Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, the old song asks. In fact, that’s a pretty good question.
What we do know is that when Hurricane Katrina neared landfall in 2005, it set forth a chain of events that forced thousands of New Orleanians to evacuate, and then many of them to stay gone, to return at some point in the future if at all. A nation sympathized with the loss of life, property, community and dignity, as a once-vibrant city was transformed most reluctantly into a diaspora. In those first post-Katrina days, in our charity and goodwill and prayers and entreaties, many of us imagined that we too were New Orleanians, just as many of us fancied ourselves New Yorkers after 9/11. But it takes more than a Category Five hurricane busting through jury-rigged levees to bring you into knowing a city.
We also know all about the good-timey images of drunken Mardi Gras revelers, but New Orleans is more than just a great big party. Most music collections of any size likely have some New Orleans music – a Marsalis or Neville brother or father for the older crowd, Lil’ Wayne or Juvenile for the younger generation—but while New Orleans music is a world onto itself, New Orleans is more than just a sound. Lots of places claim to serve a fine gumbo or po’boy, as if you could reduce a place like New Orleans to one or two signature dishes.
No, to miss New Orleans is to understand that beyond and beneath all the trappings and the lore, it is a place rooted in traditions, its people connected to each other by history, geography and the vagaries of Gulf Coast weather. All places have character, but New Orleans has a soul, its own brand of a soul, a soul that’s as complicated, colorful and indomitable as it is nonpareil.
There’s plenty of historical and archival material to peruse for proof of that. Photographs, biographies, oral histories, CD reissues, it’s all out there, but most of it tells tales from times long ago. Ned Sublette imparts a more immediate sense of New Orleans’ soul, for our modern times, in his new book, The Year before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans. As it turns out, not only is New Orleans bigger than just party, music or food, there’s probably more to it than Sublette can evoke with his words. But give the man credit for trying.
After all, this is his second exploration of the place. The first, The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008), traced the region’s Spanish, French and American roots from the 1600s into the early 1900s, with a post-Katrina coda. The current volume picks up where the first one left off, not so much chronologically but in tone and perspective. It tells the story of the ten months Sublette and his wife spent in New Orleans while he was a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University, migrating through history, musicology and memoir to convey some of the everyday joys, perils and travails of life in the Big Easy before Katrina came along and changed everything.
Sublette was no dispassionate newcomer to the town. He grew up in Natchitoches, in the northwestern corner of the state. That might as well have been a world away from New Orleans, with the engrained racial hostility of its townsfolk and civic institutions. Sublette was among that lucky generation of American youth to experience the birth of rock ‘n’ roll first-hand, through radio and records, and to grow up with it through the soulful, psychedelic ‘60s.
That feeling, plus a restless curiosity, has carried him through all the hats he’s worn in his professional life: roots-rock recording artist ( Cowboy Rumba, 1999); proprietor of the record label Qbadisc, specializing in Cuban music; producer for the public radio show Afropop Worldwide; and music and cultural historian (Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, 2004). That curiosity brought him to New Orleans in the late summer of 2004, for what turned out to be a most momentous and memorable stint.
It didn’t take long for Sublette to be baptized in the ways of his temporary home. Within a matter of weeks, he learned the house he and his wife rented (actually, one cordoned-off portion of it) was the sight of a gruesome, notorious murder a couple of years back, got a taste of a local emergency room after a guest was hit by a car, and experienced his first hurricane evacuation (the city dodged the bullet named Hurricane Ivan). Thus was the rhythm of Sublette’s time down there quickly established: days poring over his research, nights and weekends spent inside New Orleans’ rich, quirky and often dangerous culture.
There’s something familiar about Sublette’s point of view: it’s that of the quintessential outsider, setting down in a locale long enough to take temporary root in it, but without shedding all connection to the broader world. That in-it-but-not-of-it stance—expressed in a voice slightly hip, slightly sardonic, and always knowledgeable—helps us understand some of what makes New Orleans such a distinctive place, without succumbing to tourist-friendly mythologizing. Sublette brings us the good (its people, its local traditions), the bad (crime, crime, crime) and the inexcusable (a history of racial hostility and disdain not all that removed from what he experienced as a youth upstate) of a city like none other in the country, and maybe the whole world, too.
