Randy Newman, Katrina, The Fourth of July and “Louisiana 1927”

By Alex Rawls

In April in The New York Times, Geoffrey Himes described Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” as “more than an anthem, … it’s also a modern-day folk song that gains new lyrics as singers adapt it to new circumstances.” He documented how the song has become a post-Katrina anthem in New Orleans, one that brings tears at the line, “They’re trying to wash us away.” It has also been recorded by Marcia Ball and Aaron Neville, and at Jazz Fest 2006, jazz vocalist John Boutte’s reinvention of the song was one of the festival’s highlights.

In Himes’ piece, Ball describes “Louisiana 1927” as “one of those simple, irresistible Randy Newman melodies and lyrics that were so real. In truth, so many people did get washed away.” For that reason, it approaches “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” as the most overplayed song in the Crescent City. Newman himself has contributed three versions of it, one on the benefit CD Our New Orleans (with members of the Louisiana and New York Philharmonic orchestras), one at Fats Domino’s 80th birthday celebration and one at Jazz Fest. He’ll be at the Hollywood Bowl this Wednesday, July 2 through Friday, July 4 with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Like so many Newman songs, “Louisiana 1927” is tough to pin down as it moves from a narrator dramatically documenting the flood, to a chorus sung by the flood victims, to an account of President Coolidge’s chilly response to the flooding: “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land.” The politician is insulting, even when sympathizing, and the first verses and chorus are there to set up the satire of a callous, indifferent government — one that spoke to the song’s Nixonian moment as much as Coolidge’s administration.

Obviously, it’s also spot-on today. Much has been made of the photo of Bush during the fly-over, but little has been written about the way the airspace had to be cleared of rescue helicopters before Air Force One could swing by for a look-see. Bush didn’t simply just offer platitudes in the face of disaster the way Newman’s Coolidge did; he actively obstructed the rescue effort for a photo op.

Newman’s chorus implies that someone planned the shit, and history has shown that the poor folks from the 1929 flood that inspired the song were right. The levees were blown to save the land of the wealthy, but only conspiracy theorists — most publicly, Spike Lee and Dr. John on his new album, City That Care Forgot — believe some level of government planned the post-Katrina flooding. The government failed at every level, and it opportunistically stepped in to rebuild the city in God’s suburban image, but by most estimations, it let Him do the dirty work.

That makes the current embrace of Newman’s song seem a little paranoid, but New Orleans is a conspiracy-minded town under the best of circumstances. Kennedy assassination theories track back to New Orleans, and nothing inspires the warm fuzzies like the ability to link our arms and cry together, bemoaning the shared, iron-clad knowledge that the bastards did this to us on purpose. It’s ennobling to measure ourselves by the size of our enemies and the lengths they’ll go to put us in our place.

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