Hardy Jackson, American Citizen

There is political art, and there is art that is political. The former is art whose raison d’être is to make an argument about how society should be ordered or governed, the latter is art that has ideas and concerns beyond the political, but that has a content or context that is intrinsically political. In a blunt sense, an example of the first type is the visual propaganda of Socialist Realism, while an example of the latter is Goya’s “Disasters of War.” I’m a fan of Goya.

I’m also a fan of HBO’s new series “Treme,” and Ted Hearne’s CD Katrina Ballads , which will be released on August 31. Each is about New Orleans, the first not explicitly political but full of political argument and fury nonetheless, the second seemingly explicitly political but at it’s core a real work of art, a narrative of a disaster that most of us saw unfolding before our eyes but that is still difficult to accept.

The political idea at the heart of each work is what it means to be an American, and thus what is American and what isn’t. It’s a timely question, with a federal election coming in the fall and angry crowds and cynical figures tossing off claims here, hints there and floating “trial balloons” with hearts of burnt, compacted coal. As an American with an enduring love for this country, I always find the question easy to answer; an American is a person who embraces the values and ideas that created this country, and who accepts the responsibilities of citizenship that come with them. In terms of art, the America that is Goya can be seen in New Orleans, a city that has been a polyglot for centuries and out of which came so much of the synthesis, the originality, of this country and culture. America speaks English, French, Spanish and dialects thereof, America enjoys a drink and a party, America prays and mourns, America eats exotic spices and taps its foot to the mixed-race/culture beat of the Blues, Calypso, Spanish dances and French chansons. America is democratic, multi-racial, uninterested in the limits of blood and geography.

Un-America, though is the complete, ugly opposite. It makes absurd claims about the origins of this country in hope of spreading a pall of bland monotony across society. It ignores its own foundation in non-conformity and, under the desperately false claim of piety and moral righteousness it makes and worships idols of the most material sort; men, money, property. Its only joy is in following orders, and it resents anyone who might exercise the most basic American virtue of free-thinking, and, in a country built from the start on international immigration, both voluntary and forced, and an expansionary idea of geographic, for good and ill, it is obsessed with borders, with the purity of language and the purity of blood. It is a part of the country that we Americans accept in hopes it will join us in the true and good things, but that detests and fears us, and wishes we would go away. Except for brief moments when there is a political advantage or an easy sloganeering opportunity, it hates New York City. And it hates New Orleans.

Fortunately, Americans love New Orleans, and so does “Treme” and so does Katrina Ballads. The show will be back for another season, but the way it ended was totally satisfying and appropriate. It’s the story of a demolished city and demolished lives and the success and failure of trying to put them back together mostly against an indifferent government. Because that’s the way it happened. Katrina hit the city and the government didn’t look away, it never looked in the first place. Bush woke up the next morning and someone conveniently told him that they “dodged the bullet,” because it fit better into their imaginary view of themselves, their un-Americanness. Michael Chertoff claimed that everything was okay, because that’s what the filter of political governance allowed him to be told, Brownie did a heckuva job because to the un-Americans getting the sinecure is the same as doing the job, the personal achievement is the sole goal and responsibility. Heckuva job cashing checks and receiving benefits. Of course they never looked at New Orleans, because it is one of the quintessentially American cities.

People died, lives were disrupted, the city shambled to a halt. America looked on in shock, un-America didn’t give a shit. And yet people held on, put some of it back together, kept America alive in the city. The show shambled along in the last few minutes, wonderfully. Some of the characters, like Jeanette, did their best but didn’t have enough to overcome circumstances, some, like Creighton, could not re-dream their dreams, and imploded, some, like Sonny, were in love with a false, clichéd America, and fell apart. But others made it from one point to the next, like Batiste, Chief Lambreaux, and especially LaDonna. Batiste scraped together enough gigs to survive, Lambreaux scraped together enough of his tribe and enough will and enough family to take to the streets and keep the spark of the St. Joseph’s night parade. Lambreaux may not have enough screen time, and the tribal rituals may be unfathomable to non-natives, but he, and they, are an intrinsic feature of New Orleans, and the city needs their cultural, local uniqueness.

