When we first started researching the impact Hurricane Katrina had on music, and how music, in turn, helped the Gulf Coast recover, nearly everyone I spoke to said to reach out to singer/songwriter John Boutte. “If you want to hear about a hero, this is the guy,” I was told by Michael Garran, manager of the esteemed club D.B.A. on Frenchmen Street, echoing what others had said. “He’s a truth-teller. There’s a reason he’s called ‘The Voice of New Orleans.’”
It was explained to me that long before HBO brought John Boutte to America’s attention (He played himself in a cameo role, scored the music, and sang the song “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” in the final credits), Boutté had attracted a loyal following. Right after the city flooded, when there was concern that New Orleans might never come back, Boutte galvanized those who were struggling to rebuild their lives.
So I called John Boutte. When he answered the phone, there was a reflective tone to his voice, a way in which he carefully considered his words that immediately signaled why this man has had such impact on others: he is someone who cares deeply about issues, and feels a responsibility to live life with integrity. I asked if he would be willing to share his Katrina story with us.
First thing, he wanted to set me straight: “When you say Katrina, don’t say Katrina hit New Orleans. Katrina hit Mississippi. What happened was the levees failed. The federal levees failed, and we flooded out.” He took an audible breath before he added, “I lived through Betsy, Camille, Andrew…those were hurricanes. This was neglect and government failure”
The anger, disappointment, and sheer indignation he felt ten years ago was right there, in an instant, palpable through the phone.
Which is why, when we were finally able to meet in person, a few weeks later, I was eager to speak to Boutte and learn more about his perspective. We sat down to talk one afternoon, after his set at D.B.A. where he recorded a deeply moving rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” for our special, Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm with Robin Roberts.
He recounted how during the early warnings of the hurricane, when it was expected to head toward New Orleans, he was in Brazil. Boutte watched on television as the forecasters tracked the monster storm. Then, as soon as he was able, he booked a flight back to the states to find his family. Communications were down. There was no way to call anyone. He could not fly directly into New Orleans, so he landed in North Carolina. By the time he reached Mississippi, the devastation from the storm was evident: “I saw these pine trees, these beautiful, majestic pines that were cracked like toothpicks all along the way. And when I approached the causeway that runs across Lake Pontchartrain, it was still…it was, not a bird, there was not even a seagull, and it was hot…as hot as it could be with the steam coming from the water. And it was very ominous.”
But that was just the overture to the symphony of destruction he and others would witness. Boutte, New Orleans born, was shocked to see what had happened to the place he called home. “As I came into the city, everything was brown, everything. There was also this ugly waterline, this black line that stretched along the city, that let you know how high the water went, and– and it wasn’t clean water. It was filthy water with sewage, oil…” With a heavy sigh he recounted coming into his neighborhood. “It was empty and there were no kids, there were no people. There was no place to find a meal. There was no place to get a drink. It was very shocking, you know, to get back and and see the damage that the flooding did, all the flooded out cars, the empty houses.” He went to find his mother’s home. “It was very surreal. I remember walking out and seeing everybody’s life piled up in front of their houses. You know, when I walked into my mother’s neighborhood– and saw everything pulled out of her house, piled up in front of our door. That really blew me away, man.”
It was then he felt a calling. “Folks needed medical care, we needed to be fed, we needed to be comforted, we needed some kind words, and we needed music. People needed music.” So he went to the clubs on Frenchmen Street, most often to D.B.A., and sang for anyone who wanted to listen.
“After the storm,” Boutte recalls, “The few that were here stayed together. I saw parents bring kids to bars with them because that was our church.”
Families, workmen, first responders all gathered to sit on the wood floor at the foot of the stage. Very quickly, Boutte’s performances became a catharsis for the exhausted crowd trying to pull their lives back together.
“It was a time where we depended on one another, and we trusted one another to get through,” Boutte recalled. “After working all day cleaning mud, and muck out of your house, and with nowhere to wash off, we’d all come into this room– someplace we’d congregate, and we’d let our emotions out through song. We cried together, we laughed together, we shouted together, we got angry together. And the music allowed all of that.”
The songs he sang gave voice to the emotions they all shared, especially when he changed lyrics of classics to reflect the post-Katrina situation.
