John Boutte took the outdoor stage in Austin’s Town Lake Park on March 18 around 6:45 p.m. He was part of the South by Southwest Music Conference’s free outdoor concert to honor Louisiana music and its resilience since Hurricane Katrina. The event had begun early in the afternoon with dancers two-stepping on the green grass to the rural swamp music of Beausoleil and Buckwheat Zydeco, and then to the urban funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.
Now, however, the sun was going down, the shadows were lengthening and the temperature was dropping. Behind Boutte was the New Orleans Social Club, featuring the son of a Neville brother (Ivan Neville), half of the original Meters (George Porter and Leo Nocentelli), James Booker’s most obvious heir (Henry Butler) and one of those underrated drumming geniuses that New Orleans always produces (Raymond Weber). Boutte was the smallest person on stage, a short, wiry figure in a blue suit and blue baseball cap. But he had the biggest voice of the whole weekend, a sweet tenor that snuck up on the listener with jazz nuances and then leapt up with a gospel exclamation.
He had just one song to sum up his feelings about his post-hurricane hometown, and he made a most unusual choice, the British diva Annie Lennox’s “Why,” a song Boutte had recorded in 2003. With Neville leaning on an organ chord and Butler raining down piano notes, Boutte stretched out the title question “Why?” for four full measures of whispery bewilderment. Lennox had written the song as an interrogation of an ex-lover and Boutte had sung it that way in 2003, but in the new circumstances the question had a whole new connotation.
Boutte forced those connections with a louder, edgier delivery on the lines, “Why can’t you see this boat is sinking?… Let’s go down to the water’s edge.” Suddenly, we were back in the flooded streets. He grew more and more agitated, rising atop Porter’s prodding bass lines into church-like testifying: “These are the words I never said.” Boutte flung his arms out to his sides, offering his open breast to any misfortune; then he reached out imploringly to the crowd in the gathering twilight. “This is how I feel. Do you know how I feel? I don’t think you know how I feel.”
It was a reminder that even the most sympathetic, most earnest outsider could never feel the same thing as those who had a home in the New Orleans area on August 29. “You don’t know how I feel,” Boutte repeated again and again, toying with the melody and the rhythm as if that might help him bridge the gap. With each repetition it became clear that he wanted everyone to know how he felt, even if he could never fully succeed.
It was an astonishing moment that left many on the dusk-darkened grass with a chill that had nothing to do with the breeze coming off the Colorado River. Boutte had taken a song that had been written with one meaning and had given it an entirely different spin, merely through his interpretation. It was an act of transformation that he has performed over and over in the year since Katrina, altering familiar songs into new, unexpected rituals of communal catharsis. In the process he has become, to these ears at least, the most important artist of post-K New Orleans music.
In early June, Boutte was at his studio workspace in the French Quarter, the “Boutte Bat Cave,” as he calls it. When asked about the storm, he quickly demurs.
“I never use the word ‘storm’,” he says. “I always say, ‘When the levees failed.’ The problem wasn’t the storm; the problem was the levees.”
So we started over. How has he approached his music differently since the levees failed? How has he taken the songs he had recorded previously—“Why,” “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “If I Had My Life To Live Over” and “City of New Orleans”—and given them a whole new meaning?
“Take ‘Why,’ for example,” he suggests. “Both versions are intimate, but the meanings are different. The original version is about a relationship, but the new one is about an overall event, a relationship that we all were in. Suddenly it was a much bigger question, that old enigma: Why are people suffering all over the world? Why did it happen to my mother? Why did it happen to my brother? Why did it happen to people I didn’t give a shit about? Then there’s these people who come around and say, ‘It was God’s will.’ How can you be so ignorant to pretend you know God’s will? Or nature’s will? Shit just happens.
“I could relate to that line about the water’s edge because I’m a fisherman, and I love going to the water’s edge. You can’t fish in the city anymore because of the pollution, but when I sit by the water’s edge, I can cast all my cares and doubts away. And I have a lot of cares and doubts; they still turn me inside out. I can bitch and moan, but why should I lay that on someone else? It’s been a pity party for so long. Some of us have gone off the deep end. We should all go to the edge and throw that shit out and let it go.”