The very last two scenes of the season were breathtaking. As the funeral service for LaDonna’s brother, Daymo, proceeds, the narrative unobtrusively drifts back to the city the day before the hurricane hit. The combination of the character’s blithe confidence and what we have seen of the aftermath is expressively unsettling, filling in the sense of disequilibrium that many of them have inhabited during the previous episodes. We also see just what happened to Daymo, or rather, the unfortunate mistake that puts him in jail, where, once the storm hit, he was doomed. Doomed because in a country where the governing institutions were either indifferent or hostile to the citizens of New Orleans (the police not only prevented citizens from passing through and into public property but apparently murdered some as well), a young black man in jail has already so completely disappeared from America that his physical death comes as some kind of afterthought. But seeing Daymo, alive and unaware of what is going to happen to him, is eviscerating and moving. And then, the Treme neighborhood brass band ambles back home, playing “Didn’t He Ramble” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and the parade breaks up, people chatting, shaking hands, making plans for later. Life goes on, because people are going to live it, and civilization continues because Lambreaux takes his tribe into the streets, Batiste cadges gigs all over the city, and LaDonna tends bar, a place people can gather where there is literally a roof over their heads. I’m looking forward to seeing more Treme, but nothing more needs to be said. Music brings people together and makes ritual, and so civilization.

Hearne’s Katrina Ballads is political by way of context and inference. It’s a song cycle with text for all ten vocal pieces taken from the public record, things like Anderson Cooper’s contentious interview with Senator Mary Landrieu, statements citizens made to journalists, appalling displays from Barbara Bush and Dennis Hastert, and of course “heckuva job.” It’s a marvelous, deeply impressive work, full of musical skill, knowledge and an understanding of people and events that goes so far beyond the blather of politicians and pundits that one is again left to puzzle why it is that artists are not running things (and another in a series of terrific releases from New Amsterdam this year – their list of itsnotyouitsme, Matt Marks, Corey Dargel and William Brittelle CDs must be the envy of every record company). It’s also a deeply American work, not just in the superficial sense but one possible only because of the accumulated history of American music.

This is contemporary classical in a theatrical style, supporting ideas and emotions with music that is right for the words and the moment. Hearne describes it as a fusion of styles, but I think it makes more sense to call it a polyglot style, one that makes the music quintessentially American. There are elements of gospel, show music and rock, for example, but there’s no sense of pastiche, no awkward dumbing down to give this populist appeal. It’s a balancing act that many composers try and few succeed at and I admire how well Hearne accomplishes it. It can be boiled down to how he sets the words and how he chooses and selects his singers. Working with found text is hard, the elements of diction, phrase length and rhythm that make words singable are there only accidentally. He’s set them so that they sound both musical and natural, every word clear, and there’s some quality of Harry Partch in it, especially the challenging scanning of “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu.” The musically radical elements of the piece are the most surprising and satisfying, a demonstration of how appealing music can be made out of all kinds of parts.

It works from the start; the first sound is the strings of a piano, strummed like in Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp, and then Abby Fischer sings “New Orleans is sinking,” and in that moment one can hear how well this is going to work. Along with music that uses bits of accessible styles as a point of common experience without every pandering or sounding phony, singers like Fischer balance the color and richness of their tone with a direct, clear understanding of the words they are singing. The music has a pop appeal without being pop, without vapid “cross-over” formulation, and the singers are uniformly fine; Fischer, baritone Anthony Turner, tenor Isaiah Robinson and soprano Allison Semmes express themselves unselfconsciously in the classical vocal tradition, confident of the beauty and appeal to all listeners. There’s a rigorous, even ruthless sense of craft underlying the work, with a combination of the just-the-facts selection of the texts and clear, forceful music that never editorializes or underlines the easy and the obvious. The salient example is “Brownie, You’re Doing A Heck Of A Job,” with Hearne himself handling the vocal part. The phrase is now an idiomatic expression, a way to damn laziness, incompetence and indifference with sarcastic praise, a way to remind whoever says it or hears it what that indifference wrought. Hearne sets and sings it as a riff, playing around with it like a scat-singer, the entire lyric just that phrase. It’s musically hip but one never forgets what it’s about. Instead of trying to tell us what the words mean he simply gives them to us in musical form and trusts that we’ll know. It’s the difference between political art and art itself.

Katrina Ballads is an act of bearing witness to a collective memory. It lays out what happened on a timeline and tells us how we got to “Treme,” to a demolished America. Hearne is a thinking, feeling human being, so he does have his own view of things, but he keeps intellectual and emotional directives out of sight. The act of making the piece is his main statement, and while there is a feeling of rage throughout the work, his control over his materials, his expressive power and his fluid handling of elements of style from Cowell to Partch to Bernstein, Berio, Gil Evans, Meredith Monk and Ben Johnston makes it supremely musically compelling. These are powerful, integrated songs with no hectoring or lecturing, songs that meet the listener as an equal and with sympathy. The subject has an intrinsic political context and the music cannot be free of that, but all Hearne does is remind us of what happened and what we saw and heard, each step of the way. He reminds us how incomprehensible it is, still, that the government of this country was fundamentally indifferent and uninterested in the drowning of a great American city and its people, indifferent because the leaders of that government were themselves fundamentally un-American, and he reminds us with each impassioned note that we, who care and are moved by Treme and Katrina Ballads, are Americans, and that we will, hopefully, endure. Katrina Ballads and “Treme” are great Americans.

