Readers recommend playlist: songs about New Orleans

Sounds of the city dominate a playlist celebrating its resilience, including tracks from the Hot 8 Brass Band and Ben Harper

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of your suggestions last week. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.

New Orleans, city of multiple names – think Crescent City, The Big Easy – varied foods, musical styles, history and character. A unique city in a crazy location. Vulnerable, defensive and joyous. That’s because nobody in the place knows what nature or politics will throw at them next, so life is lived to the full, with not a minute wasted.

Listen to the playlist on YouTube.

L’il Queenie and the Percolators flashed into being in the late 70s, lasting only long enough to record one 45 single, My Darlin’ New Orleans. There’s a prescience to the song, not least in its format: with styles from rap to hip-hop to waltz to marching band to jazz. And the lyric, “Politicans, gone fishin’”, could have been written post-Katrina. This is New Orleans on a bun.

Steamboat Stomp, by Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, sounds remarkably fresh considering it was recorded in 1926. It’s the kind of jazzy romp that inspired a host of imitators. Morton’s claims to have invented jazz may be untrue, but he was the first to notate the genre. Writing in sheet form a fundamentally improvisational genre was no mean feat.

Bridging the gap between the music establishment’s backlash against rock’n’roll and the British invasion, Gary US Bonds’ New Orleans overflows with R&B exuberance. This song filled floors across the US and the UK, exhorting all and sundry to get to New Orleans and start living. There’s a hint of Wilson Pickett and a soupcon of Smokey Robinson.

It wouldn’t be New Orleans without a brass band. The Hot 8 Brass Band’s New Orleans (After the City) combines traditional riffs with modern tricks and twists. They somehow manage to sound as if this was recorded as they marched down the street, dancing as they played. Maybe it was.

A large portion of Lake Pontchartrain sits within the city’s boundary. In this next song, by far the oldest on the list, our protagonist sets out by rail to a distant town. But seeing his money’s no good, finds himself turfed off the train to wander the lake’s banks. From here, the song tells its own story of unrequited love. Though there are many versions, we’ll go with Paul Brady’s The Lakes Of Pontchartrain.

Sundays off at Congo Square. That’s how it was for slaves under French ownership. Music ensued, dancing and singing, and a market was established. This was the 18th century, and some of these people had not long been forcibly abducted from Africa. A change of government and new laws slowed things down for a while, but the square rose again, and some slaves could once more sell produce at the market. Here is where the tribes of the Mardi Gras were formed – where jazz was born. Noted guitarist Sonny Landreth’s Congo Square pulls all of these strands together, distilling the history of the disparate races and tribes of New Orleans into a single popular song.

Dr John’s Marie Laveau is about the original witch queen of New Orleans. A “conjure lady” according to Dr John. This was a seriously talented businesswoman who knew how to market her gifts. She was a midwife, a herbalist, a nurse, a voodoo queen, and a self-publicist who ran a spy network consisting of the servants of the rich.

The chap in Patti Labelle’s Lady Marmalade wouldn’t be the first to have his head turned in New Orleans, but this was a life-changing experience. That lady on the black sheets invoked the “savage beast inside” and made it roar. Time has passed, but the memory hasn’t, and though his life is again mundane, he can hold on to that jewel of remembrance, and know that he had once lived.

Allen Toussaint in 2009.
Allen Toussaint. Photograph: Dave Martin/AP

Cajun has several dialects of its own, spread along the Louisiana coast. It’s taken on trust, then, that the Balfa Brothers’ La Danse De Mardi Gras is about what it says on the label. The staples of fiddle and accordion are to the fore here, but what’s striking are the descending cadences of the backing vocals, reminiscent of west African singing.

The Neville Brothers’ uncle, George ‘Big Chief Jolly’ Landry, gave the brothers their start on his first album. The Meters were there, too, and Allen Toussaint. Here they all are on another Mardi Gras tune (you can’t get too much), the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ Meet de Boys on the Battlefront. Covering some of Iko Iko’s ground, though in much more detail – the sewing of the costumes, mock battles, toy fights and fake weaponry – the song culminates in drink and prayer, late at night, maybe even the pledge.

“People drinking up the night before it’s gone” … Some people just don’t want to go home. They have their reasons. Maybe they shouldn’t have been out in the first place? Maybe someone’s wondering where they are? Maybe they feel part of something special, the warm air, the distant blues, the moon reflected on the river as it runs past Decatur. After 30 years in the making, a New Orleans live stalwart finally got his album out. Was Dave Ferrato’s Later, On Decatur worth the wait? Oh yes. Check that staggering semi-drunk bass line.

Urgency, impetus, propulsion ... honour. All of which inform Ben Harper’s Black Rain: unlike the government and it’s non-reaction to Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. The president gazed into nothingness as he did on 9/11, while babies couldn’t have a bottle feed because their fathers were being shot at for trying to find bottled water to mix into the milk powder.

Now we’ve arrived at resilience, which is more a human quality than an architectural one. A city is sometimes defined by its architecture, but really the sum of a city is its people. Steve Earle’s This City chucks away more great one-liners than can be quoted here, but the essence of the song is optimism, the acknowledgement of disaster, and the will to persevere, to push on through into the future, because that is what people do.

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