In Exile on Main Street
They say that in New Orleans is to be found a mixture of all the nations … But in the midst of this confusion what race dominates and gives direction to all the rest?
—Alexis de Tocqueville
New York—that unnatural city where everyone is an exile, none more so than the American…
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In August 2005 the worst hurricane to hit the United States in a hundred years devastated the city of New Orleans. Eventually, the levees that held back the sea broke, much of the city was flooded, and thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods. At the height of the evacuation, 1.3 million people left the state. In Louisiana, more than 1,500 people lost their lives from the effects of the flood. It was a catastrophe of biblical proportions.
Musically, New Orleans, the city where jazz was invented, has always been a vortex of creativity. The late Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Professor Longhair, and the very much alive Wynton Marsalis are among its distinguished sons, as is Little Richard. Mahalia Jackson and R&B giant Irma Thomas also hailed from New Orleans.
Perhaps the most notorious and illustrious of New Orleans’s singers, songwriters, and piano men is Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. His mix of jazz, blues, rock, pop, and Creole genres conjures up all the magic of Mardi Gras, as well as Hoodoo and Voodoo, two entangled, African-derived folk religions that still live underground in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this once French and still largely Catholic city, gloriously misruled under its own very un-American Napoleonic code of law. Not surprisingly, many residents of New Orleans have ghost stories to tell.
The musical influence of this city has been historically disproportionate to the number of musicians who have lived and worked there. But Katrina may reduce their numbers even further. It is estimated that from among the city’s 4,500 musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, social club members, and all those people who ethnomusicologists call “tradition-bearers,” more than 1,500 had to leave the city, while an equal number had to relocate to different parts of town. Many of them had been living in low-rent but culture-rich neighborhoods like Treme, and as they try to return, either they cannot rebuild or they find that rents have skyrocketed and they must move on. The city’s musicians’ union has lost scores of members who are now inactive.
Culturally essential informal parades, street-level jam sessions, and spontaneous performances that are not staged for the benefit of tourists—the real musical culture of New Orleans—may soon disappear. Unlike the thousands of unemployed health workers who have been lured out of state by offers of higher pay, very few local musicians can afford to pick up and leave. They are the ones who did not emigrate, who do not get paid the mega-bucks that the bigger names do, yet who are the “cultural core” of the city. Given that the city’s now-collapsed tourist economy was focused on these musicians, many of this creative class are now exiles in their own homes.
To get a better understanding of the prospects of the musicians of New Orleans from one of their own, I spent some time with New York–based singer Tami Lynn, a woman born and raised in New Orleans. Despite a successful international career as a solo and backup singer for many of the biggest names in the music business, her personal and professional life remains embedded amongst musicians who hail from New Orleans.
Over dinner at her favorite local eatery in TriBeCa, she told me, “There is just no doubt at all that Katrina was a disaster for the musicians of New Orleans, especially the poor ones. But even those who did well often lost their houses, guys like Fats Domino. Lots of musicians and studios lost instruments, sheet music, master tapes, and all sorts of stuff that you just can’t replace. But they were lucky. Toussaint, Battiste, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., the Marsalis family—they are all dug in here and do not have to go back to make a living. Most went back and forth by choice but that may change.
“After the flood I was so emotionally devastated that I didn’t go back for a while, but soon after I had to, ’cause my mom was sick, the place she used to live in had been flooded, and I brought her to live with me and my husband here in Greenwich Village until she passed away a few weeks back. Now, I tell you: that is what a proper girl from New Orleans is supposed to do. I took care of my mom the way she took care of me. It kept me home almost every day for six years, but I don’t regret a minute of the time and attention I gave her. That’s how Momma and my dearest auntie raised me.”
Tami gives me her most winning smile and digs into her plate of shrimp. She is one of the warmest people I know. She has concentric circles of close friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who are constantly calling her, and she has a million amusing stories to tell about the music business. (Once, when sharing a stage with Miles Davis, he aggressively approached her and said, “Bitch, come here.” Tami gave him a brief look, ignored him, and thought to herself, “What is wrong with that young man?”) Yet she listens as much as she talks (and sings), and is always willing to help a friend in need.
