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One More Song

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

Allen Toussaint did not need this event. Legends, after all, can pick and choose where they go and what they do. He has played in fine halls throughout the world; sat in front of grand pianos; been accompanied by big name singers, some of whom, as the ultimate sign of his success, sang his songs.

Yet on this June afternoon in 2012, Toussaint was performing in a parking lot on a makeshift stage using an electric keyboard. He had accepted a request to play at a hastily put together fundraiser for employees of The Times-Picayune who had recently learned they were losing their jobs as part of the newspaper’s downsizing.

Somehow the parking lot of Rock ’n’ Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue seemed to have the right karma for the moment. To be able to rock while bowling may be a prescription for life given whatever curative powers song has; mentally the pins create obstacles that are set, only to be knocked away, if only we stay clear of the gutters.

Toussaint’s arrival had thus far been the highlight of the event as his not so subtle Rolls Royce (with a license plate that said “piano”) came to a stop.

His portfolio of songs was so large that he certainly has something to fit the mood for each occasion, though it was not clear what this situation called for. Certainly “Working in the Coal Mines” would be too melodramatic; “Southern Nights” too sentimental, besides it was still daylight. It only took a few notes though for those in the crowd who knew Toussaint’s music to realize which way he was going. His song for this hardship occasion began with a happy bounce to which it was impossible not to sway while listening.

“I can’t eat
And I can’t sleep
Since you walked out on me, yeah.
Holy cow, what you doing, child?
Holy cow, what you doing, child?
What you doing, what you doing, child?
Holy smoke, well, it ain’t no joke hey, hey, hey.”

“Holy Cow!” a Toussaint creation, had been recorded by many groups, most famously in 1966 by New Orleans R&B singer Lee Dorsey. Its message was perfect as the protagonist lamented being wronged by another party. In this case, the crowd knew, it was the Newhouses that had walked out on them. And then the message got even more personal:

“First my boss
The job I lost
Since you walked out on me, yeah.
Holy smoke, what you doing to me?
Walking the ledge
Nerves on edge
Since you walked out on me, yeah .
Holy cow, what you doing to me, child?”

Within the audience, swaying with the music, there were many people whose nerves were on edge as they faced an uncertain future.

When Allen Toussaint died last month he was remembered for being one of the city’s contemporary geniuses. That he was. He was also a genuinely good person. That day in the parking lot, that’s what mattered the most.

 

 

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