A Flood of Emotion in a Song
By GEOFFREY HIMES
IN the nearly three years since the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, you haven’t had to wait very long at a Louisiana festival or nightclub before a singer croons, “What has happened down here is the winds have changed.” That’s the opening line of “Louisiana 1927,” which has become the state’s unofficial anthem in the wake of the 2005 tragedy.
Written by Randy Newman in the mid-1970s about a flood that covered a good deal of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana half a century earlier, the song climaxes with its plaintive, singalong chorus, “Loo-eez-ee-ann-a, they’re tryin’ to wash us away.”
The song’s lament of being battered once by nature and again by a callous government had resonated with flood-ravaged audiences from New Orleans to Lake Charles well before 2005. Then Katrina came, and Mr. Newman seemed downright clairvoyant.
“For a long time after Katrina,” said Marcia Ball, a Louisiana-born blues singer, “there just wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I did that song.” While Katrina inspired many songs, she said, this one became the anthem because it has “one of those simple, irresistible Randy Newman melodies and lyrics that were so real. In truth, so many people did get washed away.”
“Louisiana 1927” is more than an anthem, however; it’s also a modern-day folk song that gains new lyrics as singers adapt it to new circumstances.
Ms. Ball tweaked the lyrics for her 1997 version, which she will perform on Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Before the weekend is done, other interpretations of the song should also be sung by the Wild Magnolias, John Boutté and, in their first Jazzfest appearance since Katrina, the Neville Brothers. And on Thursday afternoon Mr. Newman himself will return to the festival to sing his original words.
“It’s a New Orleans tradition that you can take any music and mess with it,” said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. The key lyric is “They’re tryin’ to wash us away,” he said, because it is applicable to most periods of New Orleans history. “It captures that feeling that you’re trying to cling on to your culture, to your life, in the face of this wave of indifference, of racism, of malevolence and of water itself.”
Mr. Newman, 64, may be closely associated with his hometown, Los Angeles (he wrote the tongue-in-cheek tribute, “I Love L.A.”), but he has roots in Louisiana. His mother grew up in New Orleans, and he lived there over several summers and while his father was in the Army during World War II.
“There were these horrendous things — those signs with ‘Colored’ on one side and ‘White’ on the other,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But I always loved the pop music. I was so influenced by Fats Domino that it’s still hard for me to write a song that’s not a New Orleans shuffle.”
His fascination with Louisiana led him to books about the state’s legendary governor Huey Long, known as the Kingfish, who used the 1927 flood to stoke rural resentment against the big-city bosses and to win his first term the next year.
As John M. Barry wrote in “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” (1997), the most powerful businessmen in New Orleans illegally dynamited levees to make sure the city stayed dry.
Mr. Newman’s research led to “Louisiana 1927″ (as well as “Kingfish”) on his 1975 album, “Good Old Boys” (Reprise). He delivered the story with an understated detachment, as if he were a hard-bitten newspaperman or a fatalistic farmer.
Aaron Neville, who was born and raised in New Orleans, heard about the song from his frequent duet partner Linda Ronstadt, a longtime friend of Mr. Newman’s. He recorded the tune for his 1991 album, “Warm Your Heart” (A&M), and his approach was anything but understated.
Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, he sang with all the drama of someone standing in water up to his thighs. Because he has a much better vocal instrument than Mr. Newman, Mr. Neville could exploit the melodic rise of “Louisiana, Louisiana” in the chorus and the melodic collapse of “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.”
And because he was closely identified with New Orleans in a way that Mr. Newman never was, he gave that chorus a first-person authenticity.
“When I watched the Katrina coverage on CNN,” he said, “I’d see people on the roofs that I knew. I said: ‘Damn, when’s the cavalry coming? The cavalry comes every time, why not now?’
‘When I used to sing that song, it was about something that happened a long time ago. Now when I sing it, it’s about something that happened to me and my family, so it’s a lot more real.”
He predicts that “Louisiana 1927” will be the emotional peak of the Neville Brothers’ festival-closing set on May 4.
Gradually Mr. Neville’s version of the song became a standard among the black residents of New Orleans. In 1996 Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias recorded “Louisiana 1927” for their album “1313 Hoodoo Street.”
The Wild Magnolias, who perform May 4 at Jazzfest, are Mardi Gras Indians, that New Orleans tradition of African-Americans who dress in elaborate costumes of feathers and beads. Mr. Dollis changed the lyrics to “River had busted clear down the canal line, six feet of water on the streets of the Lower Nine.”
That’s a reference to the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that was famously demolished in Katrina but which also suffered serious flooding from Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Mr. Dollis had lived through Betsy, and he asked his band’s manager, Glenn Gaines, help him write a new version about that flood.
They even added a verse contrasting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Vic Schiro, the city’s segregationist mayor at the time. “Bo started describing to me how the water came through like a freight train, how in a matter of minutes people lost what they’d worked for their whole lives,” Mr. Gaines said. “Of course, it was the poor black folks who suffered the most. That’s why we put Martin Luther King in there.”
The Wild Magnolias’ recording was the first hint that “Louisiana 1927” was becoming a folk song. And since Katrina the song has been recorded by Willie Nelson, the British folk singer Martin Simpson, the zydeco accordionist Terrance Simien, the R&B singer Howard Tate and the jam band the String
Mr. Newman himself re-recorded the song with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for the post-Katrina benefit album “Our New Orleans 2005″ (Nonesuch).
But the song’s most dramatic recasting was by Mr. Boutté during his memorable set at Jazzfest in 2006. Backed by horns and a rhythm section and wearing a straw hat with the front brim turned up, he sang Mr. Newman’s lyrics straight through once, then changed things around.
The line “Clouds roll in from the north” became “Clouds rolled in from the Gulf.” The line “President Coolidge come down in a railroad train/with a little fat man with a notepad in his hand” became “President Bush flew over in an aeroplane/with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hands.”
“The city had been empty, but the whole world would be coming for Jazzfest,” Mr. Boutté recalled. “We’d have a soapbox to talk about our loss and about the unconcern others had for us. But I had to find the right song.”
His friend Paul Sanchez of the rock band Cowboy Mouth suggested “Louisiana 1927.” As Mr. Boutté rehearsed it, he unconsciously changed “crackers” to “Creoles” and “what the river has done” to “what the levee has done.” When they realized what was going on, the two men decided to rewrite the song.
Mr. Boutté saved it for last at his Jazzfest set, and when he started dropping local references into the lyrics, older women rose from their plastic folding chairs, waving their hands over their heads and egging him on as if they were in church.
“First the women started crying,” recalled Mr. Boutté, who performs at Jazzfest on Friday. “Then the men started crying. Then the children started crying because their parents were crying. Then I started crying. I can’t sing that song too often because it takes too much out of me. It reminds me of the needless loss — and the loss never seems to end.”