In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part I – South to Memphis
I don’t know how it started. It just did. After many trips home, and many beers with our feet on the brass at MacNiven’s, my Dad must’ve grown tired of hearing me harp on about Louis Armstrong, that Dixie sound, W.C. Handy, the residents of Dockery Plantation, Charlie Patton and his party tricks. I must’ve grown tired of his waxing poetic about the almost viral charm of the Crescent City, how the streets lead to the place you’re meant to be, and how, if you’re not back in three weeks, you must trust someone to bring you back, likely against your will and what the scent of crawfish and pastis has made of your “better judgment”.
So, somehow, it congealed. We would put our money where our mouths are. We would go to New Orleans and we would go the hard way: drinking ourselves down the blues highway, Highway 61, subsisting on glove box power bars, gas station coffee, and the best damn barbecue we could find.
For me, it started on a Tuesday. I had a show the night before with my band, Woodrow Hart & The Haymaker (shameless plug). Things went late. What follows are my notes from beginning to end, scribbled in haste during rare moments of rest and transcribed verbatim, along with my attempt to recount and reconstruct, as I now type, fragment by fragment the many less-than-clear, half-remembered moments that fill the gaps in a narrative of what I will recall to friends for many years as a life-changing week.
7 AM: Wake up. 2 hrs sleep. I pack up and get coffee. “Yesterday came late. Today came early,” she says and hands me my joe. Yes. Yes, it did. I drive to Indianapolis with a jug of coffee and the Hooker box locked and loaded.
11:45 AM: Indy – Pep talk with my Dad over yet more coffee (we are both hopelessly addicted). We discuss voodoo, topography, cotton fields, the French Quarter, survival, and a general overview of our trip: Memphis, Clarksdale, Dockery Plantation, Tutwiler, Holly Ridge Cemetery, Vicksburg, New Orleans. We pack the truck.
12:07 PM: We set off for Memphis. Jazz Is Dead on the stereo.
1:25 PM: We stop at a Putnamville truckers’ hub for food, gas etc. A nice young girl has the Subway Sandwich Artist make her what she insists is a healthy sandwich. She is on a diet. It is a grilled chicken, on which the sandwich artist, at the girl’s behest, nearly empties an entire bottle of ranch. I peruse the DVDs.
4:50 PM: First crossing of the Mississippi River. It is muddy, wide, and commanding. There is a single barge floating slowly with the current. This is truly beautiful.
7:01 PM: Memphis. Passing once again over the Mississippi, gleaming in the sunlight, we enter. Trolley cars, horse-drawn carriages ala Cinderella, streetlamps, it is an old city made new.
7:23 PM: We check into our hotel and journey in search of barbecue.
7:45 PM: Good God, do we find it! Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous. We walk down a darkened alley, the air thick with rub and smoke, and enter through the front door, about half a block from any notion of a street. The place is like a southern fried beer hall, all pine and long communal tables, conducive to the kind of drunken feast two starving, road-weary travelers most desire. We order and are quickly served two pitchers, one each, of Ghost River Golden Ale when we hear a commotion. Naturally, we explore. On the other side of a red gingham divider, an Elvis impersonator writhes desperately on the floor, singing a heartfelt but stomach-turning “Heartbreak Hotel”. Over the loudspeaker the hostess calls, “the Acuff party”. We are in Memphis.
Finally, after two more pitchers and innumerable attempts to escape “Elvis” we are seated. A menu at the table reads, “Not since Adam has a rib been this famous.” We each order a full rack and do not speak until it is gone, beans, coleslaw, cornbread and all. It is unanimously declared the best barbecue of our lives. We lean back in our seats, sip the dregs of two more pitchers and decide, against the best wishes of our truck-mangled bodies, that we, with our 3-pitcher-and-full-rack distended guts, are ready for Beale Street.
It is at this point that, for a number reasons, I cease to recognize or record the time for the remainder of the evening, so for the sake of continuity, let’s just call it-
NIGHT: On our way, we stumble on the Peabody Hotel, famous for its peculiar guests: a family of ducks that lives on the roof and commutes, every morning, to a perpetually flowing pond in the hotel’s beautiful, heavily wooded and ornately carved central lobby. We don’t see the ducks. The lobby pianist plays, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It is already the third time since arriving in Memphis that we have heard this song.
We leave, walk further down the street and turn the corner onto a sea of neon. It is Beale Street. We wander past a bronze statue of W.C. Handy numerous signs claiming Beale Street, and Memphis, as “the home of the blues and birthplace of rock and roll.” This, of course, is not fact, but also neither here nor there. We grab two “Beale Street Big Ass Beers” and continue walking, peeking into club after of club of loud, passionate blues, country, and rock music. It is a Tuesday night and the entire place is alive, pulsating with the bump of bass drums and practically flooding the grates with beer, bourbon, and fruity mixed concoctions we will begin to see much more of, but wisely avoid.
We duck into W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall Juke Joint for The Bluesbreakers, whom we agreed was the most promising on the block. They did not disappoint, whipping the crowd into an almost immediate frenzy. Borrowing their name from John Mayall, the band paid tribute to tradition, reverently and selectively. “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Stand By Me”, “Green Onions”, and again, “Dock of the Bay”. At intermission, thoroughly cocked on “Big Ass Beers”, we take the opportunity to look around. The bar is old, seemingly untouched. The only advertisement is for Red Bull, a drink most at home in a place as rowdy as this, where a crowd, as my Dad describes, like “a buncha buttons that fell off a coat and got together.” Mississippi John Hurt wafts down from the stereo, attempting to establish a restful air in the time between what was, and surely will be, a ruckus. We order more “Big Ass Beers”, my Dad tries to dance with some strange, trashy lady and is shot down, and the night fades to black as we look deeply into the PBR for the bottom of our massive plastic cups.
Written by Ben Brundage
**Look out for further detail of Ben’s adventure later this week.
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.