The year 2008 started out busy in the Big Easy. Mardi Gras, the third since Hurricane Katrina, came early; with each passing year the visiting media seems less and less in awe that New Orleans actually got it together to throw a big party, again. Barack Obama claimed three-fourths of the local vote in the Louisiana primary, part of his post-Super Tuesday winning streak. And there was plenty of praise for the city, pictures of players helping build houses and other charity photo-ops, and sincere shout-outs to the rest of the world for caring, during the bacchanal weekend known as the NBA All-Star Game.
All of it added up to more iterations of the New Orleans-is-coming-back story that has become a staple both of news coverage in general and travel industry hype in particular. (That the local NBA team, the Hornets, emerged from the league’s also-rans to make the playoffs in its first year back after two seasons in Oklahoma City makes yet another feel-good story; that they’re still having trouble packing the arena consistently is a reminder that this place is still in flux.)
By the end of February, however, the City that Care — and the GOP — Forgot had settled back into its post-Katrina grind of rebuilding plans behind schedule and crime virtually out of control. Those of us who witnessed the devastation and are following the reconstruction from afar can’t possibly feel what it’s like to call New Orleans home. A storm of Katrina’s magnitude would have laid any city low, especially one beset by years of official incompetence and neglect. But New Orleans is not like any other city in America. It’s not even like the rest of the state of Louisiana. It is, by circumstance, more than planning, a polyglot at heart, a gumbo of cultures and histories that’s been cooking away on the stove for more than 300 years. We can listen to Professor Longhair records or read up on voodoo lore to our heart‘s content, but the story of how New Orleans became New Orleans is way bigger than po’ boys, big floats, and good times rolling all night long.
Ned Sublette’s engaging social history of the city’s roots is a knowledgeable, in-depth investigation that both those who know New Orleans and those who don’t will likely find illuminating. In 1938, the Works Progress Association published a comprehensive guide to the city’s sights and customs, but spent only about 20 pages on the city’s history from pre-colonial times to the mid-1800s. Sublette’s book expands on a basic recitation of facts to add color, personality, and a variety of contexts to flesh out a story that seems at times to be only tangentially related to the rest of American history.
That’s largely because Sublette places New Orleans’ development alongside events in Europe, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (he authored Cuba and Its Music in 2004). In Sublette’s telling, New Orleans started out as more of a European city than an American one, and something of a Caribbean city, too. Its history is bound up in the worldwide slave trade, conflict between European powers, and the expansion of the United States. Traces of this complicated lineage live on in the city’s music, and it’s no surprise that Sublette, an acclaimed musicologist, draws out those connections in detail. But those connections happened as a result of a constant exchange of money, culture and people, always colored by whichever of three regimes laid claim to the city at the time.
The narrative begins with a primer on European adventures in the New World during the 1500s and 1600s, with the Spanish, French and Dutch playing prominent roles in shaping the nascent economy (turns out the author is a distant relation to some of those early players). In the latter half of the 1600s, French settlers in Canada started moving south along what was eventually named the Mississippi River, through territory previously held by Spain, and eventually established a colony at the river’s mouth onto the Gulf of Mexico, presumably to beat the British to the punch. Those colonists discovered Indians and free blacks, and thus the region’s crazy-quilt nature began to take shape. In the early 1700s, settlers from Germany, French undesirables, and Africans imported as slaves (mostly from Senegal) added to the local numbers. They all brought their culture, including their music and dance, which began to mix with the various musical traditions already represented in young Louisiana.
The French held sway from the city’s founding until a secret deal was cut in 1762 to stem French losses in the French and Indian War. The Louisiana territory was dealt to the Spanish, who used the land as a buffer zone between their holdings west of the Gulf Coast and Britain’s control of the coast east of New Orleans. Spain imported even more slaves into the region during its reign, adding further to its African flava. But revolutionary fervor in Haiti, France and America set forth a chain of events that would result in the return of Louisiana to France in 1800. The nascent American nation feared French control of New Orleans, by now an important center of commerce, especially if the French signed a peace treaty with the British. So in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson initiated negotiations with French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte, which culminated in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, making the territory an official American colony (and, not coincidentally, ripe for expansion of the agricultural industry and accompanying American slave trade).
Conflict over ownership of Louisiana would not rest until after the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-15. By the time Sublette’s narrative ends in the 1840s, New Orleans was the third largest city in America, and probably its blackest one, too. Throughout all of the changes Louisiana experienced in ownership, the distinct culture of New Orleans took root, drawing from all of the parties who dictated the official course of events, from its economy to the influence of the slave trade to the creation of the street grid.
Readers may wish for grounding in European history, as Sublette chronicles two centuries’ worth of Old World royalty and politics, and the resulting effects on New Orleans’ development. But although the cast of characters is dizzying at times, Sublette lays out the chronology accessibly, even allowing for side meditations on the evolution of “funk” and “gumbo” and the nature of American slavery. Most schoolkids have heard of the Louisiana Purchase from a basic American history course, and the French flavor is evident through slang and street names, but Sublette places special emphasis on the city’s Spanish influence; not for nothing did Jelly Roll Morton characterize the young music to be known as jazz as a sound defined by its “Spanish tinge”. As the book’s formal section ends, he falls back into musicologist mode, linking the fabled drummers in Congo Square and their counterparts throughout the Caribbean by their common West African roots.
He makes a curious leap with his afterword (or “coda,” in keeping with his music background), bypassing the Civil War, Huey Long and even Katrina herself to locate the present-day embodiment of New Orleans’ history in the Mardi Gras Indians, black men who draw sustenance from the historic connection between Native Americans and escaped slaves. Every city with a party district can claim to have a Mardi Gras, but the elaborate feather-adorned costumes, the musical chants, and the pride of black folk culture embodied by generations of Indians represent a tradition that exists only in New Orleans. Post-Katrina, Sublette passionately reports, that tradition is in an especially fragile state; here he adopts an unabashed advocate’s voice to assert that this aspect of New Orleans’ unique culture is not only alive and well, but under siege.
Within the overall context of the book, this discourse comes as a bit of a stylistic disconnect. Indian lore, captured in musical form by groups like the Wild Magnolias, deserves a book of its own, and Sublette’s long-form reportage feels more like a first chapter of such a work than a summation of the history he’s just laid out. But the section’s love and respect for the essential fabric of this city is entirely in keeping with the tone Sublette maintains throughout his biography.
Sublette, who thinks like a historian and writes like a pop critic, makes no bones about where he stands on various issues, dispensing with academic, just-the-facts-ma’am distance to indulge in the occasional tongue-in-cheek sidebar. But he relates the origins of this city unlike any other on the globe as a convoluted, carefully detailed yarn that’s even more entertaining because it’s true. After all, it’s been said more than once that New Orleanians love nothing so much as a good ol’fashioned story.