Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I loved New Orleans music before I even knew what it was.

In the mid-1960s, I went to high school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which back then was a bleak, On the Waterfront landscape of dock workers and drifters hanging out in the pool halls along Bedford Avenue. We were warned to watch out on our way to track practice at nearby McCarren Park, because the pool halls were violent and confrontations often spilled out onto the street.

Around the corner from school was a small soda fountain, where I would hang out and play the Wurlitzer jukebox. It was my first audiophile-level experience of my favorite music.

I was able to keep up with everything on the Billboard charts with my pocket transistor radio and the clock radio next to my bed, but the soda shop was where I got to hear music in all its glorious detail. Favorites included "Iko Iko," the mysterious Dixie Cups single on Red Bird records, an irresistible chant backed by a percussion section of sticks banging on an aluminum chair, a Coke bottle, and a glass ash tray—an earworm for a 15-year-old to be sure. It would be years before I understood that they were singing a Mardi Gras Indian street chant inspired by Sugar Boy Crawford's 1953 R&B classic, "Jock-A-Mo."

Another jukebox favorite for me was "Working in the Coal Mine" by Lee Dorsey, whose line "When Saturday rolls around I'm too tired for having fun" tickled my teenage imagination. But what really got me was the backing track with its chinking guitar rhythm, the crisp drum syncopation that opened the song, and that wonderful bass line, which made my toes twitch and my fingers pop. This was one that my buddies, Al, Ludek, and Guido, danced and sang along to and used as hip sign language as we made our way through dreary classroom days. "Oops, about to slip down" was a secret code. None of us realized we were listening to stone-cold New Orleans R&B, produced by the genius Allen Toussaint, with guitarist Roy Montrell, bassist Walter Payton, and drummer Albert "June" Gardner.

All my buddies and I could talk about back then was music, and we plotted trips across the river to Greenwich Village to go to clubs and hang out with beatniks. We all aspired to be beats, but we were too late—it was 1966, and everything was changing. On one of my forays, I came across a new magazine, Crawdaddy, which changed my life. I had been a voracious buyer of pop music magazines, but this was something new: a publication not dedicated to pinups and color pictures but to long essays on my favorite albums, talking about the sound of the music and the way the records spoke to the personal life of the listener. I immediately wanted to write like that myself. Eventually, inspired by Crawdaddy, I wrote my first review, of the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile.

As soon as I got to college, I made my way to the newspaper office and talked them into letting me write a column reviewing records and reporting on what was going down at the newly opened Fillmore East. I started getting my hands on review copies of records. My worldview exploded.

One of my first discoveries was Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack. Once again, on first impression I had no idea what I was listening to, but I was immediately hooked. Hearing his Yat accent, I mistakenly thought he was from Brooklyn. But as I listened more closely, the message started gaining focus, and before long I was digging the New Orleans street vibe on tracks such as "Mama Roux." It all came together on the Gumbo album when Mac played his magnificent second-line piano throwdown on his own arrangement of "Iko Iko."

In 1974, I was assigned to interview Dr. John for Crawdaddy. The hit album In the Right Place and the just-released Desitively Bonnaroo were both produced by Toussaint and featured the Meters as the backing band. I spent about a week in Dr. John's company, interviewing him in his hotel and catching gigs at the Bottom Line in New York and Mr. D's in New Jersey. He introduced me to secrets of New Orleans music, lessons that continued for the rest of my life and eventually inspired me to move to New Orleans.

You can tell how important someone in New Orleans is to the city by the way his or her passing is celebrated: No city has more elaborate rituals to transition its inhabitants from this world to the next. When he died of a heart attack last June, his spirit lingered in the city. Before the end of that day, the people of New Orleans began to celebrate his life. The day of the funeral dawned during the hottest New Orleans summer on record, but huge crowds gathered on Canal Street to see the horse-drawn hearse bearing Dr. John to his resting place. A Who's Who of New Orleans musicians came out to sing him home, including Irma Thomas, one of the New Orleans artists I'd listened to back in high school. She sang "Iko Iko," and my circle was unbroken.

Herb Reichert's picture

and I didn't cry at all. Until . . . my dad and I and my best friend Marko were in the limo leaving the cemetery. As we approached the cemetery gate, Marko leaned over the front seat and asked the driver to "Please put on the radio." The first sound we heard was the Staple Singers, "I was stand-ing by my win-dow . . ." singing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" --- it was crushing. We all sobbed for joy as much as grief.

mns3dhm's picture

When my father passed I asked the minister, my uncle, if we could sing this at the funeral. He said, 'No, that is secular music'. This is about the time I left the church.

Spla'nin's picture

Another Mac Rebennack favorite on Windham Hill "Bluesiana Triangle"


Mikk's picture

I used to visit hifi sites and read magazines for the lowdown on new gear and equipment, however the pieces i now enjoy most usually don't have anything to do wirh with shiny boxes.
Thanks once again, Stereophile, for putting music and humanity first.

doak's picture

From this New Orleans Boy - You did GOOD.

JulieAudiophile's picture

I got excited when I saw that Yellow Moon album cover. I remember that album marked the first time I'd ever heard the Neville Brothers! Also I feel fortunate to have seen Dr. John in concert (with Cyndi Lauper opening, no less) in his latter days. He put on a hell of a show! Thank you for the great piece!

volvic's picture

Singing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is as moving as it gets. If you feel nothing after hearing it then you have no pulse. Plus the sound on the record is magnificent.