Burt Feintuch, author of "Taking New Orleans Music"

Today, we put "Five Questions" to Burt Feintuch, co-author with photographer Gary Samson, of the recent book Talking New Orleans Music: Crescent City Musicians Talk about Their Lives, Their Music, and Their City, available now from University Press of Mississippi. Feintuch has also authored books on Kentucky folk music and the culture of Cape Breton, also with Samson.


You concentrate the book on eleven interviewees — “culture bearers,” as you call them. They’re not strictly musicians, as Dr. Michael White is a cultural historian, as well as a bandleader; Scott Billington has produced many, many records for roots rock stalwart Rounder Records. There’s “first” and “second” generation legends, as well as up-and-comers. So what did your “original target list” look like, and how did you get to this final eleven.

I wouldn’t say that I had a “target list” of musicians for this book. I’ve followed New Orleans music since the 1980s, and Irma Thomas and Walter “Wolfman” Washington are two of the musicians whom I’ve always loved, since first encountering their music back then. The idea for this book came about after my significant other, folklorist Jeannie Thomas, and I were in New Orleans, and we managed to catch Walter Washington in a club. The performance pretty much blew me away, and I left thinking that I really wanted the opportunity to interview him. Gary and I had just published a book of interviews and photographs having to do with music and culture in Cape Breton, in Canada. That desire to interview Walter kind of morphed into the idea of a bigger project, building on the collaborative model Gary and I had developed in that previous project.

If I’d made a list back then, it would have been considerably longer than eleven people—the breadth and depth of local music in New Orleans is staggering. But what I found, as I began, was that most of the interviewees had a great deal to say, and the interviews tended to run longer than I anticipated. So, the book ended up with fewer interviews than I would have predicted, given the word-count restrictions the press gave us. The final eleven are a combination of my own long-standing interests — Irma and Walter, the Zion Harmonizers  my desire to represent the range of the local music, a not fully successful wish for gender balance, a desire to mix well-known and less-famous performers, and sheer happenstance. By “happenstance,” I mean who was available and interested. I regret that I never managed to get an interview with a bounce artist. Likewise, list or no list, I had hoped to interview Allen Toussaint (no surprise there), but that never worked out.

Michael White is a brilliant clarinetist and a wonderfully thoughtful person about the music and the culture, and an important teacher and role model. Scott Billington, while not a New Orleans music performer, is a tremendously important person for the music; his work is a primary reason why many important performers are known beyond the Crescent City. Originally, I had planned, in fact, to do a set of interviews with people who are part of the infrastructure that makes the music possible — perhaps a festival director, a club owner, someone from one of the many important nonprofit organizations that support the music. But the length of the interviews, which turns out to be one of the best things about the book, I’m told, means that Scott was the only one of those to be included. I think his interview is an important document.

In your introduction, you advise the reader to “pay attention to the role of local institutions” — the schools, the marching bands, the nightclubs, and the churches. I found this concept fascinating for a city with such a wild party reputation, but it does make a lot of sense that this kind of “structure” would be in place. Can you talk about that?

I’ve always thought of music as something that people do for and with other people. And, by and large, as someone who studies music-making, I’ve always been drawn to places where music is deeply planted in community life. New Orleans is a terrific example of that. I believe that some of the local organizations, especially the social aid and pleasure clubs, the Mardi Gras Indian gangs (or tribes), some of the high school marching bands, and the churches, are key to understanding how the music works in the lives of members of those communities. And I think that one of the reasons why New Orleans is such a musical hotbed is that those organizations have stayed strong and meaningful in their communities.

If people want to understand and appreciate funky musics in New Orleans, they need to get way past Bourbon Street (and even, these days, Frenchmen Street, where at least some of the clubs have a stronger commitment to music that is of New Orleans), and go to a second line parade, figure out how to see the Indians parade, and experience other events where the music is still embedded in the kinds of community settings where it was created.  I also think that one of the challenges New Orleans faces is refining its musical tourism emphasis so as to provide more benefits to local musicians. To see world-class performers playing with a tip jar in front of them, in front of an audience mostly of tourists, saddens me. The grassroots organizations and events that provide a nurturing environment for the music are very, very important.

What was your working relationship with co-author/photographer Gary Samson like? Did you give him specific parameters? Themes? Subjects? Or just turn him loose? Keep in mind we’ll be asking him the same question as well!

Gary and I go way back, and we’ve worked together on quite a few projects. I think we learn from each other in these enterprises. For this book, we agreed that color photography was the way to go and that we needed good images of each musician—either a formal portrait or in performance — to open each section. We used my knowledge and research to head to events and neighborhoods where we thought there’d be visual interest. We work really well, and comfortably, with each other, and that was all it took. I really enjoyed ambling around the city with Gary, looking for photo opportunities, not to mention our debriefings, often at Markey’s Bar in the Bywater.

America has many great, great musical cities: Chicago, Memphis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Nashville…but they seem more defined by their past history. New Orleans alone seems to be in a constant state of re-invention, while still maintaining a strong sense of history. Why?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t know the answer, but I think it must have to do with New Orleans’ particular historical and cultural development, along with the efforts of a huge number of thoughtful and creative people. On the first part, the benevolent societies somehow played a more important and enduring role in New Orleans than in other cities, and they’ve nurtured the music. Likewise, the very distinctively New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which I see as part of a Caribbean and North American black carnivalesque tradition. Many people have written about the creolization of New Orleans culture and the music that resulted — somehow the community-level appreciation and incentives for music-making stayed strong. Couple that with the work of Allen Toussaint and Cosimo Mattassa, the creation of Jazz Fest, the efforts — with all the thorny issues inherent in this — to use music as a way to help rebuild the city after what many local people call the federal flood, and you begin to develop a story that’s different from many other cities. And today there’s also a strong local infrastructure, with organizations such as the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, the Tipitina’s Foundation, Offbeat magazine, and the Jazz and Heritage Foundation (which grew from Jazz Fest) providing teaching, instruments, and inspiration.

What is the future of New Orleans music?

How about if I say something about what I hope for the future of New Orleans music? I hope that things evolve with the interests of the musicians and their communities at the center, so that musicians can support themselves and their families, and so that communities can still claim to be the incubators for music that reflects social, cultural, and historical connections. I hope that gentrification doesn’t turn down the volume on the music. I hope that tourism brings plenty of benefit to the city and the musicians, but I also hope that it doesn’t corral the music in one part of town, turning it into a theme park.

Gary and I were talking, a few years ago, to a staff member at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which provides after-school music lessons and academic support for under-served kids. I asked what instrument most kids wanted to play. My guess is that in most cities the answer would be the guitar. In New Orleans, it’s the trumpet. I think that so long as kids say that, people in New Orleans are likely to have the pleasure, and privilege, of being able to dance to their own music.


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