UPDATED: Fixed Video

UPDATED AGAIN: Added link to Cowell’s Aeolian Harp


“All On Mardi Gras Day” and “Wish Someone Would Care”

The season finale of “Treme is tonight, the last two episodes have prepared the story for the kind of anything that David Simon’s shows have pioneered, the anything of life going on, regardless of what happens to individuals. The last shot of the last episode of season four of “The Wire,” the intersection outside Bunny’s house and the ordinary traffic going through it, coming at the end of a season that was almost unbearably emotionally wrenching and tragic, is the perfect example of both the technique and it’s power. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a way of looking at the world that defines the narrative; life is rarely fair, the world goes on in spite of it all.

And so Mardi Gras went on, and it was mostly desultory, hesitant, forced, not a lot of real pleasure. Creighton sums it up; starting off in costume and putting “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” on endless repeat, then coming home early, turning off the stereo, finally spending the night sleeping on the porch, to the shame of Toni. For him, it was the last chance to make everything normal again, or if not normal than to give the possibility it could be normal again. But it can’t; he not only can’t finish his novel but can’t bear to face the subject, Lambreaux is deliberately kept in jail for Mardi Gras, LaDonna’s family’s mausoleum is ruined from the flood, Janette’s guerilla cooking if washed away in the rain. Creighton can’t see any more future, and can’t face the past that is haunting him everywhere in New Orleans.

But life goes on, and while there may not be hope, there’s possibilities. Arnie Reyes comes and actually fixes LaDonna’s roof; it may not be Mardi Gras, but the episode after has three simultaneous parties, and they are the kind of fun you want to have, Antoine is someone how working it out both with his gigs and his girlfriend and LaDonna, and Lambreaux is going to parade with his tribe, and although it appears the police are at first threatening him, it seems they’re actually trying to find a way to make it work. The hint of possibility is on the night of Mardi Gras day, when Delmond is driving with the girl he met at a party, and he’s brought up short by real Indians, in full regalia, in the streets, appearing out of the darkness like birds of paradise. They’ve been there too long to ever go away.

“Shallow Water, Oh Mama” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe”

Catching up with Treme just in time for a new episode tonight …

… but before any discussion of specific things in the last two episodes, being away from writing about it for a few weeks has me seeing the larger picture. The way the show has been written is really musical in the sense of a long form composition or, in jazz terms, hearing a musician’s body of work. The show is going in a particular direction and will get to an intended point, and along the way the details can be both surprising and logical. Good music and good writing make things like plot twists and spoilers irrelevant; if we’re paying attention we should be able to see where things are ultimately headed and still enjoy how we’re brought there.

This means that Davis’ political campaign, such as it was, is surprising in two different ways but completely natural. It’s surprising that he would work up the purpose to actually do the work of campaigning, but it makes complete sense in that the culture of New Orleans matters to him and he’s enough of a dilettante to be ignorant about political work to not be scared away, and then he’s exactly enough of a dilettante that when his presence actually creates sufficient noise in the system that he easily and understandably takes the slight, yet personal, political deal offered him. Same thing with Batiste offering his new, beautiful trombone to Danny Nelson.

It’s the characters who are making the music that goes into the large ensemble that tells us both what happened to New Orleans and why the city matters. People died; early we see Chief Lambreaux discovering a tribe member’s body, and now LaDonna has lost her brother due to the hurricane and the institutional indifference to human life that was both a local and federal moral crime; Janette has lost her restaurant because her insurance and SBA loan cannot be processed quickly enough; and of course people have lost their homes and cannot return to their hometown because perfectly good housing has been boarded up in order to specifically keep them away.

The developing conflict betweeen Annie and Sonny is a bit melodramatic, but there’s something in it that I appreciate, which is showing that the idea of authenticity is a shallow con and offering things that really matter. Sonny is a fraud. He can play well enough but, not being a native, cares about a meaningless fetish of authenticity, while Annie is a musician who can actually play and say things. The question is wether she can get away from Sonny enough and stop crippling her own playing. Sonny himself strikes me as a stand-in for George W. Bush in that he’s narcissistic, childish, has an ignorant idée fixe and, convinced of his mastery of the world, thinks that he has mastered his subject. And finally, he sees New Orleans as a place to party and nothing more.

