Friday, April 8, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #30 - Professor Lonhghair - Crawfish Fiesta

This is a story about New Orleans: an amazing, singular, misunderstood city. There are a number of factors that make it a great city; the food, the architecture, the cultural heritage of which the music is its greatest ambassador. The misunderstanding sets in when people can’t separate the good from the not so good. Like any city there are less interesting neighborhoods and that’s the way it is with the food, architecture and culture in New Orleans. Is all the food good? Of course not, it’s the naturally occurring seafood that has been brought to a high art. It is those buildings that betray the French Colonial and plantation influence that really stand out and it is specifics that make New Orleans music great. It isn’t every funk or rock band that learns to yell “Les Bon Temps Roulez!” that defines the sound of the crescent city, rather it is those artists who, without pretense, innovate and perpetuate certain specific musical attributes that make the city’s music special.
To my mind, no artist in the post- WWII era embodies these attributes more than Henry Roeland Byrd, more commonly known as Professor Longhair. Fess’s performing life was almost entirely in New Orleans and his fame was small. He toiled in obscurity and poverty for much of his life and has really only received his due since his death. His recorded legacy is also spotty, hard to find and sometimes not representative of his greatness. The perfect way to introduce oneself to this important artist is his one and only record for the Alligator label called “Crawfish Fiesta.” Although recorded in 1979 long after his start in the late 1940’s and close to his death in 1980 the album is possibly the best recorded and one of the best performed of all his releases.  Backed by a sublimely tight, in-the-pocket band including Dr. John on guitar (!) and New Orleans legend John Vidacovich on drums the focus of everything is Professor Longhair’s masterful piano playing and his unearthly vocals. On both of these accounts he is without peer. When one talks about New Orleans style piano and the “second-line” sound there is nobody who does it better than Professor Longhair. Referring to the second line of observers and dancers who follow New Orleans musical parades, it is the footfall of this second line that creates the second line of rhythm. In Longhair’s style it manifests itself as a backbeat that is slightly behind the beat and produces a woozy, herky-jerky sound irresistible to dancers. Countless New Orleans piano players have tried (and failed) to approximate his style, but he remains stubbornly impenetrable. 
The same can be said of his singing. The first times I listened to Professor Longhair I thought he might be singing in some foreign language. The words, a combination of ethnic expression and street lingo tumble out of his mouth in a torrent, often not pausing in places grammar would suggest. The result is hypnotic. It is why there is such a fascination with the music of New Orleans; it really does sound like it is from somewhere you’ve never been. And the things he sings about! “Well the girls ‘round here gettin’ real real rough/calling for whiskey with a dip of snuff.” How the hell do I get there? I want to find that bar he’s singing about on the song “In The Wee Wee Hours” where the women behave that way. And when exactly are the wee wee hours? The professor tells us; “Between night and dawn.” When is that exactly? Like many great artists, Professor Longhair has created his own universe, populated by interesting people speaking a language that is somewhat familiar yet enticing and exotic with a touch of danger. 
It is the city itself that creates this state of being. Professor Longhair couldn’t be from anywhere else. He is such a product of his environment that his art becomes shorthand for  all the things that are New Orleans. His authenticity and natural talent are not the product of training, polish or production, they are the product of raw ability being honed in a blast furnace of hard-scrabble American street life. You just can’t fake that kind of stuff. Every second of Crawfish Fiesta is a joyous celebration of the street where Henry Byrd lived. It could be your street, but it’s not. The only map is in the grooves of the music.
Paul Epstein

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