate-10 overpass that the engineers/politicians said "had" to be built down the middle of N. Clairborne Ave., no other choice.  Before the overpass was built it was a divided street with a big, wide stretch of green grass and old oak trees running down the middle.  That was where the Mardi Gras Indians gathered to play some of the most infectious music ever heard, a combination of traditional jazz and pure African drumming.  The Interstate split the neighborhood in half, the Indians were forced onto the relatively narrow side streets, and a couple of the old timers I spoke with believe that the highway spelled the death of many of their Mardi Gras traditions.  Other problems, too--drugs and crime continue to take their toll on the community. It's taken a lot of hard work to convince some of the current generation to take part in the old Mardi Gras ways.  But the skeletons are back, I'm told, scaring kids into good behavior.  The Grim Reaper visits in many forms.

I've also heard that all of this stuff is told very well in a documentary called "All on a Mardi Gras Day," which I haven't seen yet.  But this afternoon the New Orleans National Jazz Park is putting on a full afternoon of activities under that same title, including a performance by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, in full Indian regalia.  Then tonight at Tipitina's it's a double bill of the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, probably the two best-known Mardi Gras Indian bands around. 

Last word on this non-CB stuff: tonight's the night of the Krewe du Vieux parade, run by a bunch of people who want to keep the tradition of completely sardonic, sarcastic, and mocking Mardi Gras parades alive.  Over-the-top political satire, and costumes and single-entendres that would have made Bo Carter blush.  I would like to describe the parade costume that one of my dance buddies will be wearing this evening, but will hold back in the name of keeping this site family-friendly. if you're interested.  Also, has some streaming video from last year's parade, keep following its Mardi Gras links 'til you find it.


Another little scenario that makes me glad I'm spending some time in the deep south.?

I'd be surprised if y'all didn't know the story of Storyville, especially Congo Square, in what is now called Armstrong Park, right on the edge of the French Quarter.? For a couple of years near the turn of the 20th century, people known as Free Blacks gathered at Congo Square every Sunday to practice rituals that had been brought over from Africa. A big part of the Sunday activities was drumming.? I've read descriptions of dozens of men getting into a drum groove that could be heard a mile away, surrounded by scores of dancers working themselves into a frenzy, an enormous emotional and physical release for people who went back to their menial and manual jobs the following morning.? These gatherings planted seeds in lots of future musicians who would translate the Congo Square energy into snare and bass drums, banjos, trumpets, trombones, and call it jass.

I got a taste of Congo Square about 10 days ago, and heard a lot of flatted fifths and sevenths to go along with the drumming that reminded me of the real roots of the blues.? It was Super Sunday, one of only two days in the whole year that Mardi Gras Indians come out to strut their stuff, sing a cappella call-and-response chants that sound like Africa and New Orleans R&B at the same time.? There are still over 30 tribes in New Orleans, vestiges of a time when slaves who had been born in small African villages escaped from their masters and took off for the nearby swamps, where the Choctaws and other local tribes welcomed them and made them part of their families.? Over many decades, those who returned to city life took their knowledge of Indian costumes and headdresses, supercharged them with beads and feathers and rhinestones and Haitian/African sensibilities, and created costumes that look like these, at Lots of other links on the same topic at

If you're the Big Chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, you're expected to make one of these costumes every 12 months.? These days a chief might spend up to $10,000 and who-knows-how-many hours making ornate images with needle, thread, and thousands of beads.? The costumes are breathtaking, literally, for the wearers.? They can weigh up to 40-50 pounds (proving the strength of the Big Chiefs), and they must be worn for 8-10 hours on two occasions: Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday. Both entail long parades in southeast Louisiana humidity.

All of the top-name brass bands in New Orleans, Rebirth, Treme, L'il Rascals, Soul Rebels, take part in this parade for free.? Actually, there's no central organization here, all the Indian tribes simply know that on Super Sunday they're gonna gather at the corner of Jeff Davis Parkway and Orleans Ave. and show off their costumes and dance and drink out of paper bags and have their pictures taken.? If they're up to it, a few will have mock gang fights, in which the main purpose is to prove who has the better costume and who can outstrut the competition.? I'm told that these battles used to elevate very quickly into fist-and-knife fights, but a Big Chief named Tootie Montana organized a gathering of tribes in the 1970s or 80s and got everyone to promise that they'd keep the peace from then on.

The brass bands are driven by snare and bass drums that by themselves are enough to make an entire neighborhood shake its collective booty.? But a handful of younger participants, wanting to inject a greater sense of Africa into Super Sunday, now bring their djembes and dun-duns and congas and resurrect the spirit of Congo Square.? The result: a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon with maybe 2,000 people swaying and dancing on the grass alongside Bayou St. John.? Walk about 50 feet from the hand drumming and you enter another circle of sound that's dominated by trumpets and snare drums.? Go 50 feet in another direction and you enter a different circle that's filled with call-and-response singing.? Lots of different versions of Pocky-a-Way, Feet's Don't Fail Me Now, Little Liza Jane, and other staples of the Mardi Gras Indian and Brass Band songbooks.? Not a single guitar, but you know you're immersed in some serious blues roots.

All that dancing makes a body hungry and thirsty.? For $5 I got a grilled porkchop between two slices of Wonder Bread and a bottle of Heineken.? No ketchup, no mustard, no tomato, no lettuce, just a chop with the bone trimmed off and two slices of white bread.? PTCBW chefs, take note.

