Moulding the Music
Danny Barker in the here and now
Eric Waters photograph
In 1946, the balladeer Danny Barker played guitar and sang four tracks for a short-lived New York label that constitute the first songs of Mardi Gras Indians – a term of no media currency back then. “Indian Red,” has had many reincarnations since.
Barker also sang a paean to a Big Chief’s woman killed in a crossfire, “Corinne Died on the Battlefield,” which Willie T. and Bo Dollis refitted as “Corey Died on the Battlefield” for The Wild Magnolias in 1973.
Another tune, “Chocko Me Feendo Hey,” was popularized in 1954 as “Jockomo” by Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters, and 10 years later as a refrain in “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups. Barker didn’t create the lines but was the first to use them in studio with a long reach back to streets of his youth.
The last song, “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing,” has a simple through-line, about a big fine woman “heading up the Ramp” – meaning Rampart Street – on Mardi Gras Day. The chorus, an up-tempo “who-na-nay,” is straight out of the Indian chants.
Before that session, Barker had done years of rhythm guitar work for bandleaders Luis Russell, Henry “Red” Allen and Cab Calloway in New York. He also wrote songs for his wife, vocalist Blue Lu Barker.
Born in 1909, Danny Barker grew up in a 7th Ward culture of musical families. His maternal grandfather, Isidore Barbarin, was the patriarch of a clan now in its fifth generation of musicians. Barbarin’s son, the drummer Paul Barbarin, was Danny’s uncle and helped him and his young bride move to New York. They lived for a time in an apartment with Paul, the trumpeter Red Allen, and their wives.
“Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing” appears on a new double-CD just released by the GHB label, Danny Barker: New Orleans Jazz Man and Raconteur. We get nice highlights of Barker’s fat chords in the swing band of Jonah Jones (“Stompin’ at the Savoy”); as a sideman for Louis Armstrong (“Back Home in Indiana”) and with Sidney Bechet (“After You’re Gone”).
To say that Mr. Barker had reach is an epic understatement. He also recorded with Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, the Dirty Dozen and, in the 1940s, with Charlie Parker – yes, the Charlie Parker.
On moving back to New Orleans in 1965, he established himself as a lecturer on the music at the Jazz Museum and lured his wife out of retirement, reigniting her career in a duet.
Blue Lu Barker Live at Jazz Fest on Orleans Records is a sweetheart. (Disclosure: I wrote the liner notes, following which Miss Lu gave me a copy of her ’48 publicity still for Capitol Records, inscribed: To Jason, success always.)
In 1970, Barker became a mentor to fledgling musicians in the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Brass Band. The church was a few blocks from their home on Sere Street. The band included as trumpeters Leroy Jones and Gregg Stafford, both bandleaders today, and Herlin Riley, also on trumpet back then before he vaulted to the drummer’s chair with Wynton Marsalis in New York. Gregory Davis who went on as trumpeter with the Dirty Dozen, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and others made careers from the Fairview exposure to Barker.
Raconteur is a too-convenient description. Barker was a priceless storyteller, but truly a griot, a carrier of the culture in music and words. A ninth grade dropout, he wrote three books. A Life in Jazz, his 1986 memoir with Oxford University Press, will be reissued by The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Barker had a supportive role in A Gathering of Old Men, based on Ernest Gaines’s novel. His Orleans Records CD, Save The Bones has a hyper-droll take of “You Got The Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole” and a surreal reimagining of “St. James Infirmary” (white horses tromp into the cemetery for the burial). Barker’s works belong in the music collection of every cultured New Orleanian.
The new anthology is far from the full showcase of his reach and style. A boxed set will one day do Barker justice, but this is more than we have had in one package thus far. Blue Lu appears on “Gulf Coast Blues,” a 1967 cut with Jeannette Kimball on piano and another avuncular presence, Louis Barbarin, on drums.
The liner notes of Danny Barker: New Orleans Jazzman and Raconteur, report that “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing” comes from a 1955 session with different sidemen than the ’46 version. You can hear all four of the seminal Indian songs on Baby Dodds Trio: Jazz A’La Creole, also on GHB, also highly recommended.