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crossposted at My Left Wing, ,Blue House Diaries, Wild Wild Left, Street Prophets

Well, fuck, I guess he got bored dancing exclusively on the graves of New Yorkers.  Time to deface New Orleans once more before he goes!
          --Yours truly, reacting to Bush's SOTU announcement to hold this year's North American Summit in New Orleans

Normally, I'm not the kind to start a diary of any sort out this way, especially with an lead quote from myself.  But when Meteor Blades tells you to start a diary with it you don't ask questions.  You just do it.  So I did.

This State of the Union is perhaps the most valuable of Bush's reign.  Why?  Well, they've all been so entirely worthless, that the fact that this one has had a single lone happy side effect makes it by default the best.

It got people talking about what I thought they'd forgotten: the crime against humanity committed in New Orleans in the last days of August and first days of September 2005.

I'm not claiming any moral superiority.  I had moved on in my own thoughts as well.  Sure, when it would come up, I would feel disgust and outrage.  But between the business of living and the neverending tidal wave of horrors that have come since, it hasn't been in the forefront of my thoughts.

I was, perhaps, just ahead of the curve.  I had what happened to New Orleans brought home to me not long ago.  And I wanted to share the experience with all of you.

It was done--not surprisingly and perhaps especially appropriately, given the subject matter--through the medium of music.

Every so often we all have musical epiphanies.  I remember two of my most striking.  First came listening to Rage Against the Machine's first self-titled album when I was in high school.  Listening to the lyrics, I remember thinking something along the lines of, "Yes.  This is it.  This is right."

Secondly was the first time I heard Robert Johnson's soulful, otherworldly voice warble "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" from my computer speakers.  I'd never heard a voice like that (and never have and never will).  From that moment, I knew deep in my soul that beyond all other forms of music, I would be attached the blues.

Which brings me to my most recent and the subject of this diary:  blues artist Chris Thomas King and his 2006 album entitled Rise

If you don't know of Chris Thomas King's music, you probably at least know of his acting.  He played the Robert Johnson inspired guitar player who sold his soul to the devil in the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?.  He was also Lowell Fulson in Ray.

King was living and working in New Orleans when Katrina hit, destroying his house and studio.  With many of the other refugees, he ended up in Houston where many of the songs of the album had their genesis.

I want to go through the album with you and share something of the experience with you.  The lyrics come from this page and all appropriate copyright information will be posted at the bottom of this diary.

The remarkable thing a listener will first notice about "Rise" is its tone.  Despite the subject matter--and that the fact that some of these tracks were written and recorded within days--there are no tones of overt anger or rage.  It's sad, mournful, and above all beautiful.  King is a blues guitarist, but this album is heavily influenced with gospel music and overtones.

This is apparent right from the start with the unbelievably moving, What Would Jesus Do?1  The fact that it is so moving holds little surprise, for the song was recorded September 4, 2005.  It is so raw and comes from where all great music does--the heart.

Tell me America what would Jesus do?
Tell me, what would Jesus do,
if he had to walk a mile in my shoes?

Would he steal food to feed the hungry and the poor?
If a child needed shelter, would he break down the door?
Would he take a moments rest? Could he have a moments peace,
With all these children still in misery?

Standing outside the Walgreen’s with a stone in my hand
Standing outside with a stone in my hand
I ask myself will Jesus understand?

Tell me America what would Jesus do?
Tell me, what would Jesus do,
if he had to walk a mile in my shoes?

Would he open his door and make every sacrifice?
Would he give all that he had to save his brother’s life?
Would he leave behind the ones who need him most?
Or would he reach out for every desperate soul?

Tell me America what would Jesus do?
Tell me, now what would Jesus do,
if he had to walk this water in my shoes?

A greyhound bus was my get away
I tried to hold my dear wife but she got swept away
Will I roam until my dying day?

Tell me America what would Jesus do?
Tell me, what would Jesus do,
if he had to walk a mile in my shoes?
Tell me sista what would Jesus do?
Tell me, what you gonna do,
if you had to walk a mile in my shoes?

I don't know about you, but the first thing that came crashing home listening to this was the imagery of "Standing outside a Walgreen's with a stone in my hand"  

The choices people had to make all over that city in those days were appalling.  The reaction of many of the more vile creatures who disgrace the human race were in some ways even more so.  You remember don't you?  They were your acquaintances and co-workers who assured you that all in New Orleans were looters, thugs, criminals engaging in plunder for its own sake...people who should be shot on sight.  Not people doing whatever they had to survive.

(To borrow an excellent term from Markos--"Stupid people prophylactic":  Yes, there were many inexcusable and pointless acts of violence committed.  If you really think all or even most of those left behind in New Orleans were doing nothing but committing pillage and rapine for its own sake, then nothing I can say will help you)

Then of course, there's this line:  I tried to hold my dear wife but she got swept away/Will I roam until my dying day? which put a stone the size of Gibraltar in my throat.

How long will they roam?  "They":  What a terribly impersonal word.  The faceless mass of people who have no voice, no one to tell their story.  Their cries are caught by the wind and fade away in the distance, replaced by....silence.

