New, Fresh, and Free. These are key words in advertising; and happen to divulge a bit about how our brains work. We naturally look for new stimulus. This unquenchable thirst for novel stimuli is a hallmark of being alive. It is very important. I have often written to encourage song writers to write more new material. I do think it is vitally important that new songs are being created. It is quite simply the definition of a music scene. There must be new music for the music scene to be alive. We need more Mardi Gras songs and more Saints songs. We need more songs about drinking and more songs about street corners. We need more songs about big feet and more songs about bald women. We need more new songs about everything. The other side of the coin is that we need old songs.
This other side of the coin has a lot to it also. Old songs provide a lot for a community. Old songs are a cross generational bridge. Old songs allow a shared experience. Old Songs provide a common denominator. Think of a song that you know all the words to. Is it “Brown Eyed Girl” or “My Girl?” Those are lovely songs and they have withstood the test of time. Mothers and daughters can sing them together. Songs like these provide a common ground for people to meet. The shared joy brings people together. Certainly two people can enjoy the latest Quintron song and connect over their experience of it, but it’s different when the song has universal scope: when everyone can connect through it. There is also the pure simple joy of the sing-along.
A sing-along can only happen when everybody knows the song. That is a reason why it is so important to have a canon of old songs that everybody knows. Churches have their standard hymnals, nations have their anthems, cakes and candles have their “happy birthdays,” and most importantly New Orleans has a giant canon of music created by New Orleanians and for New Orleanians. These songs are absolutely essential to being a New Orleanian. Knowing the words to “Iko Iko” is something of an initiation. If you do not know the songs then you are not part of the group. The official canon of New Orleans songs has not been compiled, and is daily growing. You better know “Junko Partner,” “Indian Red,” “What’s the Name of Your School,” and “Louisiana 1927.” There are probably another hundred songs that you better know if you wish to claim that you’re a New Orleanian. These songs are such an integral part of our culture that ignorance of them immediately casts one as an outsider.
All of the classic New Orleans songs has there specific applications. “Tipitina” always makes me think of Mardi Gras. I actually get angry if I hear that song before Twelfth Night, as it is then a tease. Hearing “Tipitina” in May is like listening to “White Christmas” in June. It is flat out wrong; it feels wrong, it smells wrong, and it tastes wrong. “When the Saints go Marching In” has really narrowed its application to Fall and football season. All the songs are just loaded with meaning. While everyone is going to have their own associations with a song, the songs provide a lot of common ground for everyone to join together.
Up and down the socio-economic strata New Orleanians can join together and sing “Li’l Liza Jane” or “ Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Every New Orleanian knows how and why to sing those songs. Not only that but we know how to dance to those songs too. There is such a richness to our catalog of music that really gives our culture a vocabulary capable expressing so much communally. This is why we live here; the culture. The age of these tunes help too as they allow multiple generations to come together for a shared experience. I know I’ve sung “Louisiana 1927” with at least 3 different generations of people together. Again, what is so beautiful about this is that these old songs tell our story. These songs were written by us, are about us, and are for us. That kind of cultural richness does not exist elsewhere. Sure there are traditional polish polkas that Chicagoans know and dance to in October, but those songs are not about Chicago and they weren’t written in Chicago by Chicagoans. Our songs were. Our songs are our culture.
Another aspect of the universality(all of New Orleans) of our music is that all the musicians know the songs. The implication here is that you could pretty much pair up any two musicians in the city and give them a set list of 20 classic New Orleans songs and without any real rehearsal there would be excellent music. In other words, our traditional songs give our musicians a common repertoire. This bridge between all out musicians allows there to be a dialog of ideas between them which in turn helps drive idea diffusion and collaboration between musicians. And that leads to new music and a celebration of the old music.