Hurricane Katrina remains a compelling subject for many reasons, one of which is the sheer scope and nature of the flood damage that followed it. No one imagined such destruction in a major American city, and it remains hard to process. Musicians, understandably, tried to do so through music, and while some some succeeded, others missed the mark.
Many musical first responders from around the country will remain charitably nameless. Soon after the storm, they recorded sympathetic songs with better intentions than results.
Epic outrage found expression in a cavalcade of clichés and overwrought lines. Typical was the singer who rewrote the classic “City of New Orleans” to include the lines, “Bourbon Street is one big grave / thousands of lives could not be saved / due to our nation’s leader who has no brain.”
Anders Osborne muted the anger in his “Katrina” by likening the storm, in classic blues fashion, to a woman who did her man wrong. That made his song about an astonishing event sound conventional, and blaming a woman for post-Katrina devastation felt unkind, even when she’s only a metaphor.
Cowboy Mouth’s “The Avenue” did better by focusing on a specific potential loss — Mardi Gras on St. Charles Avenue — but Fred LeBlanc pulled the heartstrings like a gorilla yanking his cage bars when he sang, “My best friend’s house lies beneath / the teardrops God has bequeathed.” LeBlanc seemingly got lost in the drama and imagined a flood that God cries, not to see, but to cause — a thought more in line with those who considered Katrina to be divine judgment than LeBlanc intended.
Perhaps it’s unfair to ask songwriters to keep a song together for four minutes when many New Orleanians struggled to do that in their lives.
James Andrews’ “One, Two, What You Gonna Do” nailed what was at stake with a single line: “They put FEMA trailers on the Indian grounds.” Susan Cowsill’s “Crescent City Snow” articulated the importance of home when she sang, “I want to go back to the place where I know who I am.”
Songwriters who told of individuals’ experiences were the most effective. New Orleans-born Nashville resident Mary Gauthier’s song “Can’t Find the Way” trusts simple language and human details to hint at the storm’s emotional aftermath.
“The levee broke, the water came / rose all the way up to my roof. / I crawled up there and cried / What else could I do?”
5th Ward Weebie’s “Katrina Song” — also known by a less printable name — expressed his outrage at FEMA and government response. In addition to being bounce’s first response to the devastation, Weebie employed bounce’s tradition of shout-outs to neighborhoods as a way to catalog loss. “6th Ward’s empty / 5th Ward’s through / Calliope and Iberville / ain’t a thing we can do,” he rapped.
Much of the music that spoke to the post-Katrina experience already existed and was repurposed for the occasion. Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” became an anthem performed by many musicians, including Marcia Ball, John Boutte and Newman himself.
New Orleans’ conspiracy-mindedness, combined with rumors of blown levees and the reality of shoddy ones made the song’s chorus, “They’re trying to wash us away,” a feel-good, paranoid sing-along.
John Boutte also covered Annie Lennox’s “Why?” on “Sing Me Back Home,” a 2006 album of covers sung by New Orleans artists backed by The New Orleans Social Club — a composite band that included George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville and Henry Butler.
Lennox’s song has nothing to do with disasters, but each time Boutte sang the haunting, drawn out “Why” in the chorus, he asked all the questions on New Orleanians’ minds with a single word.
In December 2005, producers Mark Bingham and Hal Wilner released “Our New Orleans,” an album with tracks by Dr. John, Eddie Bo, and The Wild Magnolias, among others.
At a time when craven politicians were questioning the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, both albums showed them what would be lost. On “Our New Orleans,” Allen Toussaint did so elegantly with “Tipitina and Me,” which movingly transposed the Professor Longhair classic to a minor key, while Irma Thomas showed her brilliance as a blues singer on Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues.”
On the first anniversary of the storm, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band released “What’s Going On,” which interpreted song for song Marvin Gaye’s classic album. The album’s best moment comes when Bettye Lavette sings “What’s Happening Brother,” as someone just back in town trying to make small talk as if nothing happened.
She can’t keep it light. The reality of the situation can’t be ignored. No amount of swagger or game could insulate us from uncertainty in the new New Orleans.