“Only once in a lifetime, and in this case, for our 300th year as a city, do we have the opportunity to see an historic compilation of the great artists and music that have been generated by our richly authentic culture. In this book, so expertly done, OffBeat has presented to the world and future generations what is the real magic of our community—the music that has brought us together as a people.”
—Mark Romig President and CEO New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation
“What I expected was a history of great New Orleans songs and songwriters, but what I got was a reminder that these songs are touchstones for times in our lives.
I learned how to dance to Art Neville’s “All These Things.” I listened to Fats Domino when I was in my twenties, driving a truck for a living and dreaming of better days. I sang and cried to Susan Cowsill’s “Crescent City Sneaux” trying to figure out life after Katrina.
The music of New Orleans is part of me wherever I go and these songs are the road maps to who I was and how I got here today.”
—Paul Sanchez, New Orleans songwriter
In 2018 OffBeat celebrated 30 years of publishing New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s music and culture publication, OffBeat Magazine. That same year, the City of New Orleans celebrated its 300th birthday. To demonstrate how integral music has been to our unique culture, this project—300 Songs for 300 Years—was born.
Famously, Ernie K-Doe once said, “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” From the earliest sounds of jazz to the rock ’n’ roll recorded at J&M Music to our homegrown geniuses—Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint and so many more—we can affirm that New Orleans music is the heartbeat of America. It’s clear that the city of New Orleans’ very soul is intertwined with its music. Music tells our story.
These are the 300 songs—and then some—that tell the story of America’s greatest musical city: New Orleans.
Excerpts from the book:
“Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” (Various, 1902): “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” is the best-known example of that New Orleans archetype, the happy funeral song—the one that ends the mourning and begins the celebration of the deceased’s life and exploits.
“Pretty Baby” (Tony Jackson, 1916): Tony Jackson was the James Booker of his time—a prodigy who could play virtually any blues, jazz or opera piece on the spot, and was known as “the man of a thousand songs.”
“Muskrat Ramble” (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926): Ory took credit for “Muskrat Ramble,” claiming he had written it back in 1921. Armstrong later claimed that he had written the song but never challenged Ory’s claim legally. To add to the confusion, Sidney Bechet claimed that it was an old Buddy Bolden song called.
“Sing, Sing, Sing” (Louis Prima, 1936): According to his daughter Lena Prima, that galloping sound was no accident: Louis loved the racetrack and wanted to capture that sound on the record, so “Sing, Sing, Sing” could well have been conceived at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
“Eh, La Bas” (Kid Ory, 1945 / Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 1966): The phrase, roughly meaning “Hey over there!” was a familiar one in Creole households; and Danny Barker (who later sang the song with Paul Barbarin’s group) has recalled it being a familiar greeting.
“Jock-A-Mo” (Sugar Boy Crawford and the Cane Cutters, 1953): One of the most popular Carnival songs has a split personality. Originally recorded by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in 1954, it turned into an international pop hit a decade later by the Dixie Cups as “Iko Iko.”
“Tipitina” (Professor Longhair, 1953): The inspiration of the song’s title came from a Central City female marijuana retailer named Tina. Tina’s specialty was providing curbside service for her product. After stopping his vehicle near her location, Tina would be summoned to the car door for the transaction. Apparently, to complete the exchange, it was necessary for to Longhair to request—”Tip it Tina!”
“Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, 1957): Smith, the sole composer of his songs, built the “Rockin’ Pneumonia” lyrics in part from random lines and phrases he’d heard. Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit, “Roll Over Beethoven,” features the line: “I got the rocking pneumonia, I need a shot of rhythm and blues.”
“Walkin’ To New Orleans” (Fats Domino, 1960): “Fats told me to come see him in New Orleans,” said Charles in 1987. “I told him I couldn’t, because I was broke. Fats just laughed and said, ‘Well, why don’t you walk to New Orleans?’ That was my hook.”
“Mother-in-Law” (Ernie K-Doe, 1961): “Allen had written it and thrown it away,” claimed K-Doe in 1982. “He had balled it up and threw it in the trash can. I saw it in the garbage can and pulled it out. I looked at the words and said, ‘Hey man this is good. I want to do this.'”
“I’m Leaving It Up to You” (Dale & Grace, 1963): Unfortunately, the record’s success peaked in November 1963, the week of President Kennedy’s assassination. Dale and Grace were in fact scheduled to perform in Dallas that night, and were present (along with tour mate and fellow Baton Rouge native Jimmy Clanton) and watching the motorcade as it happened (though they didn’t directly witness the assassination, which occurred a few blocks away).
