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A Tale of New Orleans: Spencer Bohren’s Storied Blues

Verse 1: Kitchen Music

Spencer Bohren and his wife Marilyn are spending a rare day at home in their cozy brick cottage on Esplanade Ridge. It’s a steamy August afternoon and the world seems to move in languid rotation as a huge black and gold monarch butterfly floats and glides amid the drying laundry hung on a line next to the house. The barefoot Bohren offers us iced tea and Marilyn’s homemade cupcakes before he begins pulling neatly stacked guitars out of a closet and piling them on the kitchen table. Every guitar has a story. “This one I found floating in the house after the storm,” he says, cradling an 1897 Bruno parlor guitar. “I thought it was ruined, but a friend told me to just keep it in a dry place and it would be okay. Sure enough, it came back.

“This is the guitar Jimmy Reed used,” he says, hefting a Kay electric with its distinctive tortoise-shell pick guard. “Not this particular guitar, but one just like it.”

Bohren reaches up and carefully pulls out a worn 1959 Gibson acoustic J-45. “This one goes with me everywhere,” he says. “It’s been stolen from me twice, and returned both times. In fact that’s how I got involved in storytelling, by telling the story of the first time this guitar was stolen.”

Spencer Bohren Guitars Photo by Elsa Hahne

For Spencer Bohren, every guitar tells a story, photo by Elsa Hahne.

Bohren has been a New Orleans-based guitarist and songwriter dating back to the mid ’70s, when he and Marilyn arrived in town on a whim during Mardi Gras and decided that this would be their home. Bohren has built an international reputation as a bluesman, songwriter and more recently as a professional storyteller. When we met, Bohren had just returned from a month at the International Storytellers Convention. He’s also a visual artist whose cigar box assemblages have been the subject of numerous gallery presentations. Though he often plays solo, Bohren has recently built a local following as the leader of a band, Spencer Bohren and the Whippersnappers, which features his son Andre on drums and Andre’s bandmate from Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Dave Pomerleau on bass, with Casey McAllister on guitar and organ. McAllister is ubiquitous on the New Orleans music scene, playing with Hooray for the Riff Raff, The Special Men, Kristin Diable, Pontchartrain Wrecks and Clockwork Elvis among other groups.

The Whippersnappers have added youthful zest to Bohren’s music and emphasized that the Bohren brood has joined the ranks of New Orleans’ family groups. Though Spencer is from Wyoming and Marilyn from Colorado, they’ve resided in New Orleans long enough to make the 33-year-old Andre a kind of musical anchor baby.

“They’re all half my age,” Bohren says of the Whippersnappers, “so that’s kinda fun to have their take on my songs. They suggested doing just my songs, which amazingly after all these years and all the records (Bohren has recorded 16 albums) it’s never once occurred to me to do. So I got out all these records and made a list of the most appropriate ones and I came up with 60 just like that. I had to relearn half the songs. Some of them are political but you can’t tell they were written 25 years ago because the issues are the same. A lot of the material I wrote all these years ago is still relevant. There’s one song called ‘The Party’s Over’ that I only ever played once, in a darkened studio. The Whippersnappers do a killer version of it. It’s about a woman who is sick of the relationship she’s been in since she was a teenager and her reaction to it and then how she gets out of it. With these guys, we create this really steamy atmosphere. Casey’s not your typical lead guitarist who stands up there and plays a lot of notes, he’s very much a painter, so this song really digs deep.”

Spencer grew up in a musical family singing gospel harmonies.

“I like to say I could sing a third above the octave before I learned to read,” he laughs. “My mother cared about choir music so we learned to sing together as kids. That’s so deep in us that harmony is our second nature. When I found out there were also songs about murder and adultery I was in heaven.”

Verse 2: A Wyoming Folkie in King Longhair’s Court

Inspired by the folk rock boom of the 1960s, Bohren left his Wyoming home and took to the road, played in bands in California and was working in a country rock group in Colorado when he and Marilyn decided to hit the road for a year and see where fortune took them.

It took them to what turned out to be their new home, New Orleans, where Bohren heard gospel music like he’d never imagined it as a kid.

“Gospel music is folk music,” he says. “It’s music without a commercial agenda even in the straight-laced way we did it in Wyoming, but then when you come to New Orleans and you feel those songs stretched out, you hear somebody sing ‘Old Rugged Cross’ about 1/4 of the tempo that you’re used to doing it… it just blew my mind.”

