Writer Jason Berry: pursued by music

I have written this column across a decade now, and it perdures as a rewarding if slightly schizophrenic experience. The larger measure of my toil divides between focus on Louisiana music and folk culture, which I adore, and a national story, investigating sexual conflicts in the Catholic priesthood. In recent months I have been on a lecture tour for a book called Vows of Silence.
The music follows me like a shadow in the afternoon sun. The music restores my faith in the human experiment.
In Boston, on a snow-blanketed St. Patrick’s Day, I sat in a hotel lounge, stabbing a cell phone in a miasma of self-promotion, when the sound system abruptly dispensed the rolling warmth of Johnny Adams: “I’m gonna love you … like nobody loves you, come rain or come shine.” As if by karma, the lusty vocals of that buried bluesman, a k a the “tan canary,” all but snuggled into the empty seat next to me. The devils of publicity, that raw cold outside – and all of a sudden here was Johnny, at one with the flame of that fireplace, a spirit at 4 p.m., warming a cold foreign place.
Jump cut: I am standing at the newsstand of the Philadelphia train station on a Saturday, torn between Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. A hip dude with pants half down his butt materializes next to me, holding a ghetto-blaster out of which surges lines from the Meters’ last album and Cyril Neville singing: “Be my lady, be my lady … drive me crazy.”
I look at this guy, about 20 years old, and say, “How’d you get hip to the Meters?”
“My old lady said they were phat!” he declaims. “And she’s right, Jack. They are seriously phat!”
I bought Rolling Stone with Ben Affleck on the cover, Jack.
Thirty-six hours later I am at a book signing in Borders in Norwalk, Conn. The crowd has dispersed. I, a guilty standup reader of hardbacks I won’t buy, gravitate toward the music section and witness this:
Six-foot, 5-inch guy in a lumberjack jacket, hovering over the clerk: “She was singing about cooking a pot of beans. I heard it on Bourbon Street. She was singing it live, in person. I was there myself. I heard it. I saw her.”
The clerk, poised at a computer screen: “Name of artist?”
“Some white chick. Name? How many red bean songs are there?”
Like a teacher’s pet, I said: “You must mean Marcia Ball.”
The big guy looks down at me. “She had long legs and she played keyboard. You tellin’ me her name is Marcia Ball?”
“That’s right. And I’m telling you the song is ‘Red Beans,’ ” I asserted. “The CD is called Blue House.”
“It’s on Rounder,” says the clerk. “Actually we have it.”
Marcia, you owe me one.
Ten days later, 11 in the morning at Houston Hobby Airport, ordering a plate of barbecued brisket, I hear the rocking lyrics of Ernie K-Doe: “There’s a certain girl I’ve been after a long-long time … ”
A white woman, 50-something, wearing – I swear to God – a blue bonnet, is listening to the song on a handheld cassette player while her husband, who couldn’t be younger than 70, is digging through an enormous tote bag filled with magazines and CDs. She is tapping her foot impatiently. The guy is looking for something. What? Out in the afterlife, K-Doe is chortling.
On a jukebox in the Minneapolis airport I heard the smoky rasp of Dr. John singing “City Lights” from the album of the same name, and at a hotel in Denver, I heard a sound system featuring Danny Barker warbling on Wynton Marsalis’ CD Majesty of the Blues. Danny in the vicinity of Mile High Stadium seemed cosmically appropriate.
At just about every turn these spirits living and deceased were there to shadow me in the nervous peregrinations every author dreads, going out there on the meat parade to promote, never knowing who will show up at the bookstores or lecture halls.
Louis Prima and Keely Smith showed up, singing “Black Magic” at the restaurant where I had lunch in Dallas. Louis Armstrong’s voice filled the lounge with “What A Wonderful World” as I waited, exhausted, to check into a hotel in New York. Thirty-six hours later, in LaGuardia Airport, after taking off my shoes and belt and stuffing the cell phone and everything else on the conveyor belt to prove I wasn’t a terrorist, I began restoring footwear to the sounds of Fats Domino, coming out of a system on the other side of Starbucks: “I’m walkin’, yes indeed I’m walkin’, till you come back to me.” Antoine, I believe you.

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