Boutte was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when Katrina slammed into Louisiana on August 29. He was there with Terrence Simien, Ivan Neville, Davell Crawford and Corey Harris for a Louisiana-music festival. Like the others, Boutte spent every moment offstage glued to his hotel television, soaking up information, both accurate and not.
“What was it like?” he asks. “It was like standing by I-10 and watching your family suffer a car wreck and you can’t get up on I-10 to help them. That’s what it was like. I was able to communicate back to New Orleans; I had ‘Jesus on the Mainline.’ I could get a first-hand account of the madness. But there were no flights back to the city; how weird was that? Before that day, it had never crossed my mind to pray that my home would still be there when I got back from a trip. We take a lot of things for granted. They caught us with our pants down, and our dirty drawers were showing.”
He stayed with a sister in Orlando, Florida, then with a friend in Naples, Florida, then with friends of a friend in North Carolina. Finally, five-and-a-half weeks after the levees failed, he got back to his hometown.
“It was devastating,” he recalls. “Trees knocked down; houses knocked down. I thought I was finished crying, but my heart just sank. Every now and then I still get depressed. We all do. My workspace was dry, but I lost tons of music, paperwork, instruments, clothes, pictures, every fucking thing I owned. I was about to move into a new place, so I had stuff at my mother’s, some at my sister’s. I didn’t put everything into one basket, but most of it was in baskets that were fucking wet.
“I received a lot of help from strangers and friends. MusiCares really helped out, and so did Higher Ground, Quint Davis’ group in New York. The generosity came from everywhere. I’m a proud kind of guy; I don’t want people to give me shit. I’ve always worked for it. It’s a humbling experience when you have to go to people and you find out how generous people can be. What goes around comes around; they’ll be blessed for everything they did.”
Coping with the aftermath of the levee failure was a two-part process. There was the practical side: of salvaging possessions that could be saved, of replacing those that couldn’t, of finding new living arrangements. But there was also the artistic side, trying to make sense of what had happened through his music. Key to that second process was the song “Why” and the line, “You don’t know how I feel.”
“It’s like having a baby,” he suggests. “I can ask a woman what it’s like and she can tell me, but I’ll never, never know. Till you feel it yourself, you don’t know how it feels. To wonder if the people you love are still alive, to wonder if the possessions you’ve gathered for years are still there, to wonder if the elders in your community are walking waist-high in filthy water with despair in their faces, to see respectable people standing on their roofs for five days or in the convention center, you just don’t know how it feels. It’s good that people try to empathize. That’s better than the people who stand back and say, ‘It won’t happen to me.’”
Boutte transformed another song when he performed at d.b.a. on April 29, the first Saturday of Jazz Fest. Wearing a straw hat with a chocolate hatband, an almond-colored scarf and a loose white shirt, he was sitting in a chair on the tiny stage in the long, narrow club, refusing to sing again until the chatty crowd settled down to listen. When they finally did, he nodded to trumpeter Leroy Jones, bassist Peter Harris, percussionist Ruben Watts and guitarist Todd Duke and they began the intro to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Still sitting in his chair, Boutte gave his tambourine a brief rattle and crooned in a slow, sweet, high tenor: “I was bo-ooorrrr-rn by the river.”
Boutte was born by the same river as Cooke, a Clarksdale, Mississippi, native, only a bit farther downstream. Born on November 3, 1958, the eighth of 10 children, Boutte grew up in the Seventh Ward. It was a rich musical environment in those days. Louis Cottrell, Jr., the trad-jazz legend, got his hair cut by Boutte’s father; a similar legend, Paul Barbarin threw backyard parties down the block. Danny Barker recruited the young Boutte for his new music school. Meanwhile, his big sister Lillian, older by eight years, was already singing on sessions for Allen Toussaint and Dr. John and ultimately landed a big role in the New Orleans musical, One Mo’ Time.
