The U.S. is still coming to grips with the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated major portions of the Gulf Coast, including the city of New Orleans. The flooding there uprooted lives and destroyed homes, but the evacuation of the city also threatened one of the most vibrant and diverse musical communities in America, perhaps the world.
But the music of New Orleans lives on and can be found on a new CD whose proceeds will benefit Katrina victims. Dixieland jazz, African, Creole, Zydeco, blues and other musical traditions that have blossomed in the "Crescent City" are featured on Our New Orleans.
In "Prayer for New Orleans," trumpeter Charlie Miller recalls the city's bohemian heritage.
One of the producers of Our New Orleans was musical folklorist, Nick Spitzer. He's the host of American Routes, a nationally syndicated radio show broadcast from New Orleans before the floods.
"I think the city is like an old prizefighter," he says. "The count is around eight and there is an awful lot of bruising there. New Orleans will never be quite the same. I think music will bring us together though like it always has. That's one of my reasons for being involved in this record -- to keep the words and music flowing…"
New Orleans' French influence, which dates back to the 18th century, can still be heard in some of the city's diverse freestyle music, as sung by the Cajun chanteuse Carol Fran.
Katrina was far from the first natural disaster to hit New Orleans. The anthology also includes a moving anthem by singer-songwriter Randy Newman chronicling the devastating hurricane and flood of 1927 in which more than 200 people died and 700,000 lost their homes. Irma Thomas, a lady known throughout New Orleans for her soul singing, contributed a tune called "Back Water Blues," written by the legendary Bessie Smith about the same cataclysm.
The 1927 flood prompted the building of the levee system that ultimately failed during Hurricane Katrina. Then, as now, it was the city's poorest neighborhoods, such as the heavily African-American Lower Ninth Ward, that bore the brunt of the fury. Nick Spitzer says Katrina and its aftermath have exposed profound social and economic problems in the city and the region.
"Let's face it. New Orleans was not some progressive plan. It was overseas colonial indentured servitude and enslaved agri-business and mercantilism," he says. "But at the same time, I know that its celebratory and artistic powers will help us transcend those problems in ways that another place couldn't."
That's if all the critical elements that combined to make New Orleans such a fertile place have not been washed away, or dispersed. "The music is so split and scattered and splattered right now," says rhythm and blues artist Doctor John, who has long been a beloved part of the New Orleans scene.
"I rode around New Orleans the other day and I was just so heartbroken looking at the hideous stuff that is going on down there," he says. "Everybody is traumatized, you know. This is our life!"
Doctor John says the New Orleanians suffering the worst trauma may be the tens of thousands of evacuees now living in other cities they do not know, and where many fear they are unwelcome. Their plight is the subject of Dr. John's melancholy song on the "My New Orleans" CD called "World I Never Made."
"They made their little homes in New Orleans and it's gone. Everything about it is gone!" he says.
Well, not everything. Hope - long a staple of New Orleans' culture - is still evident in many residents' determination to rebuild. Radio Producer Nick Spitzer is especially proud of the CD's rendition of the old jazz classic "When the Saints Come Marching In" which he says has acquired new resonance since Katrina.
"It is very much about not just the ancestors and the sainted ones that came before but it's about the people who go out on parade with their twirling hankies and their pumping umbrellas and are affirming life today and hoping that they'll be 'in the number' in the future, that they will be able to celebrate life as well as those who've gone before us."
Our New Orleans, the CD released by Nonesuch Records to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, is just one of several CDs hitting the market this holiday season to commemorate the flood-damaged city of New Orleans - and to help support its recovery.