Johnny Sansone had already established himself as a harmonica virtuoso in New Orleans when he released Crescent City Moon in 1997. The album won a slew of Best of the Beat awards and established Sansone as the premier harpist in the city. Rounder Records signed him to its Bullseye Blues label and released the album nationally, as well as his next album, Watermelon Patch, in 1999. In January 2005, Sansone was called into Piety Street studio to play on the Voice of the Wetlands sessions. His involvement in this band would change his life. Sansone became friends with fellow VOW bandmate Anders Osborne and eventually formed an acoustic trio with Osborne and John Fohl in 2010. Osborne had already produced Sansone’s 2007 release Poor Man’s Paradise and prompted Sansone to make a series of outstanding records since then—The Lord Is Waiting and the Devil Is Too, Once It Gets Started and the brand new Lady On the Levee.
The acoustic trio you were in with Anders Osborne and John Fohl resulted in Osborne’s American Patchwork album and a series of great Johnny Sansone albums.
It was my doing to put that trio together. Anders was going through some pretty tough times, and we’d become really close friends. He wanted to play, and I said ‘hey man, let’s do this show, we probably won’t make much money but we’ll have a lot of fun and it will take your mind off of some other stuff.’ It was more about putting some songs together and playing them on a weekly basis each Tuesday at Chickie Wah Wah. The idea was that each week we’d show up with a couple of new songs. John and I would bring one and Anders would bring like five so we realized how this thing was going.
The songs I was writing, nobody had ever heard them. They were just words on paper, and I would start playing them with these guys, and they would shape themselves live. With ‘The Lord Is Waiting and the Devil Is Too’ everybody started asking me ‘What’s the name of that song?’ At one point Anders said ‘You’ve got enough good songs here, you’ve got to make a record.’ It was completely on Anders. I was saying ‘I don’t think I’m ready, I don’t have a budget’ and Anders completely took over and said ‘We gotta make this record.’ He said to me ‘It’s your time right now.’ Originally we were gonna do it with John Fohl on guitar and Anders was gonna play drums. I think John wasn’t available, so Anders brought Stanton Moore in and coordinated the entire operation. He said ‘I just want you to concentrate on blowin’ your harmonica and singing from your heart.’ That’s all I had to worry about, and it really freed me up.
Then you turned around and made Once It Gets Started.
I have to thank Anders again for that. He said ‘You got something going, you have to keep it going. Every other year you have to put something else out to keep people interested. Get to it.’ He’s a great friend and he acted not just like a producer but a manager.
I love that song about the Hubig’s fire, “The Night the Pie Factory Burned Down.”
I was on the road when that happened. My girlfriend called to tell me about it. She was so sad. And I was like ‘Don’t worry, they’ll start up again’ and she said ‘No, you don’t understand. People are buying all these pies up and there’s not gonna be any pies anywhere. You should write a song about it.’ And I thought nobody’s gonna get it if I just write a song about pies.
But there were people who were like Hubig’s junkies. They had a pie for breakfast every day, so it was very important to these people to the point that they were freaking out. I made up the story. I was with my mother and I was explaining to her what I was trying to do. She’s helped me out on some other songs, so the whole thing came down to ‘you don’t miss your pie until your factory burns down.’ When we were recording the second Voice of the Wetlands record there was a big stack of Hubigs in the studio. I watched each guy walk in and out and grab one and each guy had a story about growing up and having a pie. Dr. John said ‘I used to take two pies to school with me every day and I spent my whole day deciding which one to eat first.’ George Porter told about his favorite, a certain flavor they don’t make any more. Everybody had a pie story.
Then comes Lady On the Levee. What a collection of stories that is. You’re in a groove, writing wise.
I’m gonna blame this on Anders again because he came to me and said ‘I only have three days between Christmas and New Year’s to produce you.’ I told him I didn’t have enough songs and he said ‘I’m telling you now, get to work and I’m gonna book the session.’ So it was Anders again throwing me into the fire and locking me down to write these songs. I went back and looked at some things that I had from a long time ago in my books. I had a lot of notes and I sat down with the notes and worked on the songs until they were done. Originally, we planned on it as an acoustic record with John Fohl, Anders and I. When I gave him the demos of the songs he said ‘I think we can add a rhythm section to this, we can get someone to play piano on that,’ so it kind of grew into its own thing.
