This week’s show gives a gentle nod to my Irish heritage but I don’t go overboard. Well, unless you count the two raucous sea shanties. Go ahead and get it started while I explain.
As I’ve said before, New Orleans needs little reason to put on a party. But given that St. Patrick’s Day appears to be our equivalent of Irish-American heritage day, the city has a lot to party about. You’ll find the parades and block parties are centered around a neighborhood in New Orleans along the Mississippi River called the Irish Channel. And while the large influx of Irish families in the first half of the 19th century fanned out throughout the city, many did seem to settle in this Garden District neighborhood since it wasn’t very far from where they go off the boat from Ireland.
My experience with the Irish Channel was as a kid when I gigged as an altar boy for an itinerant priest who would do mass for convents and shut ins. One day, he got a prime time slot, doing mass at St. Alphonsus Church (now a cultural center) in the heart of the Irish Channel. I lived just a few miles away but it may as well been a world away in 1966. All the other neighborhood altar boys, hanging out in the altar boy locker room, sounded like Bobby Kennedy. That’s New Orleans for you.
Well, back to the show, I don’t spend too much time on the Irish theme. I don’t have a lot of music that fits frankly. And I’m not a big fan of the whole St. Patrick’s Day celebration — which you’ll get a taste of when you hear the show. Instead, I treat you to Louis Jordan’s 1949 classic “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and carry on that early R&B vibe with Chubby Newsome and Percy Mayfield
Later, I take a dive into the brand new Smithsonian Folkways recording celebrating 50 years of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Yes, this year is the 50th anniversary. I play a track with Snooks Eaglin getting excited about the huge crowd he had and we rock to a live version of “Back On Dumaine” when Anders Osborne’s heart ache over the end of his marriage was fresh. I also play from the new release by Herlin Riley, singing a jazzy version of “Wang Dang Doodle.”
Lots of other great stuff in between. Give it a listen. And “Erin Go Bragh.”
“Oh love, oh careless love, you’ve fly to my head like wine.”
Words of caution during this season of Valentine? Perhaps. But it’s also the opening to another enigmatic traditional song with uncertain origins that has become a New Orleans standard.
Like St. James Infirmary, Careless Love took its form from the 19th Century folk tradition. The song didn’t get locked down until it was recorded in the 1920’s, most notably Bessie Smith’s recording with Louis Armstrong on cornet. Even since then, the song’s lyrics have been malleable, adapted to jazz, blues and even bluegrass.
The song’s strong association to New Orleans is most likely the result of Buddy Bolden who performed the song regularly at the turn of the 20th Century. Buddy Bolden and his band performed a more bluesier and improvised form of ragtime and inspired jazz pioneers such as Kid Ory, King Oliver and Bunk Johnson who followed.
While there are no recordings of Bolden and his band, there are literally hundreds of other recorded versions of Careless Love, including those by Pete Seeger, Janis Joplin, Lead Belly, Madeleine Peyroux, Big Joe Turner, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.
Professor Longhair may have memorialized the corner of Rampart and Dumaine in “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” but his memory and spirit live on at a different street corner, Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, in a music venue that bears the name of another of his classics, “Tipitina.”
Tipitina’s, on the other hand, is a great example of how cool stuff can happen out of love for music and doing the right thing. Just as Preservation Hall is dedicated to keeping New Orleans jazz alive, Tipitina’s was conceived with the notion of honoring the city’s early R&B and Rock ‘n Roll legacy.
When the venue opened in 1977, it’s goal was to provide a public performance space for aging and almost forgotten R&B and Blues artists like Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd), Jessie Hill, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and others. Tips was born from an act of love by a group of investors who collectively and affectionately became known as the “fabulous fo’teen.”
The venue also provided a platform for other local musicians, such as the Radiators, Little Queenie and the Percolators, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Continental Drifters and the Neville Brothers.
Tipitina’s in those earlier years was quite a bit different than it is today. Music author Jay Mazza described a summer show this way: “Sometimes it was so humid in the place that the clouds of smoke seemed to be seeded with water. The smoke hung low in the room. Both bands and patrons alike were soaked to the bone within minutes. A trick learned early on was to bring extra shirts for changing between sets. . . Still everyone loved the place . . there always has been an amazing vibe associated with Tipitina’s.”
While the venue provided many great musical moments in the late 70s and early 80s, it struggled financially and eventually shuttered for about a year and a half. When it reopened in 1986, a major renovation made it far more attractive for musicians and their patrons. The warehouse-like building was opened up, creating a balcony level with higher ceilings, better circulation, improved bathrooms, and air conditioning.
This is a nice example of how some key changes could make an Olympia venue more attractive.
Tipitina’s also kicked up their bookings, continuing to stage local artists but adding national and international acts to the mix, building a worldwide reputation.
To get an idea of the artists who have performed at Tipitina’s, check out its index of musicians, some of whom are honored with additional recognition on the sidewalk outside: the New Orleans Walk of Fame.
Another cool feature of Tipitina’s is its Foundation. It’s not every place where you can rock out to amazing music, with the understanding that profits go to support the very music scene you’re enjoying. The Foundation purchases instruments for Louisiana schools, provides ongoing youth music workshops, offers an after school jazz and digital recording program under the artistic direction of Donald Harrison, Jr. and provides a a statewide network of workforce development and job skills training centers for musicians, filmmakers and other media professionals.
And you never know what you’ll find at Tips. An Olympia friend told me about how she and her partner on a NOLA visit wandered into the uptown bar on a late Sunday afternoon, ordered a beer and found themselves drawn into a Cajun Fais Do Do.
So next trip to NOLA, put Tips on your list. Until then, you can catch many of the musicians who perform there on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon on your community radio station, KAOS.