There was no holding back for Boutte, who riffed on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” with pointed political references. Instead of “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline,” he sang of a flood deluging the Lower Ninth Ward. In Newman’s original song, President Coolidge came down in a railroad train to examine “this poor cracker’s land.” Boutte sang, “Bush flew over in his airplane with twelve fat men with martinis in their hand/Bush said, ‘Fat man, great job . . . look what the river has done to this poor Creole’s land.’ ” One of his most requested songs was his version of Annie Lennox’s “Why,” in which he changed it from a lover’s soulful questioning, to a cry for social-justice after the government’s failure to adequately respond to the Gulf Coast.
“At first, I just thought, oh, we’re just making music.” Soon he saw something else was happening. “People left out of here with courage to go on the next day, and was waiting for the next week to come back. And just, you know, let out their frustrations, tell their stories on where– the progress they were making, or weren’t making. It really was through the music.”
But it was also the man making the music who provided reassurance, and something even more important: hope. “I would always try to encourage people. I’d sing songs that were uplifting. I’d also sing songs that were s– that you know, showed the frustration and the sadness, and the hurt that– and the loss that we all had. But I would try to sing songs that would encourage people to wake up the next day.”
There were stages they went through collectively, including a good deal of grief. “We did a lot of crying, a whole lot of crying. But then we had to get to the hard work of just trying to rebuild. And you know, you cry for a bit, you let it out, and then you go back to picking up your life. And that’s what we did.”
Boutte is quick to add that not everybody was able to just pick up their lives. There were over 1,800 people who died in the storm. And he believes there were deaths that came later, a personal observation John Boutte wants made known on this ten-year commemoration. “There were some people, they never made it back, or if they did make it back, they died shortly after. They died from heartbreak, and you know, some people say, ‘Well, you can’t die from heartbreak.’ But yes, you can. I’ve had young friends, some of my mom’s friends, my sister’s friends, my friends, who didn’t drown in the flood.” He pauses to think about how best to phrase something hard to bring to light. “Through despair, they lost it.”
John Boutte, known for being someone who connects the dots, stopped to see if he should continue, to say something others are sometimes hesitant to express when recalling those difficult times that followed the flooding: “What really shocked me: to see the military riding around in my town like it was a warzone. I felt like we were being occupied– and we were basically being occupied.” Boutte was referring to the plethora of police and National Guard, some of whom, having been ordered to stop looters, pointed guns at people on the streets. Boutte says he experienced what many felt, that innocent people who had suffered and were traumatized were being wrongly treated. “Until, General Honore came up, and he told those soldiers to stand down, stand their weapons down. These are U.S. citizens, they’re not criminals, you know.”
There were other aspects of living through one of the nation’s worst disasters that still strikes a sensitive chord for the man known as the troubadour of truth. “Another thing that really bothered me was being called a refugee.” When the evacuees were spread across the country, news organizations, including the AP, sometimes referred to them as refugees. It stirred a national debate, during which Jesse Jackson and other critics said the word “refugee” carried racist implications. Even a decade later, the thought of ever bearing this label disturbed Boutte. “Like we didn’t belong here in America. I’m an American. So how could I be a refugee in my own country? It broke my heart. But I just had to suck it up and realize, you know, okay, we have to dig out of this and move forward somehow, you know, muddle through it. And here we are ten years later still muddling through.” His raised eyebrows punctuated the not-so-oblique reference to headlines today coming out of Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, and Charleston.
And then, because he is John Boutte, he leaned forward to tell another truth. One that almost everyone who lived through the flooding of the Big Easy will confess to when pressed: “These ten years have not been a cake walk, and we still have a long, long way to go. We’ve progressed, but if you take a ride through this city, you see some places that look great, but you don’t have to look far to see the telltale signs of ten years ago.”
But overall, when thinking about the past ten years, Boutte extolled how selflessly the people of New Orleans pulled together to help one another. “It gave me a faith in humanity,” he says, underscoring how the fighting spirit to survive persevered in the face of so much loss. “It showed me that there’s a lot of people who love this city.” And Boutte is definitely one of them.
Before we ended our conversation, I threw an unexpected question his way, asking, were he to write a love song for New Orleans, what would he call it? He closed his eyes, thinking deeply and carefully for some time, before coming up with an answer spoken from the heart: “Resilience. Yes, that’s what I’d call it. Resilience.” Then with all the pride of a native born son, he added, “Maybe I’ll just call it New Orleans Forever. That’s what it would be. New Orleans Forever.”
For more information on John Boutte, please visit his website www.johnboutte.com