The Bohrens were entranced by the magic of the city from the moment they first arrived.

“I had done some gigs with Dr. John in Colorado,” recalls Spencer. “He talked about the Mardi Gras Indians and he talked about Professor Longhair. When we came to New Orleans we found a flier on the ground that had a picture of Fess and it said ‘Professor Longhair, the real King of Mardi Gras.’ The flier was promoting his appearance at the 501 Club, which is now Tipitina’s. Then it was just a sailor bar. There was a bar and there was a wall with paneling and a door in the wall and you could walk through that door and go back into what is now the big room. There was no stage, it was just a bunch of sailors in there. We got there right at 9 o’clock and there was nobody there but us and a few sailors. I told the bartender, ‘We’re here to see Professor Longhair’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s coming.’ After the first beer, I thought, ‘There’s nothing happening here,’ so I asked for our money back and he said, ‘No, it’s just early. Don’t worry, he’s coming. It’s Mardi Gras.’ We didn’t know what that meant at the time. We waited until finally about quarter to midnight and we were really ready to go. In Colorado, the bars close at quarter to 1. At a quarter to midnight a bunch of people came in. At 10 to midnight a lot more people came in. Then at midnight, Fess walked in through the back door with I think Camile Baudoin was in his band. He was playing within 10 minutes and it was like a Mardi Gras ball, there were cops dancing with drinks in their hands, mace and guns poppin’ up and down on their belts while they danced with these big gals. The place just went nuts and it was the most wonderful experience we ever had musically, it was just so exciting. That was just one of the many things that seduced us to live in New Orleans.”

Bohren’s ability to sing harmonies earned him some friends soon after he moved to the city.

“We were so new we didn’t know anybody,” he says. “We met Dave and Susie Malone and things started happening — Dave and his brother Tommy and Susie, I really loved it. We had five vocalists, so everyone sang together, which was wonderful. Susan and Dave came to one of my gigs and invited us over to dinner and the very first time we ever sang together we sang ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ with three-part perfect harmony. We both quit our bands and decided to form a group together.”

Verse 3: Monday Nights at Tipitina’s

Though he’s been here long enough to become entrenched in the social landscape of the city, it was unusual for an outsider musician like Bohren to move to New Orleans in the mid-’70s.

“There were hundreds of musicians in town and at that time almost all of them were from New Orleans,” he notes. “John Magnie (Little Queenie and the Percolators, subdudes) and his wife and us and very few other people were the ones from out of town.” Gigs were hard to come by, and Marilyn helped support the family by working as a midwife. She delivered babies for church families, itinerant circus performers and locals, including one of former OffBeat editor Bunny Matthews’ sons.

“When we first came here, the Beatles had erased the New Orleans R&B scene,” says Bohren. “There was no live music scene in New Orleans. The French Quarter had live music on Bourbon Street, then there was the Maple Leaf. Tipitina’s was just an idea. New Orleans was asleep. We fell in love with the vibe and the tropical identity, we just liked it.”
Bohren traces the rise of the modern New Orleans music scene to the opening of Tipitina’s in 1977.

Spencer Bohren and wife Photo by Elsa Hahne

Spencer and Marilyn Bohren, photo by Elsa Hahne

“The whole thing started to change when Tipitina’s opened up,” he says. “They were just a bunch of hippies. They didn’t know anything about doing what they were doing. We just became part of that scene and that scene just blew up into a whole renaissance.

“We weren’t aware of the larger history of New Orleans music when we came here. We were from the ‘60s music generation but when we got here it quickly became apparent that there were things going on here that didn’t require or respond to the needs or dictates of the music industry, whether it was Nashville, L.A., New York or San Francisco you were talking about. Once I started hosting the Monday night show at Tipitina’s, I just became part of the deal and I opened for everybody because I was a hot, sweaty blues soloist so I could cut the mustard in front of a lot of people but I didn’t have a back line to assemble and they only had to pay one guy. There were times when I definitely knew that I was out of my depth. The quality of the musicians can be just mind-boggling. What I loved most about those times was just being a fly on the wall and being around all these powerful musicians. One night, I was sitting at the bar and I suddenly realized Fats Domino was sitting next to me. When you’re not in New Orleans and you’re talking about musicians you’re talking about the music business — they all had this commercial agenda. Here it just was so much not like that, the music was so much a part of the fabric of life here. There is no music industry here and people lament that fact, but that’s why New Orleans music exists like it does, because there’s nobody here to inject the evil dollar into the equation. God knows, the musicians could use to make more money, but there’s something here that just exists on its own.

