To loyal readers of this column I must confide that my soundtrack has turned to Danny Barker since the beginning of the disaster in thg Gulf. Everyone needs an uplifting moment in this heat with threatening ecological dread. The balladeer who did a peerless version of “My Indian Red” – the first Mardi Gras Indian song ever recorded, in 1949, a generation before The Wild Tchoupitoulas – was an elder figure, a voice of wisdom, a pose of resilience that a numbed city craves when oil monsters eat into the marshes.
A songwriter with a river of credits, a showman in the grand tradition of the swing era (he played guitar for Luis Russell and Cab Calloway’s bands in the 1930s), Barker and his wife Blue Lu left New Orleans in 1930 and returned from New York in ’65. The last 29 years constituted a bravura performance on his part as an entertainment man and a life force of the kind these latitudes have rarely seen.
“Death affects people all kinda ways,” he once told me. “There was a lady [who] had her husband stuffed. She had a special room in her house. Everybody knew Sadie Brown’s old man was there. Some Chinaman, like a taxidermist, took out all the body parts, oiled his skin, tanned him down and stuffed him. This was in the 7th Ward, around 1914. My great aunt took me to see his wife. I peeped in and saw Willie Brown. His eyes were kinda cocked. A lotta things happen. You see King Tut? Willie Brown was probably stuffed 30 years. You know he looked good. King Tut was a lot older.”
If you want a slice of priceless urban history, buy the Dirty Dozen’s album called Jelly – their homage to Jelly Roll Morton – and listen to Barker’s tales of Jelly that serve as bridges between the songs. It is one of the band’s best recordings, and Barker’s on a roll about Gallatin Street – where the back parking area of the French Market behind the mint is now located – captures the tough, raucous texture of a tenderloin district where sex and homicide were kissing cousins before the ancestors of the New Orleans Police Department drove them across Rampart Street into Storyville.
Born in 1909, he was too young to experience Storyville first-hand; he absorbed the stories, songs and lore for vintage recycling in his many roles. He played through decades from Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis. In one of my first interviews with a musician, in ’76, he recounted Louis Armstrong’s dressing room back in the day:
“He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white handkerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know … And in that room, ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a streetwalker dressed all up in the flaming clothes. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. Ya see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see … And he’s talkin’ to all of ’em. ‘Sister So-and-So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole notorious, been in nine penitentiaries … All them, diverse people of different social levels of endeavor, and everybody’s lookin’. Got their eyes dead on him, just like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”
Danny Barker held court in the living room of the house where he and Lu lived, far out at the end of the 7th Ward, on Sere Street, and on any given day you’d find a musician, a photographer, an academic or a journalist seeking an interview, coveting his banter and wordplay as much as the factual substance of what he had to say.
With black plumes in the Gulf I think of him fondly, the memories resplendent with hope. He went out in 1994 with a grand second line. Five months before that he sat on my living room couch and kept the cancer a secret. I told him he had done everything – traveled, performed, made records, written books – but how he had managed a marriage for 63 years? He nodded, the droopy eyes and pencil-thin mustache all of a piece with his deadpan persona, and said you have to listen to the vows and go on about your business. I said, “That’s it? Listen to the vows, hunker down, and 63 years you’re still together? Is that all?”
He smiled. “You got to give her the money.”