It’s Carnival Time again in New Orleans and no one is happier to be a part of it than the man who penned the legendary song of the same name.
Thanks to the music community that holds him so dear and a partnership between Habitat for Humanity, Air Traffic Control (ATC), the Future of Music Coalition (FMC) and regular folks who’ve put in time and money to help, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson has returned home from a three-plus year exile in Houston, where he relocated after damage from floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina picked up his old house in the Lower Ninth Ward, slid it off its foundation and landed it across the street.
There’s no comparing this house to the one on Tennessee Street that he called home for decades, the place that sparked a touching tribute called “Lower Ninth Ward Blues” but he’s less blue these days as he prepares to move into his new home on Bartholomew Street.
“This is a wonderful thing,” Johnson says. “I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s the best way to come back and establish a place back in New Orleans, by joint venture. Here I am.”
Much of the money for Johnson’s house came through the efforts of ATC and musicians who organized benefits here and elsewhere. As a direct result of singer Damian Kulash’s time in New Orleans on an ATC/FMC activist retreat for musicians, OK Go teamed with Bonerama to do a benefit in Washington, D.C. for Johnson’s house, and they cut an iTunes-only benefit EP, which includes Johnson singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
“After the first retreat, it became a tradition to have a benefit at the end of the retreat so that the participating musicians can give something back immediately, even if it is just a night of music and community, ATC Information Director Deyden Tethong says. “Over the past couple of years we have seen the artists take what they have learned about New Orleans to their fans and communities nationwide. Many have continued to be involved and raise money and awareness for the New Orleans community. Since the first retreat, collective efforts have raised over $60,000 towards Al Johnson’s new home and another $50,000 for the New Orleans community both musicians and others.”
What began in earnest over two years ago with the help of the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, who threw his first benefit concert, is now fully realized for Johnson.
“Yeah, we’ve come a long way,” he says, referring to the city’s rebuilding efforts. But there is still so much work to be done. Each new homeowner has to put in 350 hours of “sweat equity” before moving into the neighborhood, and that includes Johnson. “We hammered. We sawed. We did it all. We built this house. All these houses!” he says, gesturing to the rows of brightly painted homes surrounding his, each nearly identical except for the banner proudly displaying the name of the musician due to call it his or her own.
Johnson intends to be a part of the work that remains, especially in his new neighborhood. He hopes to aid in the building of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a school and community center which will be at the heart of Musicians Village.
“It’s a great thing and now, I’ve got to figure out a way to help others myself,” he says. “They were really good to me and I’ve got to pass that around.”