“I remember one night at Tipitina’s, Aaron Neville had just come back from I think he had been in Angola,” continues Bohren. “I had been playing on Tuesday nights at Tip’s—the Tuesday night special was $1 spaghetti and Spencer Bohren—but when they built the big stage they moved me to Monday nights and Cyril would come in because he lived just around the corner and he loved the way I played. Cyril would come in and sing and we’d do things like ‘Groovin’’ by the Young Rascals, he liked to sing ‘Stormy Monday.’ So this one night he brings in his brother Aaron. Aaron was kind of spooky. He had just gotten out of jail and he looked so rough. Cyril was trying to get him to sing and he was saying, ‘I don’t know about this.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go upstairs and figure out some songs.’ We go upstairs, I open up my guitar case and get my guitar out and there’s lyrics to ‘In My Life’ by The Beatles. He says, ‘You know this?’ I started playing it, he started singing it, we got about halfway through and he said, ‘Okay, let’s go downstairs.’ So we went down and did it, me playing guitar, Cyril and Aaron singing. We did so much stuff that I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter, I learned it on the spot — talk about on-the-job training. It was recorded, and somebody sent me a CD of it later. You can hear Aaron say, ‘Do you know “Lean on Me?”’ and I say ‘No.’ He just starts singing it and I’m trying to find what key it’s in. We did that all night long. It’s very beautiful, street corner doo-wop, ‘Hand Jive’ and ‘Down By the River.’ Some of the stuff we did that night ended up on Neville Brothers records. That’s just the kind of thing that could happen on a Monday night at Tipitina’s. Those were some great nights.

“Tip’s had a house band that could back anybody. Ernie K-Doe would come in. Mr. Google Eyes, he would come out and he would bring his friends. Bobby Marchan would come in. At one point they talked Huey Smith out of retirement, he was in the church and hadn’t done a gig for 14 years, but they talked him into doing a gig and Bobby Marchan put together some Clowns and they did a Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns gig. Earl King would play there, Lee Dorsey — Bobby Mitchell would come in with his turban. Plus you had the national acts like Captain Beefheart and this great local scene was beginning to kick in with the Radiators and Little Queenie and the Percolators, they were both such great bands and that helped give the club an identity. Those two bands provided great balance to the Tipitina’s lineup.”

Verse 4: The Story of the Blues

Living and playing in New Orleans had a profound effect on Bohren’s work.

“When we went on the road, my music started getting deeper,” he reflects. “And at the same time, it was simpler. When I came to New Orleans, I became serious about being a soloist and playing blues. I was playing country blues on national steel guitar. I was playing bottleneck and Mississippi stuff, playing the old-fashioned blues was my foot into the national scene. I had all this New Orleans rhythm that needed to be somehow distilled. I would play things like Earl King’s ‘Your Mama and Your Papa.’ It’s got the flat tire drums in it, but you can’t do that as a soloist so you learn to do it on the guitar. It’s not strumming and it’s not fingerpicking, it’s not really done on the guitar. So you have to figure out a way to do it, and I think that really influenced everything else I played. The music got distilled in a way. That’s what I think I’m known for now. When I teach, that’s what I teach, the skeleton of the music. I really want to be the less-is-more guy.”

Bohren became an international blues star, but his songwriting was always a central part of his musical identity. That aspect of his work took on an even greater role in the wake of the ’05 flood when he composed what is probably the best song written about the aftermath of the event, “The Long Black Line.” His account of what went into that song makes up one of this storyteller’s best tales.

Verse 5: The Long Black Line

“The Long Black Line” refers to the high water mark on the sides of buildings all over town that was clearly visible months after the flood.

“I’m so honored that that song came through me,” says Bohren. “I was riding in Montana when I wrote that song, it just came out of the sky.

“It got to be kind of weird because you’d look for the black line. You’d start hunting for it. It was even creepy because it made you think, ‘How much did these people suffer?’ It’s incomprehensible. The line is a way to measure it.

