They call themselves travelers.
Teenagers on the run from a dead-end life in Orwellian America, they hop freight trains searching for the only freedom left to them, taking off for anywhere-but-here and building new communities on the road. They are this generation’s version of Woody Guthrie’s Depression-scattered hoboes, of Bob Dylan’s antiwar dropouts. They congregate on the streets and occupy abandoned houses, and they are a controversial and in some circles unwelcome fixture on the banquettes and neutral grounds of New Orleans where they spend their days singing and playing music on a motley assemblage of acoustic instruments.
If freedom in the ’60s was having nothing left to lose, today it’s having nothing left to look forward to. So the travelers use what they have going for them, their joy. A good number of the young people playing in New Orleans clubs at this point got their start playing on the street. When she got to New Orleans, Alynda Lee Segarra was one of those travelers.
Segarra celebrates her community in the name she chose for her group, Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her new recording, Small Town Heroes, is already being hailed by critics as one of the best albums of 2014. Yet this new star of New Orleans music is only a couple of years away from scraping a washboard and plucking her banjo across from Café Du Monde in Jackson Square.
Segarra is as unorthodox a candidate for her newfound status as she is an unlikely one; she isn’t a virtuoso performer or an eye-catching ingénue. She’s a will o’ the wisp, and her darkling features lend her a gypsy demeanor.
But out of her small, unprepossessing frame comes the voice of a generation. Segarra’s direct, emotionally charged songwriting manages to take the personal observations she draws from her life and influences and turn them into a larger story about aspiration in a world of diminished possibilities. It’s the human spirit talking through her, and she’s a humble medium for its revelations.
Last month at New York’s High Line ballroom the 26-year-old Segarra floored an audience of music business conventioneers. When she began her set accompanied only by her acoustic guitar the crowd conversation nearly drowned her out at first, but by the time she’d finished singing “New SF Bay Blues,” an adaption of the Jesse Fuller classic from a woman’s perspective, she had the audience’s full attention. The band emerged and the show began in earnest. A woman next to me danced ecstatically. I asked if she was a fan. “I am after today!” she answered. That sense of discovery ran through the audience as she evoked timeless Americana moments on songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright”). When Segarra sang “The Body Electric,” her new song condemning gun violence, the crowd buzzed with the tension of a political rally:
He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river
Cover me up with the leaves of September
Like an old sad song, you heard it all before
Yes, Delia’s gone but I’m settling the score
Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Is gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow
Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand
Is gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go
“I wrote the song with murder ballads in mind,” she explains. “I wanted to do a song in that style from a woman’s perspective asking for an end to violence.”
Alynda grew up in the Hispanic New York enclave of The Bronx, the homeland of salsa and the place where hip-hop was born. She was raised by her aunt Nereida Velazquez and though she was distant from her mother and remained very close to her father as a child, she thought of herself as a kind of orphan and became fascinated with the story of John Lennon being raised by his aunt Mimi.
“Aunt Nereida took me in at a very early age and was very good to me,” says Segarra.
“Although I don’t fit the technical definition of an orphan I remember reading about John Lennon and how he was raised by his aunt and that drew me to him because I think there’s an interesting relationship that kids have to a person that chose to raise them even though they didn’t have to. When it comes to my aunt and uncle I did feel that as a child if it wasn’t for her I didn’t know where I’d be. There were times as a kid that I wasn’t aware of the choice that she made and how big it was but I definitely knew that she chose to do that and that felt really special, that she loved me enough to do it: ‘I believe in you and I believe that you’re worth putting in all this time even though I’d already raised a bunch of kids.’ So it really gave me a drive to want to do her proud and when I realized that I wasn’t making her proud it made me think ‘I’m going to really figure out what I can do to make this right.’ She was worried about me in school and what I was going to do with my life. There was something in me that told me I can’t let this lady down, she did that for me. It’s definitely something that some kids have when they’re not raised by their parents, they want to prove something.”
Segarra wrote extensively, keeping journals and composing poetry. On visits to her father’s apartment Alynda would have him play piano as she sang her favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” over and over again.