The music continues to be great, although there was a painfully awkward scene in Episode 6 when Delmond and Donald Harrison are discussing modern jazz vs New Orleans traditions, which neither educated nor edified. Hectoring, lectoring, obvious and obtuse, was this Tom Piazza making a poor point, badly? Delmond already lost that argument. The best music is always the casual, almost accidental kind, like the band playing at the airport, the little bit of Zydeco while Annie is auditioning, a reminder of how great that music can be, and of course Lambreaux and his Indians. I cannot get enough of them rehearsing, singing and chanting with no other accompaniment than tambourines. It’s gripping in a primal way and is why New Orleans matters. American popular music matters, even to the dullest moneyman (what’s American Idol if not a cash machine), and the music is impossible without Louis Armstrong, and Armstrong is impossible without “Shallow Water.”

“At The Foot Of Canal Street”

The latest episode of Treme was back to a purposeful form after the drift of the previous one.  I’ve focussed on the character of Sonny before, because he has been an irritating cipher, but now we’ve gotten some important details about who and what he is and where he’s going; he’s a poseur and a dilettante, and he seems to be aware of it, along with being a junkie – none of this is a surprise, and in retrospect it’s skillful storytelling that introduces him then takes a bit before taking him outside his own context, busking and being a snob, and putting him alongside the New Birth Brass Band, John Boutté and Joe Krown at a jam session.  On opposite side, his girlfriend and musical partner Annie is more and more shown as a superior musician, jamming with the Harley Watt (played by Steve Earle) and Justin Townes Earle, and later with the Jazz Vipers, where Sonny sees her and perhaps can hear what she really is.

Now that Davis and Creighton have met each other, they also turn out to be an appropriate pair, both essentially wandering around inside themselves, trying to find a purpose, a way to constructively respond to what they see around them.  Now that Davis has politics and Crieghton YouTube, perhaps they’ve discovered their métiers.  The pairing up and pairing off continued with Batiste and LaDonna, two of the most interesting characters and finest actors.  Khandi Alexander is dominating on the screen, and the combination of LaDonna’s determination and Batiste’s desire to avoid responsibility is great to watch.  Her search for her missing brother looks like it’s turning into one of the key elements, the atavistic, Kafkaesque nature of what is supposed to pass for civilization in political America.

The other main pair is Albert and his son, although what that is about is still an intriguing mystery.  Albert is trying to rebuild, physically and socially, but there’s a sense in the way Clarke Peters plays him that there’s something very much hidden.  Delmond seems to be sent circling around his father’s center of gravity, via New Orleans music. which he seems to be trying to stay away from.  Nice cameos from Ron Carter, Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, McCoy Tyner and others, although having his girlfriend be a Village Voice writer is a little too cute; it’s been a long time since the Voice had anything knowledgeable, constructive or honest to write about American music.  Like the previous episode, there was a little less music integrated into the show itself, which was a little disappointing, hopefully it’s just temporary.

“Meet De Boys On The Battlefront”

This second episode of Treme felt like a bit of a let down from the opening one, for one specific reason, the appearance of the street musicians Sonny and Annie.  Their two scenes were odd and seemed misplaced and even superfluous.  There may be a reason for them, yet unclear, but they seem pointless.  Sonny comes off as a complete prick, which I don’t think is intentional, I think he’s meant to be justifiable aggrieved, but the context in which he is a prick is a combination of music and authentic New Orleans-ness.  The problem is that the scenes are overplayed, and the music the two play is frankly mediocre.

Being a prick is perfectly fine for a character, but an interesting thing contrasts Sonny and Davis; the same group of naive young tourists Sonny insults are then directed by Davis, with total sincerity, towards what Sonny would consider an authentic New Orleans experience.  They have a great time and come off as attractive characters.  The connection also demonstrates that Davis, despite being a fuck-up and a jackass, has better taste in music.  The second scene, placing Sonny and Annie in a dull and aimless conversation in a bar, is a cipher, and ends up with the attention literally drifting to the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, who are wonderful in every way that the younger pair are not.  It is the street musicians, placed in the context of a show that begins with Coco Robicheaux, who are musical misfits.

The rest of the episode is very strong, weaving the reality of society together through details, how people work, play, bargain and fight with each other, how they build their own systems and subcultures, independent of the establishment that exists to protect a few and disappoint the many.  This may be the fundamental idea in the show, and of course the subcultures are created via music.  It’s not shallow sociology or hipsterism, again it goes back to the origins of society.  The eruption of brief violence is surprising, but not gratuitous.  There’s no apology for it, but the reason for it is clear, and it has to do with opposing forces of destruction and construction, the latter ending the show in a truly incredible moment when Chief Lambreaux and the one member of his tribe he has found start rebuilding their ritual with two tambourines and ‘Shallow Water.’  It’s like the last scene in Nights of Cabiria, the one where the fragments come together into something indescribably beautiful.