John Boutte sang in church and played first-chair trumpet in public schools that were well stocked with instruments and teachers. In addition to local music by the Meters, Lee Dorsey and Willie Tee, he soaked up the music of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and the Jackson 5. Segregation was painfully but steadily crumbling, and Cooke’s 1965 anthem sounded like the dawning of a new age.
In April, 2006, when it was still unclear if most of New Orleans’ poor, black majority would ever get past the many barriers to return home, the song “A Change Is Gonna Come” sounded more like a desperate need than an assured future, especially the way Boutte sang it at d.b.a. By the time he repeated the chorus for the last time, he was standing atop his rickety chair, smacking his tambourine on his right hip and flinging out his left arm to the drinkers before him, as if they were the congregation of his own private church.
“It’s been too hard living,” he sang in a rising, quivering cry of anguish, “but I’m afraid to die, ’cause I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky.” He had their attention now, and the noisy barroom quieted. “It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he continued, transforming that faltering cry into a steadier, fuller declaration, “but I know a change is gonna come.”
“When is a change going to come?” he asks in June. “I keep hoping a moral change is going to come, so we can see each other as human beings. I keep hoping a political change is going to come. But if people don’t go out and do the right thing, the powers that be will conclude it’s okay to treat people bad and we will get what we deserve. Sometimes people keep a boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t love them because they’re afraid of change. Sometimes a person keeps an apartment with a landlord who’s unreasonable because they’re afraid of change. Sometimes they keep a president or mayor for the same reason. Change is not always bad. Things are going to change anyway; you have to try to make it for the better.”
Once again, Boutte had taken a song he had previously recorded and given it a whole new meaning by placing it in a new context. He had introduced the song with sardonic rap about FEMA and local politicians, so when he tackled Cooke’s bridge about asking his brother for help, only to be knocked back to his knees, Boutte translated that Civil Rights scenario into a post-Katrina drama. And like a good dramatist, Boutte tangled up his listeners in blue before giving them a ray of sunshine.
“I like to do tunes that give some kind of hope,” he explains, “because people do need hope. They needed it before the levees failed, and they need it even more now. If you sing something often enough, you start to believe it. If you hear it often enough, you start to believe it. If I sing tragedy, tragedy all the time, it’s not good for my psyche and it’s not good for my audience’s psyche. Sometimes you have to go to the funeral; sometimes you have to bury the dead. But after the crying, you have to have the rejoicing because the dead person is home, wherever that home may be, whatever your belief may be.
“That’s what New Orleans funerals are all about,” he adds, “and all New Orleans music is influenced by our funerals. With all the abject poverty down here, you wouldn’t think people would be whistling a happy tune or cutting a step, but they do. That’s something we’ve had down here for all my life. Just like that water, you can’t stop it. No matter how hard they try, they can’t hold the water back, and they can’t stop the music either. It can be dangerous to try.”
Growing up, Boutte was encouraged to learn as much music as he could, but the older players also cautioned that he needed a profession to fall back on. So he got a degree in economics from Xavier University, served in the army for several years, and came home to take a job as a banker. And he might still be working on loans and mortgages if he hadn’t gotten a call from an old college friend circa 1987. Stevie Wonder was coming to Xavier for an event, and he wanted a keyboard so he could jam in his hotel room. Could they borrow Boutte’s Yamaha DX7?
He brought it by the hotel, but Wonder wasn’t there. Boutte didn’t have a stand, so he set the keyboard up on the hotel end table and left. When he returned a while later, he could hear music seeping through the hotel door into the corridor. It only took a few bars for the banker to recognize the signature touch of his hero. He burst into the room and there was Wonder, playing the Yamaha on the end table where Boutte had left it. Soon everyone in the tiny room was jamming, and Boutte found the courage to open his mouth and sing. On and on it went until it was time for Wonder to pack up and move on to the next city.
“As he was leaving,” Boutte remembers, “he gave me a hug, and he said, ‘You’ve got a good voice, you’ve got your own signature. You should do this.’ It was one of those moments where all the stars align. When Stevie Wonders says, ‘You can do this,’ it makes you pay attention. I said, ‘I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going to do this. Everyone else can kiss my ass.’ I quit my bank job the next day. Everyone said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ I said, ‘No, I just found it.’ Everyone kept saying, ‘Security, security.’ I said, ‘Nothing in life is secure.’”