“I used to visit my father a lot especially when I was younger,” she explains. “Whenever I went over there it was like music time, that’s what I remember about seeing him. I would go to see him he would play piano with me. It was with him when I first started singing.
“When I was in high school I started really getting into the spoken word scene, slam poetry and stuff, but I was around a lot of kids that were into hip-hop and rapping. I didn’t listen to it that much but the people I did listen to were more politically minded. Political hip-hop was an important thing that was happening, particularly to teenagers of color. I always noticed that it could really be something positive. Anything that had an artistic message or a political message I thought was pretty amazing.
“I went to LaGuardia High School for Arts for less than a year but it was so big I felt really intimidated by it, so I moved to a small public school. I went there for two years and then I enrolled at a school for kids that are kind of dropping out, so you do internships to get credits. That was the end of my school career, the beginning of the 11th grade. I loved art class and English class and history too. I loved learning but I really didn’t love the structure. A lot of my teachers begged me to hold on till college saying that it would get better, but I couldn’t hold on that long.
“I read a lot. I really got into poetry. I really loved Allen Ginsberg when I was in high school; he was my main man. I always paid a lot of attention to lyrics, too, because I listened really intently when I was a kid. I was always writing when I was younger, a lot of poetry and a lot of journals. I have journals from like sixth grade up.
“A lot of teachers encouraged me to write, especially in high school. I was part of a program that was organized by the people who do the def poetry jam, it used to be on HBO and they have this program for young writers that I got into. It was a really big deal for me to get that recognition. My aunt also was really encouraging for me to be creative. Before I started going to the lower east side I spent most of my time with her in her apartment and she was really encouraging me to draw all the time and write all the time. I learned how to keep myself busy.”
When she was 14 years old, Segarra’s life was upended by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, a terrifying time in history that had a decided influence on her worldview.
“I think 9/11 really painted the background for my whole generation,” she says. “I think that has a lot to do with the difference from the time of the 1960s communes and now. In the revolution that happened in the ’60s from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard everybody felt that there was a lot of promise and a lot was possible, and I think the difference with my generation is that very quickly in our lives we felt that the walls were closing in on us. There wasn’t a lot that was possible and there wasn’t a lot that you could do about anything that was going on. Not that people aren’t positive about the future, but there’s a sense that we’ve got to work with what we’ve got because there’s a lot of control on everything. 9/11 was kind of the beginning of that for me in New York. It was like watching the city go through something that was really painful but also watching the regulations start kicking in and feeling like everything was secretly being controlled and watched. As a kid it really was pretty shocking. At the time I was reading 1984 in school and it definitely affected me. It made me want to escape and go somewhere where I was freer. Somewhere that wasn’t as controlled as the city was.”
A song on her first album, “Bricks,” uses the metaphor of falling towers to describe a relationship.
“That’s one of my earliest songs. I’ve thought about that a lot, it’s kind of stream of consciousness type of writing. I definitely do think there’s something to that, the two towers. It came from that childhood time period for me, whether it was just watching the adults around us kind of fall apart but also watching our city and our nation kind of fall apart in a certain way. There’s a lot in that song that’s about childhood, about friendship and love for somebody. It was about my best friend at the time. A lot was falling apart but we were able to keep each other together.”
Alynda’s treks to the lower east side, hanging out in Tompkins Square Park and at ABC No Rio, introduced her to the worlds of postpunk rock and the lifestyle of the travelers. It wasn’t long before the wanderlust began to sink in. Alynda heard romantic tales from her friends of hopping freight trains and heading south. All she saw in New York were dead ends. She hit the road at 17.
“School had a big part in it,” she admits. “I realized I was at a point where finishing school was gonna take me a really long time, and I just felt like it wasn’t really helping me, and I knew kids who were traveling all over the country. My boyfriend at the time was already traveling around, he was going to San Francisco so I finally found two kids who were leaving town and they said ‘Sure, we’ll take you with us.’ So we left New York together. I left a letter for my aunt which was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life. And just kind of disappeared. I was lucky enough to be part of a community of young kids that all felt in a similar way that they had to go search for a different way of life that wasn’t necessarily right in front of them.”
