New Atlantis by John Swenson

Sweet sounds of survival
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The Independent Culture

Since 1718, when New Orleans was built on a swamp between three bodies of water, its survival has been in doubt. Devastated by fire, flood and plague, it is constantly at the mercy of hurricanes and floods – especially since the redirection of the mighty Mississippi and the ecologically disastrous land erosion caused by climate change and oil companies. It has endured partly because of its unique charms as a tourist town and a rich music culture in this birthplace of jazz and other musical forms.

During the last decade, the city has been hit by two catastrophes. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita just missed the city but the levees broke and flooded swathes of the city. At least 2000 people died and many disappeared; the city's infrastructure was devastated; and its population (especially African American) much reduced. The callous twiddling of thumbs by the Bush administration and its agencies shocked the world. Less than five years later, in April 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused an oil spill across the coasts of four states, dealing a huge blow to Gulf fishing and tourism.

Nevertheless, New Orleans is a city of stubborn and often miraculous survival, pioneered by its legendary musicians. Since Katrina, celebrated figures have fought to keep the city alive and helped to relocate musicians (including major figures such as Fats Domino) after so many lost their houses.

John Swenson's moving book records the story of a city that acted on singer Randy Newman's famous plea, "Don't let them wash us away". That familiar refrain of New Orleans songs, going home ("Sweet Home New Orleans," "Ain't Got No Home") has been given new resonance through ecologically-themed albums by figures such as Dr John and the Marsalis brothers. The music club Tipitina's set up a Foundation and Brad Pitt has funded generously. A new Musicians' Village was built in the flooded Upper Ninth Ward, and donations of instruments have come to players who had lost everything. That schmaltzy Louis Armstrong song, "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" has acquired an angry and sardonic tone.

Swenson argues that New Orleans' musicians, including Allen Toussaint (in collaboration with Elvis Costello), Terence Blanchard (for Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke), Dr John and Irma Thomas, have all written and played some of their best music since Katrina. Most famed musicians who could afford to return have helped finance and thus sustain the post-Katrina culture, with Toussaint claiming that the disaster was "not only a drowning but a baptism". Of the "holy trinity" of New Orleans (history, music and food), the greatest of the three – music – is just about keeping its head above water, despite the scattering of musicians and the constant threat that this city may still become the New Atlantis.

Helen Taylor's books include 'Circling Dixie' (Rutgers)