But they are still out there:

The tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims who are still living outside New Orleans resemble the poor displaced by natural disasters in other parts of the world, a United Nations official said Wednesday.

When was that article written?  Two years ago?  Try two weeks.

What would Jesus have done if trapped in New Orleans?  What would Jesus do now?  Makes you think.

The next song is entitled "Faith"....but it is (to me, anyway) the centerpiece of the album, so we'll skip it for now and save it for the end.  In point of fact, since I don't literally want to go over the album song by song, but rather to highlight some of the truly powerful ones and the issues they raise, we're going to skip some and jump around a bit.

The last verse of the evocatively titled Baptized in Dirty Water2 brings the despair and agony of the whole sorry mess crashing home:

Lord, when you hear me weep’n moan’n
It’s because I ain’t got a thang to loose
Yes when you hear me weep’n moan’n now baby
I ain’t got a damn thang to loose
Baptized in dirty water now baby
All I can do is sang the blues

Sometimes, the only thing that can adequately portray misery and sorrow is the blues.  Written and recorded within six weeks of Katrina, the song reflects the suddenly hollowness of existence that I can only imagine...or maybe I can't.  Not really.  I think it's like combat--unless you've been there, you don't have a fucking clue.

If you haven't figured it out by now, this album is pretty heartrending.  And how could it not be?  So many reasons.

Aside from the sheer ungodly scale of the human catastrophe of Katrina, there was the loss of a particular unique jewel that graced the world:  the city of New Orleans itself.

Rich in history, New Orleans was one of the few places on Earth that could truly claim to be one of a kind.  It was a jambalaya of French, Spanish, Irish, upper crust, bayou, Catholic, and voodoo cultures, just to name a few.  It was a peculiarly American sort of place.  It was a melting pot, and a home to the two truly unique American art forms:  jazz and the blues.

Now the guts have been ripped out of it.  What is it being replaced by?  The same kind of crushing standard whitebread lameass bullshit that pollutes the rest of America.  NOLA blogger Gentilly Girl makes the point:

I will not lose this battle for the soul of New Orleans. Fuck Yuppies, fuck the rich that desire once-a year condos. Stay out of our city you sliming pieces of money.

It must seem like living in another world.  

King makes this point vividly in unbelievably sad Flow Mississippi Flow3  Indeed, the song could stand for so much that has come and gone these past years where our country has been unmercifully raped:

The sky is crying in New Orleans
Water rushing in through my door
I’m so tired of being sick and tired, till I can’t cry no more

"So flow Mississippi flow, sail me anywhere but here"
"I got no place to go, don’t wanna drown in my tears"

Business man survey my land
Can’t wait until I’m gone
He’s making plans I don’t understand
We never could get along

"So flow Mississippi flow, sail me away from here"
"I got no place to go, don’t wanna drown in my tears"

What has happened to this poor man’s land?
You see I built this house with my aching hands
With the love of my life, we raised a family
But she’s long gone and no one’s left here to care for me

"Flow Mississippi flow, sail me away from here"
"I got no place to go, don’t wanna drown in my tears"
"Flow Mississippi flow, sail me away from here"
"I got no where to go, don’t wanna drown in my tears"

Many albums try for pathos, but end up as pathetic.  Undoubtedly King's deep attachment to New Orleans makes this album as genuine a one as you'll ever find.  The carpetbagging of New Orleans proceeds apace and no one seems able or willing to stop it.

Thus it is more than appropriate King includes on "Rise" a cover of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi4.  Interestingly, it was recorded just days before Katrina hit....premonition or coincidence?  Who knows.  But of course this famous verse:

Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

...would tend to show that life does indeed imitate art.
 

Digression/admission time:  I feel kind of goofy writing this.  I'm a fraud, really.  I'm from Pennsylvania, for chrissake.  What can I know about New Orleans?

Because I can feel  Because I care  If that makes me a poseur, another stupid liberal whose overdeveloped sense of guilt makes him think he can understand tragedy, so be it.

But I'd bet many of you readign this feel the same way.  But there is a long way to go yet.  Many thinks to the otherwise useless lump of carbon Neil Boortz for demonstrating this graphically the other day:

On his nationally syndicated radio show, Neal Boortz made disparaging remarks about Hurricane Katrina victims, stating, "When these Katrina so-called refugees were scattered about the country, it was just a glorified episode of putting out the garbage." Boortz also described New Orleans as "a city of parasites, a city of people who could not and had no desire to fend for themselves."

Charming, innit?

But so very typical.

Le sigh.

I could go on about the album.  I could talk about the superb cover of St. James Infirmary Blues which is perhaps (aside from "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and "Devil Got My Woman") one of the most haunting songs in all of the blues.  Besides the general tone, the dead girl in the song makes a nice metaphor for the city.  There are other great things.  But I want to come to my point at last.

I don't know if I have ever in my life been inspired by a song like I have Faith.5  The irony is thick:  I'm an atheist.  I have no religious faith.  I'm a cynic.  I have no faith in humanity.

Or do I?

Maybe there's a part of me that I rarely acknowledge that still dares to hope.