Super Sunday was great, a chance for the Black New Orleans community to come together to celebrate its origins.? I saw lots of young kids learning songs and getting lessons in tambourine playing from their grandfathers.? Even kids who were decked out head-to-toe in hip-hop and gangsta garb and who looked like they had wandered into Super Sunday by mistake were taken in by the party, discovering an alternative version of cool that they could relate to.? Then everyone gravitated to Orleans Ave. and started a parade, no organizers, no one telling one group that they were #4 and had to wait for group #3 to go ahead of them.? We marched past one of the city's hardest public housing projects and made a left onto Claireborne Ave, the heart of the New Orleans Black community since the Civil War. The dancing and struttin' and second-lining went on for 2-3 hours.? Then the Indian chiefs took off their headdresses and costumes, and all of them were absolutely soaked to the bone, looking like they had just stepped out of a shower.? And they carefully folded the suits, maybe never to be worn again, and started taking long, slow, well-earned pulls off of Budweiser tall boys that someone was passing out.? The Big Chiefs have a little less than 11 months to put together new suits for the next occasion, 2005 Mardi Gras.

If you want to see all this for yourself, Super Sunday is usually two weekends after Fat Tuesday.? It's always the weekend after St. Joseph's Day, an important saint's day for Italians, celebrated by African descendants dressed up as North American Indians.


This may be one of those "you had to be there yourself" stories, but I'll try to tell it anyway.  Actually, this is about something I came across in Ponchatoula, an hour and change northwest of New Orleans, on the opposite side of Interstate 55 from Tickfaw.

I'd been told that the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival was one of the better small-town festivals in this part of the state.  It looked like it had a pretty good cajun/blues/swing lineup for the music stage, and promises of big plates of boiled crawfish and shortcake, more than enough to entice me.  Parked the car about a mile from downtown, started walking, and my friend (an art collector) saw the words "Folk Art" on a sign in front of an antique store (Ponchatoula is equally famous for antiques and strawberries). She said "Gotta check it out."

We weren't too impressed at first sight, lots of run-of-the-mill antiques and furniture, but an incredibly blond high school lass came over and told us that the store was also a gallery for local artists to show their work, and suggested that we snoop around in the back.  What we found was country blues heaven, pure and simple.

The big 100 x 100 foot square warehouse-type studio space was filled with paintings of blues, jazz, and plantation scenes, and a smaller room in one corner of the studio was filled with portrait paintings of Charley Patton, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson . . . plus Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Clifton Chenier, Armede Ardoin, and a long list of jazz, zydeco, and cajun masters. 

All of the images were painted on pieces of scrap wood taken from 19th or early 20th century farmhouses either falling apart on their own or being torn down near the studio.  The full-length Son House portrait was painted on one part of a pair of French doors.  The John Hurt portrait was painted on a big chunk of an old barn door.  Skip James' face appeared on a section of laths that still had chunks of the original plaster hanging on them, the artist had simply incorporated the plaster into the painting.  A young Muddy Waters was painted on some old wooden window shutters.  Blind Willie McTell was painted on what used to be the front door of a house.  Ma Rainey's face appeared on a side table. On a big 'ol piece of what used to be the side of a house or barn or shed was a painting of that famous photo of someone playing harmonica into a hand-held mic next to his partner on drums, with "King Biscuit Time" painted on the bass drum. 

I was speechless at first, then started telling my friend about who this was, who belonged to that face, why so-and-so was so revered.  The gallery manager overheard us and went around the back and called in the artist--William Hemmerling.  As far as his personality and spirit goes, he is the equal of John Hurt and John Jackson, very gentle, very open, very soft-spoken, takes his time with his words. He had to drop out of school before the 7th grade.  He retired to Ponchatoula 10 years ago, and only started painting 5 years ago, and thankfully he hasn't had any teachers to mess up his technique. All of the images I saw are ones that I'm sure all of you would recognize immediately, they're all taken from old photos that we've seen again and again.  He makes one portrait a day.  We had a great conversation about how it's really easy to feel the presence of the old blues guys when you're driving from Cleveland, Mississippi northward through the delta.

I found out that for the past ten years he's basically been living in an old farmhouse, sleeping on a sofa until one month ago, when he gave in and let someone buy him a mattress.  Not a bed, mind you, just  a mattress.  He seems completely uninterested in money, although his paintings go for anywhere from $500 to $1500, and I saw two of them being purchased in the 45 minutes I spent in the gallery.  The gallery owner told me that William drove a 1960's model car until last year, when he had enough money from his art to buy a 10-year-old car, but the gallery owner also said that she's only seen him drive it two or three times at most, down to the Winn-Dixie to buy some groceries. 

As you can imagine, William Hemmerling does not maintain a website.  Fortunately, someone in nearby Hammond, Louisiana has a picture of William and one page of thumbnails of his work on the web.  Unfortunately, while those paintings have blues themes, none of them are the portraits of country blues artists that completely blew me away on Sunday.  But if you look on this page:

and look in the background, you'll recognize a portrait of Leadbelly to the right, and over William's left shoulder you'll see a painting that has a tin can and a piece of wood representing a guitar neck glued to the canvas--that's a painting of Blind Willie McTell.  You'll see a painting of the body of a guitar and a guitar neck to the left, if you could see the whole painting you'd see Mississippi John Hurt.  Below the photograph is a link to the thumbnails.  Check it out, I particularly like the one in the lower left-hand corner entitled "Sugar Shack." (I also think that there's some semblance between the artist and Peter McCracken, but I may be going a little too far.)

Well, I guess you had to be there, but it was an amazing, unexpected discovery for me.  You'll have to travel to Ponchatoula to see his work with your own eyes, although it sounds as though William will be showing some of his paintings in Memphis, and he'll have a booth at the International Festival de Louisiane in Lafayette the weekend of April 21-25 (an exceptionally fine festival; Corey Harris will be playing there this year,



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