Sometimes the best gifts are the ones that surprise you. So, when I went to meet “American Routes” host and noted cultural multi-hyphenate Nick Spitzer, I was a little intimidated. I had met him socially before and he has always been personable, but now I was going to interview him. Enter his realm, so to speak, turn the tables on the interviewer, now being interviewed. And, of course, my tape recorder decided to stop working, so I had to take notes.
Spitzer and the “American Routes” crew in the studio that day – producers Maureen Loughran, Bill Deputy and Kaori Maeyama; program assistants Leidy Cook and Garrett Pittman; and intern Dave Van Dusen – were probably as casual as can be. (I kept on thinking, “Do you know there are people who are hardcore fans of this show who would kill to be in my position witnessing a taping?!”) And what could have been a mess on my end turned into a whole lot of fun.
Like those whom he studies, Spitzer is a consummate storyteller – or more interestingly, as he says: “As a radio host, you try to be a verbal artist.”
First, a little background. Spitzer founded the ground-breaking radio talk show/American vernacular music show “American Routes” in 1998 (currently based out of a studio at Tulane) and he researched and recorded Cajun and Creole culture in the mid-’70s and early ’80s, eventually writing his ’86 dissertation “Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rural French Louisiana.”
While we now take our cultural history for granted – Zydeco, in particular has found a spot in international popular culture – then Cajun, and especially rural Creole cultures, were slowly fading away. Not surprisingly, he was also a founding director of the Louisiana Folklife Program in ’78 and in ’75 was editor and co-author of Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State. He has produced cultural features for “All Things Considered” and “Nightline,” documentary films for PBS and was co-author of Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America’s Creole Soul. Smithsonian folklorist and Carnegie Hall artistic director, he learned how to speak “enough” Louisiana Cajun/Creole by listening – a necessity he says – to do field work.
That is just a short summary of his intimidatingly long curriculum vitae. Even with more than 400 programs and 800 interviews for “American Routes” and other projects, Spitzer doesn’t show any signs of slowing down – this is a man who has a ring once coveted by Fats Domino!
I can safely assume “American Routes” is pitched constantly? Yes, we are – by record companies, publicists and musicians. But we operate outside of the usual music industry and scene. We’re more interested in the music as both community life and the singular individual. I like showcasing great originals – such as Allen Toussaint, Carol Fran or Johnny Winter – but I also like less known New Orleans street performers, Creole fiddlers, Tejano accordionists and Western cowboy bands.
Do you only feature music or musicians that you like? If I played what I didn’t like, what’s the point? We work hard on the show to preserve, document and celebrate what others do; that’s what I do. I’m lucky: my work is play, my play is work, but it can be confusing at times.
Difference between now and then as an anthropology student: When it was time to go to college, I thought Yale was too close to home and Columbia, my father’s alma mater, had guys toting guns. So I went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where campus disruption started the next year, but I transferred out of the Wharton Business School, into anthropology at Penn. My father wasn’t pleased. I wanted to explore Philadelphia, to learn its culture. At that time, I was hearing African American a cappella doo-wop groups on street corners as well as great avant-garde jazz musicians in clubs around town. I went to the anthropology department to see if I could study them all, and they said they didn’t deal with New World cultures except Indians; it had to be Africa. Then I went to the sociology department, and they told me that they only did with studies of social problems in the local black community like alcoholism, domestic violence, etc. … It was a shock to me that there wasn’t academic interest in the community power of and aesthetic intelligence in these performing arts. American Studies was also a let down because it was then largely historical or literary in focus: old weathervanes or Mark Twain at best. Luckily Penn had a folklore department!
Students today at Tulane can craft their interests to the study of New Orleans, French Louisiana and the Gulf South cultures as a whole looking at music like zydeco, traditional jazz and hip-hop; foodways and their role in the post-(Hurricane Katrina) recovery; ritual and festival forms from Spiritual churches and St. Joseph altars to second lines and Carnival; occupational culture from fishing and boat piloting to the building trades. Makes me happy to teach, and many of the students are amazing, uplifting!
Has a person being interviewed ever walked out on you? Ike Turner. The interview was after (the movie) What Does Love Got to Do With It? came out, and one of the ground rules for the interview was to not ask about Tina Turner. But he answered one of his questions, “…. that was when I was with Tina and the Ikettes,” so I asked a follow up question that referenced her. He said, “I ain’t answering that,” and I replied “You brought it up.” And he walked out.
We aren’t “60 Minutes.” There’s an editorial choice in seeking out those who have a special story to tell about their music or life – but not they or anyone are angels all the time. I’m there to listen, and I hear them say personal things. For example, I had my old friends bluesman Tabby Thomas and his son, Chris Thomas King, on for a Father’s Day program. And they got into a conflict. People reveal their insecurities, what inspires them – it makes the interview more interesting, more sympathetic and human. We try to edit them to sound their best and not be hurtful.
Any people you have wanted for your show, but have not gotten? Bruce Springsteen. Johnny Cash – he was too sick, but I did speak with his sister and his daughter, Roseanne Cash. I’ve been trying to get Ornette Coleman for a year. We were lucky to get some late greats: Les Paul, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Boozoo Chavis, Jerry Garcia among others.
I usually ask my subjects who their favorite musicians are, but I thought I’d deviate a little and ask you, in the spirit of BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” what 15 albums would you bring to a desert island? 1. The Harder They Come; 2. A Love Supreme, John Coltrane; 3. Coltrane Plays the Blues; 4. Maiden Voyage, Herbie Hancock; 5. Bob Dylan (many) 6. Johnny Cash (all phases); 7. Professor Longhair (early recordings); 8. The Atlantic New Orleans Sessions; 9. Duke Ellington, box set; 10. “Rite of Spring,” Igor Stravinsky; 11.
Beethoven’s Symphonies; 12. Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits; 13. Robert Johnson, box set; 14. Lee Dorsey: The Definitive Collection 15. Beggars Banquet or Let it Bleed, Rolling Stones … This really isn’t fair, but then I guess being stranded isn’t either!
True Confession: Received the attendance award in high school … just for showing up.
At a Glance
Name: Nicholas Randolph Spitzer, aka Nick. My sister, brother and certain friends call me “Nicky.” Age: 61 (like the highway) Profession: Tulane folklorist, documentary producer, cultural policy protagonist, host of public radio’s “American Routes.” Resides: Uptown, near the Prytania Theater Born/Raised: Born in New York City and raised in rural Old Lyme (pop: 2,500), at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Family: Wife, Margaret Howze; children Perry (9) and Gardner (7); and Jay the Guinea Pig (10 months) Education: Old Lyme High; bachelor of arts, cum laude, anthropology (minor: folklore), University of Pennsylvania; M.A. and Ph.D in anthropology and folklore, University of Texas. Favorite book: A few off the top: The Town and the City, Jack Kerouac; Mr. Jelly Roll, Jelly Roll Morton and Alan Lomax; Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss; The Man Who Recorded the World, John Szwed; Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; Straight Man, Richard Russo; Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman; Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole; Outermost House, Henry Beston; The Omni Americans, Albert Murray. Favorite movie: The Harder They Come; Being There; King Creole; Always for Pleasure; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Fantasia; Day for Night; Performance; Blow-Up; All on a Mardi Gras Day; Grapes of Wrath; Lonestar; Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; and The Unforgiven, to name a few. Favorite food: Currently, boudin balls with Creole mustard and Abita Purple Haze on tap. Favorite restaurant: Ye Olde College Inn Hobby: Collecting Louisiana crafts and art Favorite vacation spot: midcoast Maine