Every now and then a song comes along that captures a cosmic essence of this grand, betrayed, beaten-down and timeless town, too long mocked by that idiotic bumper sticker “New Orleans: Proud to Call it Home.” If you own that one peel it off your car. The town was a political wreck before Hurricane Katrina and is now a basket case of democracy under the preening narcissist we still call mayor. So. Let us turn from the data of our third-world governance to the topic at hand, Kermit Ruffins’ new CD, Livin’ a Tremé Life, and more specifically, the sterling fourth cut, “Good Morning, New Orleans” – with the final word pronounced à la Satchmo: Or-leens.
In a sunny tone, Ruffins’ trumpet lays out a lazy winding melody to David Torkanowsky’s supple piano work splashing along George Porter’s poetics on bass and Herlin Riley’s drumming in perfect balance. Then Ruffins uncorks his lyrics in a gravelly tone, “Good mornin’, New Or-leens” to which a sweet woman chorus chimes the line right back in medium tempo as if giving it good to her man, “Good morn-ing, New Or-leens” – we’re talking Patrice Hardin and Betty Winn on vocals, and Vernon Ward in minor key. Congratulations, you three!
We love you New Orleens; we love you New-Orleens
It’s such a lovely day, to love New Or-leens,
when people come
they never leave because we’re swinging that way.
The sunshine’s so so bright
The sunshine’s so-so bright
The breeze is so so nice
The breeze is so so nice
The starlights twinkle at night
by the riverside so
by and by sometimes
it’s such a beautiful sight
A guy who admits to sights that make him cry is someone to heed. And Ruffins’ lyrics on this one move with such adroit phrasing to those beautiful voices flowing in at the right moments as to wash you in feelings of exaltation about the town. Do not kid yourself, news-numbed reader, we need songs like this to endure what the politics is doing to us. Other songs achieve a similar balm to the wounds of place. Lil Queenie singing “My Darlin’ New Orleans” [lyrics by Ron Cuccia]. The original version of “Basin Street Blues” by Spencer Williams, who grew up in one of the Storyville whorehouses and masked the raw stuff with lyrics of elegant euphemism. “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” (even though it was written for a bad movie). The Dixie Cups’ version of “Iko Iko” – the list goes on, but is really not so long.
What makes a great song work is often secondary to the lyrics. The words of “What a Wonderful World” – skies of blue, red roses too – border on the banal, but with a voice like Louis Armstrong’s, redemption comes with the ease of a smile. Kermit Ruffins modeled himself after Armstrong. With no disrespect to the swinging barbecue man from Tremé, that persona of an easy-rambling good time man works fine on stage, and even off. But selling music on CDs, especially in hard times – and times were seriously hard for the recording industry before the gluttons of Wall Street ran out of starch – is another trick altogether. Of the 11 songs on Livin’ a Tremé Life I’d only bother putting five on an iPod, if I had one.
Ruffins is in good form on the lead song, “Didn’t He Ramble?” – an anthem of the funerals little heard these days. He does a nicely rocking version of Dave Fat Man Williams’s standard, “I Ate Up the Apple Tree.” He stretches his chops on the rhythm and blues rocker that Allen Toussaint wrote and Lee Dorsey made famous: “Holy Cow.” I was lukewarm to his version of “I Can See Clearly Now,” but on several replays as I drove a visitor along Rampart Street the song wore nicely. Pointing out the fabled streets of jazz you can’t help but pass the blown-out buildings, and as St. Claude Avenue leads into the Upper 9th Ward; the ruins start to appear and your guest stares, eyes like poached eggs, wondering how a city [leadership] could tolerate such decay. I was born here and unless a plane goes down that has me on it far away I hope, no time soon, to be buried here. For now that means enduring the lunacy of City Hall that makes what’s broken a permanent display. Songs like “Good Morning, New Orleans” let you smile in the daydream clouds of a city that was and is yet to be.
The CD is still in the player in the car. I keep popping the button back to that song. Play it again, Kermit.