“Time Is On My Side” (Irma Thomas, 1964): A few months later she toured England and was told by Mick Jagger at a Manchester gig that the Stones planned to cover it. Their single hit the U.S. charts a month after hers and basically stole its thunder; nor was she pleased when the Stones toured the U.S. that year and invited the more rock-friendly Tina Turner instead of her.
“Right Place, Wrong Time” (Dr. John, 1973): Bob Dylan came up with “I was on the right trip, but it must have been the wrong car”; Bette Midler followed with “My head was in a bad place, I don’t know what it’s there for”; Texas legend Doug Sahm kicked some words in as well. The daring-for-the-charts line about “the right vein, must have been the wrong arm” was apparently Rebennack’s own.
“Lady Marmalade” (Labelle, 1974): It was producer Allen Toussaint’s idea to cut the song with Labelle, using three-quarters of the Meters in his studio band (the drummer is Herman “Roscoe” Ernest, not Zigaboo Modeliste). Toussaint’s stamp is strong enough that many assume he wrote it.
“Louisiana 1927” (Randy Newman, 1974): The original lyric was indirectly about Huey Long, who used fallout over the 1927 flood to stoke local resentments and help get himself elected; so it’s as much a campaign song as a lament. But after 2005, the issue of government inaction after a natural disaster became a lot more resonant.
“Red Dress” (The Radiators, 1980): According to Volker, that guitar figure was one reason the Radiators became a band. As he told John Swenson in 2015, “Red Dress”—originally written for his previous band, the Rhapsodizers—was one of the first songs he sprung on his new bandmates when they gathered for a formal rehearsal.
“My Darlin’ New Orleans” (L’il Queenie and the Percolators, 1981): The song changed a bit in transition: The Cuccia-era version begins with a recitation by Harris that honors the city’s seamier side (“Promenade, down Esplanade, we stayed, got laid!”). The Percolators make it more of a party, adding the parade effects and the opening nod to the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
“Jenny Says” (Dash Rip Rock, 1989 / Cowboy Mouth, 1996): Like most great breakup songs, “Jenny Says” began with an actual breakup: There really was a Jenny, who broke singer/drummer Fred LeBlanc’s heart while he was still in Dash Rip Rock.
“At the Foot of Canal Street” (Paul Sanchez and John Boutté, 1999): The song was born when he realized that he and Boutté—two friends from different social and racial backgrounds—would meet on the same burial ground. “When we got back to my place to write the song I asked John what it was like to play in a second line funeral. I grew up in the Irish Channel, a different culture from Treme, and I was interested in the rich world and history my friendship with John had opened to me.
“Stoned, Drunk & Naked” (Anders Osborne, 2001): “Stoned, Drunk & Naked” is really about the effect that excess partying has on a relationship; by song’s end it’s clear that both partners have chosen the party over the relationship.
“The Treme Song” (John Boutté, 2003): “And I realized that the Treme had never been invoked in a song before. There’s a sanctified church in my neighborhood. So that’s where the line comes from, ‘The preachers grown and the sisters moan, in a blessed tone.’”
“Shake Your Rugalator” (Bonerama, 2004): Okay, so what’s a rugalator? Klein explains that it’s a piece of art that doubles as a percussion instrument, and was created by Ray Lambert who plays snare in the Storyville Stompers Brass Band.
“The Long Black Line” (Spencer Bohren, 2006): With that song I felt like something Bob Dylan says—‘I don’t write ’em, I just write them down,’” says Bohren, who did indeed write the song. “I felt I had very little to do with it, except keeping an open heart and a sharp pencil.”
“You’ve Got to Be Crazy to Live in This Town” (Alex McMurray, 2009): “It has various levels and dimensions to it, I suppose,” McMurray explains. “But the original meaning was that you’ve really got to be nuts to want to live in a city that was so broken and dysfunctional, where you’ve got the army marching right up the street.”
“Wish I Knew You” (the Revivalists, 2015): Songwriters tend to be secretive about what inspires songs, but Revivalists frontman David Shaw told OffBeat straight-out that he wrote it about his girlfriend. “People have told me it’s them and their best friend’s song, or that it’s them and their dad’s song,” he says. “But when I wrote it, it was just me wanting to have more time with my girlfriend.