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The very soul of New Orleans

'Louisiana Musicians Series' maintains the city's musical heritage, and 'Ernie K-Doe' is the latest volume.

May 13, 2012|Lynell George | George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University
  • Ernie K-Doe performs at the Ernie-2K-Doe celebration on Dec. 31, 1999.
Ernie K-Doe performs at the Ernie-2K-Doe celebration on Dec. 31, 1999. (Syndey Byrd, Historic New…)

In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the dark waters rose in late summer 2005, it didn't take long for people outside New Orleans to begin inquiring -- not just about the safety of loved ones or the state of the infrastructure but something larger -- as distinct as it was amorphous.

The concern was not simply what would be physically erased in the wake of disaster -- and forced diaspora -- but what would happen to the culture. Its "ways" -- the music, the language, the rituals and rhythms -- all of what animated this unique piece of our nation's history and identity: the country's conversation piece.

That culture was a body itself, one that many were already eulogizing -- a bit too early as it turns out. And though there is far more work to be done and many New Orleanians who were displaced have chosen to remain estranged (finding it far too painful or financially too difficult to return), others made their way back because life doesn't make sense anywhere else.

The layered meaning is intended. New Orleans is a place that proudly moves on its own axis. As a testament to that singularity, a new series of books, "The Louisiana Musicians Series," published by the Historic New Orleans Collection, or HNOC, is an attempt to preserve not just the corpus of work but that unique if not peculiar "soul" of New Orleans' culture.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 13, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Louisiana book series: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, an article about "The Louisiana Musicians Series" implies that the Historic New Orleans Collection, which publishes the series, has been in existence since 2004. In fact, it has been in existence since 1966. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 20, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Louisiana book series: A May 13 article about "The Louisiana Musicians Series" implied that the Historic New Orleans Collection, which publishes the series, has been in existence since 2004. In fact, it has been in existence since 1966.

As well as a publisher, HNOC, in the city's French Quarter, is a museum and research center that since 2004 has focused on researching and examining the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South region and has also published a collection of books dedicated to fine artists of the region, "The Louisiana Artists Biography Series."

Just last month, HNOC published its second volume, Ben Sandmel's "Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans." It's a deeply researched and exquisitely drawn portrait of not just the singer's "years trudging in torment" -- from club-circuit scuffler to homeless to "Emperor" (more on that momentarily) but of his relationship to the city that made him who he was: Context is essential when considering New Orleans, and Sandmel helps us understand the world out of which the charismatic K-Doe -- whose single chart-topper was 1961's "Mother-in-Law" -- emerged.

After a long stretch of struggle, ever-spinning braggadocio, K-Doe "christened himself Emperor of the World" and "thus emerged," writes Sandmel, "as a flamboyant figurehead of New Orleans' rich tradition of grass-roots surrealism...." Even still, suggests Sandmel, "in a city where excess and eccentricity are adored ... the late Ernie K-Doe still occupies a niche as a supremely outre character."

K-Doe's saga follows the series' first title, 2010's "Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man" by Harold Battiste Jr. (with Karen Celstan) and winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Assn.'s outstanding contribution to publishing. Battiste, founder of All For One Records, the first black musician-owned-and-operated record label in the country, hails from New Orleans but made the Great Migration-trek with hundreds of thousands of African Americans out of the South, joining other Gulf State musicians here strengthening the musical Louisiana-to-L.A. connection. Over the decades, he moved freely between the worlds of jazz and pop -- working with artists such as Sonny and Cher, Dr. John, the Marsalis Family and Sam Cooke while remaining true to his New Orleans influence and lineage.

Both volumes are elegantly imagined. They are as rich on images -- more than 100 photographs drawn from personal collections, defunct publications and reproduced ephemera such as 45s, sheet music, old display advertisements and concert posters -- as they are in their intent and scope.

What's remarkable is how these books evoke an animated sense of a people, place and that way of life so many feared might be washed away. Lyrically evoked, Sandmel's take on Ernie K-Doe isn't simply a study of the performer's vocal prowess and outsized persona, but it allows the reader to wind through the streets of New Orleans during its golden era of R&B -- the late 1940s into the 1960s -- to really hear the distinct rhythm of the patois, feel the humidity of some after-hours hole in the wall where the musicians vamp and history was revving up.

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