Segarra’s friends kept singing the praises of New Orleans, so it’s not surprising that she arrived in the city within the first year of her wanderings. It was 2005, the spring before Katrina, and it felt like home.
“I arrived in town in a van with a couple of my friends,” she recalls. “My friend Andy lived here, I knew him from New York, and he was always telling me I had to visit. Also just from traveling all over the place people always kept saying ‘You’ve got to come to New Orleans, it’s like no place else in America.’ That sounded like exactly what I was looking for.
“Andy had like a stoner metal band. He’d been living here for a couple of years on St. Claude right above the hydroponics shop. I stayed with him, and I was bouncing around. It’s funny, the first place I ever went to in New Orleans was the Abbey which was a really funny introduction.
“I was just part of the group of travelers, young kids who were just coming through town and getting work wherever they could as they wandered in this country and other countries. At the time I was looking for a place where I could find work, make friends and afford to live there and just be a part of it. What really struck me was that everybody was hanging out outside, which I immediately loved. I knew that as a very New York thing as well, from people hanging out on their stoops. After traveling around the country I noticed that wasn’t common everywhere but in New Orleans it was really common.”
Though she sang for fun and wrote lyrics, Segarra didn’t start to think of herself as a musician until she got to New Orleans and started playing on the street.
“I was playing washboard and banjo in a street band, it was a pretty wide array of music because we had so many members. The accordion player loved to play klezmer music, the fiddle player really liked to play Appalachian old time music and the guitarist really liked to play gypsy jazz or just old country songs that were really big sing-alongs. When we had horns we’d play more traditional jazz from New Orleans because we were spending so much time there. We played mostly in Jackson Square at night in the beginning. We felt like the musicians on Royal Street were really talented and we weren’t good enough for it. Facing Café Du Monde, that was our favorite spot.”
Though Alynda was shy and reluctant to stand out in her crowd, she had a knack for playing traditional folk and blues with a rock sensibility. Her lack of technical prowess was more than made up for by her ability to touch people’s hearts with the kind of ancient sound that her music evokes.
“That’s something I really learned from my friends, I think, I was learning how to play music… the people who were teaching me, it was at a really critical time in their life when they were figuring out what they were doing too, we were all in the same boat trying to decide what our next step would be and we were all trying to do it together. We were kind of a family. There was a wide array of musicians on a technical scale. Only one of us in the group was actually a professional musician with classical training, but they all were always very supportive of me and always let me know even if I wasn’t playing something that was so technically advanced that my emotion and my spirit was just as important and that gave me the confidence to continue. I had been reading poetry when I was in high school and I was really terrified of reading in front of people, but the more I did it the more I realized that if I was honest and I was vulnerable with the audience they respected me more.”
It wasn’t long before Alynda was able to start playing on her own, something she was encouraged to do by local musician Walt McClements.
“Walt approached me about how much he liked my songs. I had made this demo recording, just me recording on my laptop, and I wrote like 12 songs and I had given him one and he really liked it and wanted to do one of them for his new band Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship. That was how we started playing together. Everybody in the community went along with it. It was like—if Walt thought you were ok then you were ok.”
Segarra’s first songs are filled with references to freedom and images of birds in flight. Her debut record It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You moves like freehand drawings on an artist’s sketch pad. The listener can feel her developing creatively, hear the power of her imagination being unveiled in songs like “Skin & Bones” and “Junebug Waltz,” where coming to terms with life means becoming obsessed with death. “Fly Away” is a metaphor for Alynda the traveler, but it’s also a reference to suicide.
“I was finally at a place in my life when I wrote that song when I was feeling like I was on my path,” she recalls. “And contemplating about, not me attempting suicide, but the idea of suicide being there. ‘Things are not really looking that good,’ you know? I felt like I was able to write that song at the time because I was in a place where I felt that creatively I was on my way, being in New Orleans and writing and singing my songs, I felt I was stable enough to go there and talk about how people feel at that time when you’re almost ready to snap.”