Tami is on a first-name basis with any number of rock stars but displays no attitude. She has shared the stage, sung, or recorded with the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Sonny and Cher, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ringo Starr, Al Green, Joe Cocker, Sam Cooke, Willie Bobo, Mark Isham, Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and many more. She tells me, “There are times when I ask myself, ‘Did I really sing that? Was I really on that album?’ And then I ask myself, ‘Who is this Tami Lynn anyways?’ I never stop questioning myself.”
Close relatives say that Tami was singing around the house from the time she was three. Like her mother and aunt, she sang in the church and school choir. As her mom and auntie were raised Catholics but later became Baptists, she sang Gregorian chants in Latin while absorbing and later singing hymns and spirituals in the Baptist church. At school she landed a part in the New Orleans–inspired Broadway musical Showboat, and on a whim her mom asked her to sit in for an absentee musician at a local club, which brought her in contact with professional performers.
As a teenager she came to the attention of former schoolmate Alan Toussaint as well as Harold Battiste, and began to perform in and around New Orleans. “I was an innocent teenage girl when all this happened. I didn’t drink or smoke. My mom and auntie were keeping an eye on me and they told the musicians, ‘You will protect Tami—no drinking, smoking, or carousing.’ And gentlemen till the end, they would lock me in my hotel room while they went out carousing.”
When Harold Battiste started AFO records (All for One, based on a reading of Dumas’s Three Musketeers), Tami met Dr. John, and she has sung on almost every one of his albums to date. Soon afterward she met the late Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, when she sang at a D.J. convention. “You know, Jerry was a jewel, but I am embarrassed to say when he offered me my first contract I told him, ‘I don’t want be a professional singer, I want to be a speech therapist for retarded children.’ He laughed and said, ‘If you do not take this opportunity people will think you are retarded.’ Of course I eventually signed, and that brought me to New York to live.”
“You see, back then we grew up with family as neighbors, neighbors became family. I can honestly say that Alan, Harold, and Mac [Dr. John] are like brothers to me. As a matter of fact, when my mom passed away, Mac called me up and offered to help, ’cause he knows that so many of the bogus insurance policies that used to be sold in New Orleans are often not worth the paper they were written on. Luckily, the one I had for my Mom’s was, and I am blessed to say I sang at her funeral, as did much of my family and musical friends. And when Mac was in Brooklyn last month I sang at his gig.
“I love living here,” she continues, “but I was happiest in England. I had a hit song there and I was treated very, very nicely. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had played with Dr. John on one of his albums in 1971, so eventually Mac called me to do a song on the Stones album Exile on Main Street. I spent a full day and night working with Micky and Keith. They knew what they wanted, but they also let us do our thing. But at the time, the gal I was singing with couldn’t quite get it or them. They did not look like the men we thought were attractive. She kept on telling me, ‘Shit, look at those guys, look at the way they dress, shit, weird, are they really guys?’ But I will tell you, Exile is one fine album and ‘Let It Loose’ is one fine song. I really enjoyed that one.”
When I asked Tami about the future of the musicians of New Orleans she said, “Katrina was a backhanded compliment to the big names from New Orleans, ’cause we played a lot of benefits. But the poor musicians who are left behind and can’t do what I have done, I worry for them and their families.”
When I asked her what her next project will be, she said, “I get calls every week, and I am always needed as a backup singer on albums and at gigs. So whoever is in need, there I am. You see, when I was a kid I was an only child but we had lots of visitors, most of them living, but one evening a ghost walked by the house.
“One visitor told me, ‘Young lady, one day you are going to be a fine singer.’ I still find it hard to believe that that lady was Mahalia Jackson, not some ghost. Man, could she sing. My uncle, who was also musical, at the time told me, ‘Honey if you can’t sing those “How Long” songs you ain’t never gonna be a real singer.’ You know, it may just be the time to take a break from rock, funk, and soul and explore those early blues. This is not a time when people have a lot of money. I suspect a lot of people really do have the blues these days. Yeah, I could take a shot at that.”