His big sister Lillian invited him along on a European tour to see if he really enjoyed the lifestyle. He did. Soon he was performing regularly in New Orleans clubs and semi-regularly on overseas tours. His debut album was 1993’s Through the Eyes of a Child, a set of jazz standards backed by an all-star band of Ed Frank, Brian Blade, Loren Pickford and Shannon Powell. Another standards album, 1997’s Scotch and Soda, featured the duo of Boutte and future Ollabelle keyboardist Glen Patscha. He released Friends in Switzerland in 1998, the same year he met Cowboy Mouth’s Paul Sanchez at a party in Michelle Shocked’s backyard.
“Paul and I hit it off,” Boutte says, “and he said, ‘Let’s write some songs.’ I hadn’t written any songs in a long time; I wasn’t sure I wanted to sing my own songs on stage. Anyone who’s done it will tell you that it’s scary to get onstage and sing; you might as well be buck naked. But when you’re singing your own songs, you’re buck naked with your heart cut open. I didn’t know if I wanted to expose all that. But Paul said, ‘Let’s get together and have a writing session.’
“We sat around getting to know each other, kicking around ideas and then we stepped outside to get something to drink at the K&B. We saw the graveyard, and Paul said, ‘My dad is buried there,’ and I said, “My dad’s buried there.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, we’re all going to end up at the foot of Canal Street.’ Paul said, ‘That’s brilliant; that’s a song.’ So we went home and wrote ‘At the Foot of Canal Street.’”
That became the title track of Boutte’s 1999 album, which also featured the Boutte-Sanchez composition “Sisters,” Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things” and Boutte’s original recordings of “Didn’t It Rain” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” In 2000, Boutte became the featured vocalist on Mardi Gras Mambo, an album by the expatriate group of Cuban musicians, Cubanismo. In 2003, Boutte released two albums: the retrospective Jambalaya and the collaboration with the alt-country band Uptown Okra, Carry Me Home.
When the levees failed last August, something shifted within Boutte. It was no longer enough to sing beautifully about romantic relationships. It was necessary to explore the pain, anger and hope of post-Katrina New Orleans in his music. But how? He could become a protest singer-songwriter, but that wasn’t his strength and there were too many of those already. No, his strength was interpreting old songs to give them new meanings. Once he did it with “Why” on the New Orleans Social Club album, Sing Me Back Home, he had found the key. By the last Sunday of Jazz Fest he was ready.
He climbed the short stairs to the stage in the Jazz Tent with the front brim of his straw hat turned up, the sleeves of his pale blue shirt rolled up to the elbows and the cuffs of his white slacks rolled up to the knees. He was backed by an expanded version of his d.b.a. band, and every song they sang carried new connotations.
When he sang “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” as a slow, melancholy blues, he leaned on the lines, “I hear the waters whispering, ‘Come back home,’” and he answered the river with a piercing cry, “I’m coming home.” When he sang “Basin Street Blues,” he filled it with homesick yearning on the lines, “You’ll never know how nice it seems or how much it really means.” He introduced “Cottage for Sale” with the comment, “I thought this tune was appropriate now that all the speculators have come to town.” On Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” he changed the original lines, “Tall white mansions and little shacks,” to “Tall white mansions and flooded shacks,” thus making a connection between the Jim Crow past and the FEMA present.
“That’s a deep song,” Boutte insists. “We still have tall white mansions and little shacks down here, people living in opulence and people living in poverty. People don’t want to say it, but we do have racism down here. Why do we have statues of Robert E. Lee and Pierre Beauregard in New Orleans? These men were traitors to America. That element is still down here in the old-line money here that runs stuff. So I gave the Neil Young song a Donny Hathaway approach with more of a groove and a more soulful melody. I slipped in a bit of ‘Dixie,’ that line, ‘Old times are not forgotten, look away, look away,’ but I changed it to ‘Old times should not be forgotten.’ We shouldn’t forget the bad attitudes, the racism. We shouldn’t look away.”
