“Bastards from the Start”
Apprenticeship in New Orleans, 1901–1919
TO THE NORTHERNER New Orleans is another country, seductive and disorienting, a steamy, shabby paradise of spicy cooking, wrought-iron balconies, and streets called Desire and Elysian Fields, a place where the signs advertise such mysterious commodities as poboys and muffuletta and no one is buried underground. We’ll take the boat to the land of dreams, the pilgrim hears in his mind’s ear as he prowls the French Quarter, pushing through the hordes of tipsy visitors and wondering whether the land of his dreams still exists—if it ever did. Rarely does he linger long enough to pierce the veneer of local color with which the natives shield themselves from the tourist trade. At the end of his stay he knows no more than when he came, and goes back home to puzzle out all that he has seen and smelled and tasted. A. J. Liebling, a well-traveled visitor from up North, saw New Orleans as a Mediterranean port transplanted to the Gulf of Mexico, a town of civilized pleasures whose settlers “carried with them a culture that had ripened properly, on the tree.” He knew what he was seeing, but Walker Percy, who lived and died there, cast a cooler eye on the same sights: “The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. . . . Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.” Unlike Liebling, he caught the smell of decay.
To the southerner New Orleans is part of the family—but a special, eccentric member, a city cousin who can’t be counted on to play by the rules, French and Roman Catholic in the midst of the hardest-bitten of Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultures, politically corrupt without limit and as morally latitudinarian as the rest of the South is publicly upright. In 1897 the city fathers went so far as to legalize prostitution in the restricted district that came to be known as Storyville. (It was named after Sidney Story, the councilman who drafted the ordinances that brought it into being, though musicians simply called it “the District.”) The vote supplied official confirmation of what a horrified visitor from Virginia had said six decades before: “I am now in this great Southern Babylon—the mighty receptacle of wealth, depravity and misery.” No one there pretended otherwise. “You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana,” said Martin Behrman, the mayor of New Orleans during most of Storyville’s existence, “but you can’t make it unpopular.”
Not even when it came to race did the Crescent City always toe the line. In the twenties, Danny Barker remembered, it was
the earnest and general feeling that any Negro who left New Orleans and journeyed across the state border and entered the hell-hole called the state of Mississippi for any reason other than to attend the funeral of a very close relative—mother, father, sister, brother, wife or husband—was well on the way to losing his mentality, or had already lost it. . . . When it was decided to live somewhere other than New Orleans, Chicago was the place, and the trip there was preferably a direct one, by way of the Illinois Central Railroad.
New Orleans was no paradise for blacks, but it gave them a measure of personal safety that was harder to find elsewhere in the Old South. The same encroaching swamps that forced the city to “bury” its dead in tombs instead of graves forced its black and white citizens into closer geographical intimacy, and some neighborhoods remained racially mixed after the swamps were drained. Unlike the African slaves who had to wait for the Civil War to bring their freedom, New Orleans’s “Creoles of color,” the descendants of the mixed-race slave children who were freed by their French and Spanish owner-fathers before the war, did not consider themselves black. “My folks was all Frenchmans,” Jelly Roll Morton proclaimed proudly (and falsely). Some had owned slaves of their own, and long after slavery had been abolished, their descendants continued to look down on the children and grandchildren of the plantation immigrants who lived on the wrong side of Canal Street in the quarter of “uptown” New Orleans known as “Back o’ Town.” “The worst Jim Crow around New Orleans,” Pops Foster said, “was what the colored did to themselves. . . . The lighter you were the better they thought you were.” One dark-skinned musician recalled that some Creole bandleaders “wouldn’t hire a man whose hair wasn’t silky.” Slavery itself was a marginally more merciful affair in New Orleans, where most of the city’s slaves were domestic servants and some became skilled artisans. The freedmen who crowded into New Orleans after the war, more than doubling the city’s black population between 1860 and 1880, learned from the example of their urban brethren. As for the Creoles of color, they were already a full-fledged black middle class, among the first of its kind in America.
Yet such privileges as were enjoyed by New Orleans’s blacks, whatever their hue, could be withdrawn at any time, a fact of which the Creoles were intensely aware. With the coming of the post-Reconstruction “Jim Crow” laws, they were pushed back across the color line. It was a Creole of color, Homer Plessy, whose attempt to ride in the first-class section of a train car led to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made racial segregation legal. After an interlude of heterodoxy, New Orleans was back in the fold. “No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled,” the dark-skinned Louis Armstrong wrote of the light-skinned Jelly Roll Morton, “he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks.” A black man who came out of the kitchen, Armstrong knew, could end up dead: “At ten years old I could see—the Bluffings that those Old Fat Belly Stinking very Smelly Dirty White Folks were putting Down . . . they get full of their Mint Julep or that bad whisky, the poor white Trash were Guzzling down, like water, then when they get so Damn drunk until they’d go out of their minds—then it’s Nigger Hunting time. Any Nigger.”
In matters of sex as much as race, the city struggled with its confused heritage. Many plantation owners slept with the black women they owned, but in New Orleans such liaisons were conducted openly, and long after the half-open door of borderline acceptability slammed shut on interracial sex, the city’s bordellos catered as openly to white men who shared their grandfathers’ appetites. The same Basin Street celebrated in song as the street / Where the dark and light folk meet was also the main drag of Storyville, and when dark and light folks met there, it was often to engage in sexual commerce, sometimes accompanied by a still-unnamed style of music in which the written-out dance tunes performed by Creoles of color were infused with the rhythmically freer style of African American blacks.
Sex, race, and music: put them together and you get New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, a city with one foot in Europe and the other in the Deep South, committed to a tolerance bordering on libertinism yet unwilling to fully recognize the humanity of a third of its people. “I sure had a ball there growing up,” its most distinguished native son would remember long after he moved away, never to return save as a visitor. He loved his hometown with all his heart—but he saw it as it was.
Until the day he died, Lou...