“People would ask me, ‘So are you gonna write a song about Katrina? And I would say no. I didn’t think I was qualified. What happened is Marc Paradis from Johnny Sketch said, ‘I’m thinking of doing a Katrina song.’ ‘Oh, I’m not, I’m definitely not,’ I told him and he said, ‘I’m gonna call it “The Long Black Line.”’ It was like I was hit by a lightning bolt. He said, ‘Maybe we could write it together?’ and I said, ‘That image, I can really feel this.’ So I asked him, ‘Have you come up with anything?’ He said no. He never did anything with it. Then I was in Montana and all of a sudden 16 verses just came to me out of the blue. I cut it down to eight, but somewhere in my desk I have the original 16 verses.

“I felt like Bob Dylan writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ I really did. And I just wrote it and wrote it and wrote it. I just had to really keep up with it, keep writing and writing, another page, another page, because I didn’t have time to think about it. It was like it was delivered. A lot of the best songs are like that. I always think of it as coming from somewhere else, but I suppose it’s all up there floating around.”

Like most people in New Orleans, the Bohrens suffered losses in the post-Katrina flood. They lost half of their house and relocated to St. Louis while they worked on rebuilding their New Orleans home.

“It all came to a head for me when I was standing in the third long line of the day and I had a bunch of people on my roof and I wanted to get back to the house to see what they were doing, but I was busy waiting, and then I got to the third line and I was just exasperated, angry, I was frustrated. I had to stand around, but I had important things to do. And this little Creole lady in front of me turns around and looks up at me and she says, ‘So did you lose everything?’ and I looked down at her and I said ‘What?’ and then I said, ‘No, I didn’t lose everything.’ And she said real slowly, ‘I lost everything. I lost my mama. I lost my daughter. I lost my heart.’ And I just thought to myself, ‘Spencer, just shut up and stand in the line.’ That really hit me hard, that no matter what I was dealing with, and it was significant, whatever we were dealing with was nothing compared to what many, many, many more people were dealing with.

“And that’s what happened with ‘Long Black Line.’ All these kind of conversations, plus what I heard on the radio, read in the newspapers. ‘Long Black Line’ doesn’t really have an opinion. There are opinions in there but there are conflicting opinions. It’s reportage. It’s the gold standard of what folk music is about in a way, it’s reporting the words of my neighbors and the words of the radio commentator and the words of strangers in the line. When the gate opened, all these images — the renovation, the smell of the mold, the masks we had to wear, the endless trips to the curb, the whole thing just flooded out of me. I wrote for 35 minutes and then the song was ready to edit. Without really knowing it, my creative mind had been mulling it over for a long time.

“Without Marc giving me that title nothing would have happened. I came back and I said, ‘Marc, I’ve written this whole song. I’m about to put this on a record, we should do some kind of a publishing deal’ and he said, ‘I don’t give a shit about all that,’ which in the end he did kind of give a shit, but at the time he didn’t. The other day I got some money from Treme so I gave him a little pile of it.

Verse 6: It’s a Family Affair

Bohren’s latest album, Blackwater Music, reflects the themes that have been recurring through his life in New Orleans, from his devotion to Marilyn, beautifully expressed in “Your Love,” to the sense of personal loss after Katrina that resonates with everyone in the city. The album opener, “Old Louisa’s Movin’ On,” was written with Marilyn.

“That’s my first and only song,” she laughs. “I didn’t decide to write it, it just kind of happened. We had a friend, one of the first people that we met here in New Orleans, named Maxine Cassin. She was a poet. She was 20 years older than we are. We’d stayed friends all these years. After Katrina she had to evacuate with her husband to Baton Rouge. They had lived in this huge house on General Pershing which was just kind of falling down over the years, it was way more than they could handle, way too many rooms. But she pined for New Orleans and it just ate her up. When she would call, life would stop for about an hour as you talked with her. The last time, she was just so angry, and I thought I’d better start writing these words down, so in a way she kind of wrote the song. When I hung up, I told Spencer, ‘I think I just wrote a song.’ Spencer, of course, organized it and fleshed it out. ‘Louisa’ is not exactly her story and it doesn’t even directly reference the storm, it’s just about an old lady living in a big house and it’s all tumbling down around her.”

Another song on the album, “Has Anyone Seen Mattie?,” is also about someone disappearing, which makes the two songs similar.

“They are in a way,” says Bohren, “but ‘Has Anyone Seen Mattie?,’ was for me an attempt to address the 1927 flood. Most of the reviews of the thing call it a Katrina song. That’s okay with me because I care more about how people interpret songs rather than waiting for me to explain them.”