In New Orleans, jazz is king. This is, after all, the cradle of jazz itself, a town that was home to such titans of sound as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, as well as the lesser known Buddy Bolden, a turn-of-the-century cornetist who left no recordings to the world but is said to have invented jazz when he created the Big Four beat – a variation on the standard marching band beat which added a healthy dose of razzle-dazzle to the mix.
Music tourists the world over flock to the Crescent City for its jazz and brass bands, whose sounds inhabit the French Quarter and Frenchman Street, day and night. You can hear the old standards at Preservation Hall, ground zero for Dixieland jazz, or skip over to Frenchman in the Marigny district and take in some hot new band at The Spotted Cat.
It’s an instrumental town, to be sure, a Music City of a different sort. Three chords and the truth has never been the mantra there. The poets of the town took to page or stage, not song. But that’s slowly starting to change, thanks to a new crop of songwriters who are writing original music that draws heavily off the city’s rich musical heritage. It’s modern music steeped in the old ways.
It’s a more succulent version of country than we have in Nashville, one that is more cabaret than honky-tonk. The distance between vintage country and New Orleans blues has never been that great. After all, it was Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a New Orleans-bred blues musician, who mentored Hank Williams in Georgiana, Alabama, and taught him to play “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” a tune first associated with Buddy Bolden’s band.
Hurray For The Riff Raff leads this charge of young guns in New Orleans. The group is the project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native who left home as a teen and hopped trains as she travelled across the country, finally settling in the Crescent City years later. She cut her teeth busking in the French Quarter with several rag-tag music ensembles, starting out on Decatur Street and then graduating to the more esteemed corners of Royal, where the bigger dogs play.
While logging time as a street performer, Segarra grew steadily as an artist, soaking up various styles of American music, as well as the lessons and wisdom of her musical peers. Street performance is crucial to the city’s musical lifeblood. Unlike other American cities, busking in New Orleans is not considered a step up from panhandling. It is an art form, a test of endurance, a feat of entrepreneurial skill. It’s a great education for any musician, where one can expand their musical palette and, if good enough, can hustle up enough dough for food and rent.
Long-time New Orleans music writer Alex Rawls tells the story of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s rise and looks at Segarra’s songwriting approach. Her writing is steeped in tradition but, like Woody Guthrie and a young Bob Dylan, it takes on the topics of the day. She writes about Trayvon Martin, pens murder ballads from a feminist perspective, and tells stories about her life on the road and growing up in the Bronx’s Puerto Rican community. She connects the ghosts of old-timey American music with the Twittersphere. She is a troubadour with a smartphone.
We also look at the singer-songwriter scene in New Orleans and the new roots-music clubs cropping up in the Bywater and Carrollton neighborhoods. And we talk to artists like Luke Winslow-King, a Michigan transplant signed to Bloodshot Records whose tunes sound like they were shot out of your great-grandfather’s Victrola. New Orleans native Andrew Duhon, whose most recent album The Moorings received a Grammy nomination, tells us about his experience carving out a career as a songwriter, one who plays regularly in New Orleans but also tours a great deal.
Unlike some music cities, New Orleans is a town where a songwriter can develop on their own, away from the daily pressure of music business insiders and trend-setters. “You can get out of the machine [in New Orleans],” says Kristin Diable, a songwriter who moved to New Orleans from New York a few years ago, “or go right back into the machine.” For many artists, it’s the best of both worlds.