The Music According to Gwen Thompkins
Elizabeth Perrin Photograph
Gliding through traffic my car radio yielded the soft, mellifluous cadences of Allen Toussaint discussing Bright Mississippi – an album high in the New Orleans canon. The light was red at Carrollton and Washington avenues when Toussaint gave credit to his producer. Musicians do this all the time in talking about their recordings, like politicians thanking wives. WWNO interviewer Gwen Thompkins had the journalistic smarts to probe. From the transcript:
Allen: “Joe Henry, I must say, he is the one that chose those songs in particular and I’m so glad he did because a couple of them, I had never heard before.”
Gwen: “Like what?”
Allen: “Well, I had never heard ‘West End Blues’ before.”
Gwen: “I don’t believe you.”
Her “I don’t believe you” illuminates a large point. “West End Blues” may be the ultimate classic of early jazz. And here you have the 75-year-old prince of rhythm and blues, the composer who imbued such memorable poetry into his lyrics (“lipstick traces on a cigarette, every memory lingers with me yet”) confessing that he had never heard the Louis Armstrong gem until Joe Henry put him up to it. On that point the edit segues into Armstrong’s imperial opening cadenza to “West End Blues” – a billowing stream of sheer beauty. On the last note, Thompkins tucks in Nicholas Payton’s understated, entirely elegant version from the song on Bright Mississippi. Nice, supple editing: from Toussaint’s blissful ignorance to Armstrong soaring unto Nicholas in echoing emulation.
Epiphanies color Gwen Thompkins’ program “Music Inside Out,” as when John Boutté sings a cappella. “Most performers are nervous about their unadorned voices,” Thompkins tells me. “Boutté sounds as good or better as he does with a full band.”
The program’s hour long format affords lots of music and intelligent exchanges in the stories she draws out of her subjects. This is radio at its best, and another sign of WWNO’s emergence as a major institution of New Orleans. We never had a national PBS series of music performance. “Music Inside Out” adheres to the first law of radio: make it sound like people talking across the kitchen table. With Toussaint, the program went two hours.
A graduate of Ursuline Academy and Tulane University, Thompkins got her start at The Times-Picayune in 1987 after meeting staff writer Elizabeth Muellner. “That conversation saved me about $100,000 in law school debt and a lifetime of misery,” she chuckles.
Thompkins grew up in Pontchartrain Park with her parents and two sisters. “My mother, Gloria, liked the show offs and the showstoppers – the folks who made you run to the TV because they were so beautiful or fun to watch: the Supremes, Pearl Bailey, the Miracles, Little Richard, Louis Armstrong and James Brown. She was also a big Tom Jones fan. But then, who wasn’t?”
“My dad, Tommy, liked the jazz singers and musicians who played concert halls – Count Basie, Lester Young, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ray Charles and others. ... Later on he even got into the Eagles’ greatest hits.”
In 1996 Thompkins moved to Washington and got a job on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” with Scott Simon. Several years later she became NPR’s East Africa correspondent.
“For the American ear, East Africa isn’t half as interesting musically as West Africa with all those incredible rhythms and instruments so closely tied to jazz and blues,” she continues. “My beat ran from Djibouti – at the Gulf of Yemen – down to Mozambique, including Sudan, the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, and sometimes South Africa. That’s like 10 or 11 countries, so I was on the move about two weeks out of every month.”
“People say that just because Somolians don’t have a working national government they’re walking around confused,” Thompkins continues. “They are incredible business people and artists. Somalia has the best and most affordable cell phone service on the continent ... The music has a lot of soul in it, strong beats, seductive, not exactly hip hop but hippety hoppety.”
She found the beats of Congo music contagious for dancing. “Hip shaking is an art form there – dramatic, exact and full of attitude,” she reports. “I saw a line of majorettes perform at the opening of a road near the Zambian border and each and every one of those girls danced better than anyone I’d ever seen. Ever. Then I went to northern Sudan on a story about the secret dances that brides perform on their wedding nights. Lawdy. Those women make Beyoncé look like she’s got a slipped disc in her back and a limp!”
Thompkins took CDs for her house/bureau in Nairobi, Kenya – Armstrong, Sinatra, Ella, Basie, Ellington, Aretha, Stevie – the usual suspects. “East Africans love country music,” she discloses in a pivot to irony. “Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Don Williams were like royalty there.”
In 2011, after a year at Harvard as a Neiman fellow, she moved back to the house in Pontchartrain Park where she grew up, which her father had repaired after Hurricane Katrina. After 16 years away, she found the music fertile with possibilities.
WWNO is working to syndicate “Music Inside Out” to other NPR stations. “If people can fall in love with a radio show from Lake Woebegon, there’s no reason why they can’t fall in love with us from here,” says Thompkins. “This city and this region are ‘the giving tree’ of American music. Let us grow.”
“This is the beauty – and the problem – with living in New Orleans. At any given moment, life and death change places with each other when you least expect it. And try as you may to control what you let enter your life, you never know what’s waiting around the corner that will either thrill you – or level you on the ground.” – Deborah Cotton, The Gambit blogger who was shot while parading in the Mother’s Day second line, from her 2007 book, Notes from New Orleans