Standing on roof tops
12 feet of water all around
Nobody’s coming for us
They left us here to drown
My old neighbor
Oh, you see she just floated on by
Face down in dirty water
It’s still rising high

"With your burden, look no further"
"I’ll be there just like a brother"
"We gotta raise the children that got no mother"
"Have a little faith in one another"

President Bush flying round
Oh, looking down on us from the air
They say he pity the poor people
But does he really care?
Wading round in this muddy water
Oh, feel like I’m lost at sea
It seems like the heavens been crying
It’s tears down on me
"With your burden, look no further"
"I’ll be there cause I’m your brother"
"We gotta raise the children that got no mother"
"Have a little faith in one another" (repeat)

It’s so dark down here
Oh, I can’t even see the Big Easy wash away
Darkness surrounding me
Oh, Lord can you show me the way
I see a tiny light down there in the distance
Oh, but I’m afraid to move that way wrong
Because it might be the light the old folks see
Just before they go home

"With your burden, look no further"
"I’ll be there just like a brother"
"We gotta raise the children that got no mother"
"Have a little faith in one another" (repeat)

At the end of the song, there's a spoken sentence: "It's gonna be all right."

Where to begin?

Nobody’s coming for us
They left us here to drown

This is a point I often try to make.  Let there be no mistake:  incompetence was only part of the story, and the smallest part at that.  This was done purposely.  There was a design, an intentional turning of the back.  It's why that, aside from Iraq, the Katrina aftermath is the greatest crime against humanity the Bush Administration has committed.

And yet...somehow...despite the death, the misery, the destruction, the sadness, the betrayl...

Despite this:

Hurricane Katrina's tragic aftermath lingered for at least a year after the storm abated, boosting New Orleans' death rate last year by 47% compared with two years before the levees broke, researchers reported Thursday.
Doctors say the dramatic surge in deaths comes as no surprise in a city of 250,000 mostly poor and middle-class people who lost seven of 22 hospitals and half of the city's hospital beds. More than 4,486 doctors were displaced from three New Orleans parishes, creating a shortage that still hampers many hospitals, says a companion study released Thursday.

The indigent suffered the brunt of the health toll from the 2005 storm. The Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, two hospitals that made up the city's safety net for the uninsured, were severely damaged. Charity Hospital, oldest and best known of the two, remains closed.

And this...

Crime, that old menace of the old New Orleans, is back, and it's bedeviling a city trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina. There have been 147 people killed in New Orleans this year, police say, down from 204 by this time in 2005. But the city's population is about half what it was before Katrina flooded 80% of the city, forcing an almost-complete evacuation.

That means New Orleanians are murdering each other at a rate of 73.5 murders per 100,000 residents. That figure is above that of the nation's most murderous city — Compton, Calif., whose rate was 67 murders per 100,000 people in 2005, according to the latest FBI statistics.

Because many traditionally violent areas flooded and remain nearly empty, crime has moved to upscale, high-traffic areas such as the Marigny, the French Quarter and Uptown, leaving residents with one more reason to question their decision to remain in the city.

And still this...I have no more heart to quote

somehow...hope and love shine through.

"With your burden, look no further"
"I’ll be there just like a brother"
"We gotta raise the children that got no mother"
"Have a little faith in one another"

My god...isn't it beautiful?  Isn't that the essential shared credo among progressives/liberals/whatever?  Isn't that the common thread that binds us all together?

I don't know what Mr. King's politics are...but inadvertantly or on purpose, he has made a mission statement that should--must--strike the keynote from this point forward.

Read that verse again....does anything sound familiar?

Sounds like it takes a village...

Sounds like the audacity of hope...

Sounds like a plea for "one America"...

Sorry, Edwards supporters to reopen freshly healing wounds...this was written before he dropped out and I didn't want to take him out...he of all the candidates seemed to "get it" above all.

That being said...we are watching Ms. Clinton.  We are watching Mr. Obama.  Will you rise the challenge?  Will you care?  Can you live up to your rhetoric?

Posterity awaits, as yet unborn, but no less ready to judge.  Will they ever be able to experience the joy that was the Big Easy?  Or will you forever consign it to the fate that, right now, seems to be its destiny?

The crux of the matter, though, is found in the album's title.

Rise.

Rise.

Rise, all of you.

Rise and cast out from power these charlatans and demagogues.

Rise above the hatred.  

Rise above the past seven years.

Rise from the ashes.

There's one more chance.  It slips away daily, but yet remains...grasp it, hold on, and do not let it go.

Rise, New Orleans.

Rise, America.

1 What Would Jesus Do?
Words by Chris Thomas King and Gary Nicholson
Arranged Chris Thomas King
©2005 Young Blues Rebel Music, LLC /BMI

2Written and Arranged Chris Thomas King
©2006 Young Blues Rebel Music, LLC /BMI

3Written and Arranged Chris Thomas King
©2006 Young Blues Rebel Music, LLC /BMI

4Written by Joni Mitchell
Arranged by Chris Thomas King
Published by Siquomb Publishing Corp. (BMI)

5Written and Arranged Chris Thomas King
©2006 Young Blues Rebel Music, LLC /BMI

Originally posted to Raybin on Sat Feb 02, 2008 at 07:31 AM PST.

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