“Amelia’s Song” is a tribute to an important early influence on Segarra.
“Amelia really taught me a lot about writing songs. She was the first female songwriter I met that bridged the worlds of poetry and the kind of therapeutic approach to writing songs. She also taught me a lot about feminism and really opened up my mind to a whole world that I didn’t know about. It changed my whole focus from playing songs on the street with my band to putting my own life into these songs. That song was really important because at the time we were very close friends and I was starting to move on and starting to spend more time in New Orleans and not be on the road as much. She was still in college. I really wanted to write a song about this woman who changed my life and kind of really made it all happen.”
The one song on the first album that was also on the 12 song demo McClements heard was “Danielle,” a piece written about a close high school friend.
“’Danielle’ was about one of my best friends growing up, it was… two best friends, young girls, even if it isn’t romantic it’s always romantic. Even if it doesn’t become sexual it’s romantic in a sacred way. So I thought that I just wanted to write this; losing a friendship and it all being over a man that I thought wasn’t really good for her in the first place. I was thinking a lot about the song ‘Jolene’ actually, a song to another woman about a man that isn’t a song about fighting over him.”
After her debut, Segarra’s next album Young Blood Blues had more of a full band feel than a singer-songwriter project.
“That’s when I started listening to Neil Young,” she laughs. “I was getting a little bit tired of playing shows that demanded that the audience was quiet. I wanted to break out of that. I had so much fun playing with the street band but when it came to playing my own music I found it was really difficult to let loose and feel joy. I was listening to Neil Young, a lot was coming together, I’d met Yosi Perlstein who’s now like my right hand man, that was a really big deal for me because Walt was slowly starting to move on. Walt leaving really shook me because I really depended on him. I felt like I was nothing without him and that was really scary for me. I also met Sam Doores and he was showing me a lot of things that were opening my mind, he was kind of like my new Amelia in a way, the next person that you meet that was like ‘Hey if you’re gonna write songs you should listen to people who are good at it, like Bob Dylan.’ So meeting Sam was kind of like songwriting 101.”
One of the most powerful songs on the second album, “Sali’s Song” was written for a murdered friend, another young traveler named Sali Grace.
“Writing a song for Sali was a really big leap in songwriting for me because it was the first time I wrote a song with a political and an emotional message. Sali Grace was a train rider and a traveler that was my age and we had a lot of friends in common and she also played the banjo. We really hit it off. I felt like we were sisters. We only really were able to hang out one time but she really had an enormous impact on me. It was at a time when I was not really doing that well and I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do and she was just a happy person doing what she was doing so she really influenced me in a positive way. I found out that she had been murdered, she was assaulted and murdered, she’d been raped, it was one of those moments that really changes your whole look at the world, that moment when you realize ‘I can’t really trust anyone.’ It shook off the childlike faith that I had in the world. I had known a lot of people who had died but it was mostly drug related and this was the first time I had known somebody who was murdered and especially in that way. It just kind of further put this feminist focus on all of my songs. I just thought I owed her memory and her family a song about her. I thought that she deserved a folk song. She taught me a lot of songs and I wanted to write one for her.”
Perlstein and Doores were fully integrated into the band on the 2012 release Look Out Mama, with its rollicking tales of life on the road and a uniquely imaginative tribute to John Lennon’s romance with Yoko Ono, “Ode to John and Yoko.” The inside gatefold of the album shows the band on the levee in the Holy Cross section of New Orleans, where the band lived and rehearsed and Segarra wrote most of the songs on Small Town Heroes.
“End of the Line” was written about the Holy Cross house.
“There are no clubs over there so music is made in people’s houses and back yards,” she explains. “That song is about the house and the back yard and all the songs we all wrote there. It had a really amazing energy. A lot of it is a kind of tribute to our friends the Deslondes. Two of them play on the album. A lot of really good songs got written there and we spent a lot of time in the back yard and on the porch. It was a very fun time.”
Alynda Lee Segarra, former traveler, found what she was looking for in New Orleans. Now she’s telling her stories to the rest of the world.