But this is not merely a travelogue or the recounting of an eventful year. Sublette grounds the retelling of his personal experience with deep historical background on New Orleans and how its culture evolved over generations. At times, such as his chapters on how black and white Mardi Gras traditions evolved separately (and largely remain so), the book reads like a sequel to World (which makes sense, considering he worked on both books simultaneously). Such passages disrupt the narrative flow of his residency’s timeline, but for understanding how the New Orleans whose lore we cherish came to be, Sublette’s discursion from straightforward memoir into 19th century history lesson is valuable and, for non-New Orleans scholars (that is, just about all of us), quite revelatory.
Sublette the music guy has his say, as well. Much of his life there is framed by the music all around him, in the clubs, on the streets, and even on the radio. He celebrates the swinging party music and jazz most often associated with the Big Easy, but he also works to understand and appreciate the hip-hop soundtrack of young black life, a soundtrack tourists almost never hear unless they veer from the programmed path.
Sublette’s chapters on Master P’s No Limit Records and the Williams’ brothers Cash Money imprint will not be news to most rap listeners, but are notable for linking New Orleans hip-hop to the city’s broader musical traditions, a connection seldom made by most music writers. (Given Sublette’s skill for writing about music and the centrality of music to New Orleans life, a companion mixtape of some of the sounds that marked his time down there would have been useful, and probably quite funky, as well.)
For all the characters Sublette introduces us to along the way, there’s one we don’t meet until after the fact. That, of course, would be Hurricane Katrina.Her presence is made palpable in the book’s title, and the reader certainly knows what lies ahead, but Sublette doesn’t try to exploit the potential for foreshadowing. That would have been a little disingenuous: Sublette’s time there ended a month before the storm hit; and no one we meet in the book had any idea something like Katrina would happen within a year’s time.
He makes some allusions here and there that things would soon be radically different, but they fall short of creating a sense of dread above the proceedings. He’s generally content to leave whatever dramatic tension might exist to the reader’s imagination. On the story’s surface, this is – almost literally - a picture of calm before the storm. But the title and our knowledge of the storyline beg some sort of connection between the year and the flood, and that connection never quite congeals.
Few books have reported what it’s like to live in a major American city lately, so Sublette’s work is valuable in that respect. But as fascinating a picture as The Year before the Flood draws, it’s incomplete on several levels, and something of a missed opportunity. Someone with a stronger background in urban politics or social science would have written a vastly different book; Mayor Ray Nagin is mentioned only a few times, mostly in reference to pre-hurricane evacuations. Someone with school-aged children would necessarily have more than touched upon the city’s notoriously horrendous educational system. Someone with a keener impulse for outrage might have laid the righteous indignation on harder (not that Sublette ever lets the Bush administration off the hook for any of its decisions that lessened New Orleans’ ability to cope with a Katrina-sized disaster). And someone wondering if the city could have withstood Katrina better had different choices been made would have looked for vastly different things in the historical records. (No matter who wrote the book, it sorely needed a map of the city and key landmarks.)
Sublette’s take on the subject matter is much more personal, and because of that its images have a much more personal resonance. The Year before the Flood is not a Katrina book, or a post-Katrina book (although Sublette concludes with an account of his visit to New Orleans in February 2006), but a pre-Katrina book, a view of life inside a place that, in many respects, no longer exists as described herein.
The good, the bad and the inexcusable have all returned to New Orleans four years after the flood, but in different proportions than existed before, and with different implications for the city’s future. There will be much tracking of the state of post-Katrina New Orleans as the years move on, if on no other occasions than Mardi Gras seasons and Katrina anniversaries (The Year before the Flood was officially released on the fourth anniversary). When those times roll around, astute observers will have the benefit of Sublette’s vivid chronicle as a baseline to gauge the extent and nature of the recovery to date, and also how many people might still miss New Orleans, and how much.