Spencer Williams, a name remembered by jazz mavens, was a pianist whose aunt ran a plush bordello in Storyville. In 1928, eleven years after the federal government ordered the shutdown of red-light districts in many cities, Williams wrote “Basin Street Blues,” a song that celebrates that tenderloin district, now universally associated with New Orleans. Louis Armstrong sang the earliest version.
Now won’t you come along with me
To the Mississippi?
We’ll take a trip to the land of dreams
Blowing down the river, down to New Orleans
The band is there to meet us
Old friends to greet us
That’s where the light and the dark folks meet
A heaven on earth, they call it Basin Street
Coating the sweet romanticism of a riverboat trip over raw facts of a prostitution zone, the most controversial lyrics – “that’s where the light and the dark folks meet” – referred to the clientele of white men and black women. In fact, as Pamela D. Arcenaux writes in The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans, white hookers held a majority, if not by a huge margin. Still, the idea of interracial sex was too bold to popularize in song, hence the softer subsequent versions. Ella Fitzgerald’s “where all the proud and elite folks meet” gave way to Louis Prima’s “where all the hep cats meet.”
Tweaking lyrics in concern for the politically correct is no stranger to the music industry. Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” on the great Mississippi flood, sings of what the water has done to “this poor cracker’s land.” Aaron Neville, a deep soul, sang of it wrecking “this poor farmer’s land” – the farmer could be white or black.
Piano professors at the opulent bordellos tried to stay above the drug addictions and scores settled by gunshot. “Basin Street Blues” is a surreal shape-shifter, a gift to today’s tourism marketing in its images of a dreamy New Orleans, happy music, friends to meet. And who today thinks of Lulu White, the madam of Mahogany Hall, which furnished the eponymous title for another song by her nephew and songwriter on piano, Spencer Willliams?
Williams left for Chicago in 1907 at eighteen on a career path that took him to Paris in the 20’s, New York in the 30’s, composing dozens of songs with Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Clarence Williams, followed by stints in London and Sweden; he died in Flushing, N.Y. at eighty. Garrison Keiller popularized his “Tishomingo Blues” on A Prairie Home Companion.
Storyville has been the subject of several solid works in recent years — Alecia Long’s Great Southern Babylon, Emily Epstein Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness and Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin – which yield textured profiles of major madams and the deep-pockets saloon proprietor Tom Anderson.
Pamela Arcenaux in Guidebooks to Sin assesses the Blue Books (actually booklets) furnished to male customers which advertised for the bigger brothels, some smaller ones and various useful products. Many musicians in later-life interviews shaped the idea of Storyville as an incubator of jazz – Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Danny Barker to name a few. “Names of individual musicians or ensembles,” writes Arcenaux, “do not typically appear in the Storyville guides.”
In this intriguing study, Arcenaux positions Blue Books in the emergent advertising industry, which gave fashionable gloss to perfume, apparel, soap and items both luxurious and mundane. Whorehouses could not advertise in the daily press, hence the low-circulation guidebooks.
“The district,” as musicians called it, was highly stratified. The mansions featured champagne and often a piano professor in the parlor, while the cabarets and saloons with sawdust floors had ensembles playing hot music near low-cost cribs.
Lulu White and other madams paid for Blue Book ads “that depict the fussy, over-decorated domestic interiors typical of middle and upper middle class late Victorian houses – except few residences contained mirrored ballrooms,” writes Arcenaux. The booklets’ language orchestrated euphemisms and risqué suggestiveness to lure the men getting off the train at Basin Street for no-tell nights in the place of dreams.