Where did the title track come from? Or “Gertrude’s Property Line?”
I was over at Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s house, and all of the houses around him are being bought by newcomers to the city and getting renovated. His neighborhood is changing so quickly. He said ‘They come by here telling me they want to buy my house. I’m not selling my house. I’ve been here all my life. If I sell my house, where will I go?’ I realized how passionate he was about it. This is his neighborhood and where he came from and now it’s not gonna be anymore if he leaves. So he’s not going to leave and I think he’s one of the people that holds that whole neighborhood together. The idea came from that. There is no actual lady on the levee, I just envisioned a person who is staring at the river trying to envision the way things used to be, using the idea that the river is like a family and that it will always be there for you.
I love the song “One of Us.”
I was telling Anders about a party I was playing in Laramie, Wyoming, when I was in college. It was a Last Train Party. There were no more trains coming to Laramie Wyoming. It was a big frat house party by the tracks, and we played and the train came through and everybody threw beer cans at it. Then there was a guy who worked down at a Marina who just passed and I always looked at this guy and tried to figure him out. I just dreamed this stuff up. The Hell’s Angels part, I was playing at Buddy Guy’s club in Chicago and I met some Hell’s Angels. I started talking to them about motorcycles and they said ‘You play some pretty bad ass harp. You should come by this party.’ So these are things that happened to me, and my point is you have to be there to understand it.
“Lightning Bug Rhodes” is about a real guy.
I can’t listen to that song without crying. It’s really a love song about this guy who I used to travel around with in my 1960 Cadillac. He opened up the show for us when I had one of my early bands, and the emotion and power in his playing was so moving to me that I had to get to know the guy. I drove him to his home in Hammond, South Carolina, and realized that he lived in this little shack and didn’t have much of a life. He was an incredible musician and he told me all these stories of who he’d played with and songs that he’d written that he never got credit for. Now you can Google him, Walter Lightning Bug Rhodes, and you can see who he is, but back then nobody knew anything about him. So we formed a duo and traveled around and he told me stories.
I wrote the song on a train coming back from South Carolina. I got on the train and started talking to this guy who was a Baptist preacher and he was on his way back to New Orleans. I started writing down what had just happened. I had just buried this guy in a tobacco field. There weren’t a whole lot of people there. And we had just played Jazz Fest the year before. We put him on the Ray Ban stage. I was kind of trying to help manage him. We had just recorded a record that I had produced for him for Rounder. Everything was happening for him, and I was so excited for him. It was a beautiful thing to see him on the stage at Jazz Fest. We made the record. I helped him write the songs. He was just a beautiful person. He drowned, but nobody knows how because he didn’t like water he wouldn’t go near it, and that was it, nobody tried to find out what happened or anything, so that was it, it was just over. The record never came out. I was at a farm when they called me and said he was gone. I canceled the tour and went straight down there ’cause there really wasn’t anybody to take care of him. I sat on that song all those years, and I wasn’t gonna bring it out [he chokes back tears]. This record was very emotional because I lost my mom recently and it brought that song out to the point where I was able to use it. It was time to do something with it.
How about “I’m Still Here?”
When my mom was in hospice I remember the last things that I got to talk to her about, but I also remember when she was laying there unconscious. I would say certain things and I could see that she could smile a little bit. I realized that wherever she was in her mind she was still there. She didn’t want to go, she wanted to stay, and I talked to her and played for her for hours. We didn’t know how long she was going to be there, but she was there. What sealed it was when I went to see my friend Greg Fingers Taylor, he was in an institution, he has Alzheimer’s. He wasn’t sure exactly who I was, but he kept staring at me and I felt the same way—‘I know that you know I’m here, there’s something keeping us apart but you know that I’m still here.’ At one point, he put his hand on my wrist and said ‘I’m still alive.’ That’s all he could get out. It was the kind of a song that I had to do just to get it out. I want people to understand what was going on.