Back in the Jazz Tent, Boutte next sang “City of New Orleans,” the Steve Goodman song made famous by Arlo Guthrie, Boutte transformed the country-folk melody into a hand-clapping Dixieland parade march. He turned the key lines, “Good morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son,” from a friendly hello into a desperate demand for recognition.
“I felt like we were forgotten,” he says. “We’re Americans; we’re native sons. We belong to this land. But people treat us like we’re like the red-headed stepchild of the family; everyone wants to come and rub that stepchild’s head once in a while. Then they go home and say, ‘That’s New Orleans; it’s not really part of the country.’”
The Jazz Fest set reached its climax, though, on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”
“Paul [Sanchez] and I were sitting on a porch in the French Quarter one night,” Boutte recalls, “talking about Jazz Fest. I was trying to pick his brain for ideas because I wanted this show to be special, especially after the levees failed. Paul said, ‘Just give them yourself. Give them New Orleans. People are hungry for New Orleans.’ Then he played me that tune, ‘Louisiana 1927,’ and I knew what he meant.
“I’d never heard the tune, though I’d had people come up and request it at shows. So it was fresh to me. I didn’t have to try hard to make it mine because I didn’t know any other version. Paul suggested that I personalize it, that I make it more significant for what’s happening now. So we started kicking around how we might change it. I realized that Randy Newman had written it from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, but I wanted to sing it as someone on the ground, as someone here in the shit. We changed a few words and when I sang the tune, I went, ‘Wow.’”
At the Jazz Tent, Leroy Jones announced the song with a forlorn sigh of a trumpet solo, as if burying a soldier with honors. After a smack of a cymbal, Boutte sang out the news: “What has happened down here, y’all, is the winds done changed.” His voice had an R&B grit absent from Newman’s version, a New Orleans drawl that indicated just where “down here” was. “The river rose all day; the river rose all night,” he sang in a sad elegy. “Some people got lost in the flood; some people got away alright.”
“When I sing a song, I do it the first time under control,” Boutte says in June. “Then I do it the second time without control; I just let it come. You have to give people something familiar, so they know where they are. But once you make that connection, you can go anywhere; you can just let go.”
So after Boutte had sung Newman’s original lyrics through one time, he started to mess with them. “Check this out,” he shouted to the crowd. This time, the line, “The clouds rolled in from the north and it started to rain,” became “The clouds rolled in from the Gulf.” This time the line, “Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline,” became “Twelve feet of water in the Lower Nine.” Now a buzz was running through the crowd beneath the canvas tent. Many of these people had seen what 12 feet of water could do to the Lower Ninth Ward.
Reacting to that buzz, Boutte shouted to the band, “Break it down y’all.” The musicians cleared some space for the singer to go into his storytelling mode. Newman’s line about “President Coolidge came down in a railroad train with a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand” became Boutte’s line, “President Bush flew over in an aeroplane with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hands,” and he added a cocaine-snorting sound as punctuation to his description of the Dubya Gang. That got loud laughter from the audience, but he got serious again when he asked, “Ain’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor Creole’s land?”
Now people were rising spontaneously from their folding chairs as if moved by the spirit in church. They egged Boutte on with hollering and hands waving above their heads. He responded with, “Looo-eeez-eee-annn-a, they’re trying to wash us away.” Who was trying to wash us away? Well, he’d made that clear in the previous verse. What were we going to do about it? “Don’t let them wash us away,” he cried again and again. The stomping, shouting crowd sang back at him, “Looo-eeez-eee-annn-a.” Singer and audience were united in a ritual of shared pain, shared hope and shared determination, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever wash them away for good.
“I’ve always performed with drama,” he says in June, “but since the levees failed, I’ve had to dig a little deeper. It takes a little more meditation and preparation than it did before. I have to connect with people’s suffering and find a way to bring them up. You don’t do that by putting on an act. You do it by being yourself, by being honest about your own suffering and finding some hope in the middle of all that. You do it by being as human as you can.”