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Dr. John's Hoodoo Voodoo

Dr. John's Hoodoo Voodoo image
Parent Issue
Month
June
Year
1995
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held By
Agenda Publications
OCR Text

It was September, 1972. I was a 15-yearold psychedelic ranger working the right rear section of the field at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. In a matter of hours the stage was occupied first by elderly acoustic blues guitarists, then boogie woogie pianna players, then a bristly modern Jazz ensemble, followed by a gigantic Chicago blues revue. I was bewildered and seriously moved. Where had all of this music come from, and why hadn't anybody played it for me before? Just when I thought l'd seen and heard it all, I found myself wandering up nearer to the stage, trying to figure out who or what was makin' the music sound so spooky and magnetic. Upon closer inspection the singer looked as though he'd crawled out of a coffin. In fact, as I made this observation to myself the guy opened his mouth and said "I ROLL outta my COFFIN!" His eyeballs protruding from a greazy haze of white and grey face paint, under a 19th-century-lookin' top hat. The audience, at least half of them peaking on windowpane acid, moaned and hollered as the singer tossed glitter and gris-gris overtheir heads nto the spotlight beams. This was Dr. John, The Night Tripper. Twenty-threeyears laterthe rest of the picture is filled in as I borrow a f riend's copy of the man's autobiography: "Under A Hoodoo Moon- The Life of the Night Tripper" by Dr. John (AKA Mac Rebennack). Everybody needs to check this out. Besides providing us with a fascinating glimpse into the life of a legendary Louisiana musician, Mac's book seethes with gutsy, matter-of-fact insights nto the workings of the music industry. He casually explains how the record company dudes would ignore a rhythm & blues genius like Huey "Piano" Smith and plug instead a series of tepid Elvis impersonators. How songwriters were ripped off and flimflammed and bulldozed and scammed. A dirty business. Or he'll teil you how the New Orieans music scène was seriously destroyed by district attorney Big Jim Garrison's attempts to "clean up" the dist ricts by busting anybody who was doing anything even slightly illegal, and by padlocking the nightclubs. So the gigs dried up. Soon all of the best musicians from the Crescent City found themselves on the West Coast playing threechord backups for Sonny & Cher. Mac wondered why Phil Spector needed "30 violins, 1 0 horns, a battery of keyboards, basses, guitars, drums, which, mixed with much echo, became his famous 'wall of sound.'" Mac thought to himself, "What's all this - because in New Orleans we put out just as much sound with only six guys?" Now isn't that the truth. These insights are woven in with hair-raising tales of being strung out on smack for decades, which is a mean story. Dr. John's personality makes for a less depressing narrative than, say, Art Pepper's "Straight Life," but then Art did some hard time in San Quentin. Mac was lucky. But more than lucky. Deeper than luck. He carne from a special part of the worid, where the spirits are every bit as tangible as the turf itself. An old, old city where Voodoo flourishes as a living continuation of the original African Earth-based religions. Mac had the good sense to pay close attention to where his city had been. He learned about a root doctor, an ex-slave who held forth in Congo Square during the 1840s and 50s, a certain Dr. John. In 1967, this became Mac's stage name, and the music became riddled with references to goofer dust and gilded splinters. This was more than a simple Voodoo vaudeville revival; our 20th Century Dr. John studied with the healers and the spiritual-church people, got with the Mardi Gras Indians and picked up on the minstrel tradition still laying semi-dormant behind the scènes. He combined all of this with nis own up-to-date stuff and the result stopped most anybody in their tracks on first hearing. Unforgettable. You start to dig it. Then it grows on . you for life. (Mama Roux is with me always.) Overtheyears Dr. John has made record after record without copping out or going slack on us. He waxed a date with Art Blakey, and made things difficult for people who like to keep a musician in one category . The common denominator is blues and stomps and woogie. Substance and depth. What'd they used to say? "Soul" - That's the ticket. And speaking of tickets, Dr. John is going to be at the Frog Island Music Festival Friday June 23rd at 10:30 pm. Will he be solo? Additional rhythm? Horns? Backup vocals? Any way it happens, it'll be a night you'll never forget. But don't goforjust one night. Now listen up for a minute: This will be a threeday festival full of dynamite performers from all points of the compass. A three-day series pass is the only way to fly. Otherwise, you' re missing out. Don't just go on Saturday night to see Los Lobos. Check out Arthur Blythe in the afternoon - like most real musicians, he is always best when caught live, and besides, he's one of the toughest alto saxophonists on the planet. Check Luther Allison's soulful electric blues on Sunday. Reserve the entire weekendfor Frog Island. You'll be happy you did. This year's lineup is about as good as it gets. Get to the park early on Sunday morning for the 2nd annual Sunday Best Pancake Breakfast. l'll be broadcasting traditional New Orieans Jazz in person and you can sit down to all the pancakes you can stand. Proceeds will gotosupport WEMU, (89.1 FM), a tireless supporter of Blues, Jazz and World music. Finally let me say it is imperative that we support those elements in our community which are special to us. If there's something you appreciate in this área, be it a used book shop, a threeday music festival, an irreplaceably wonderful radio station or an alternative newsmonthly, put some support behind what you think should endure or one day you will be wishing it hadn't've disappeared. The Frog Island Festival is too good to be taken for granted. Get that three-day pass so we have a chance of getting to dance at next year's Frog Island. "In New Orieans, everything - food, music, religión, even the way people talk and act- has deep, deep roots; and, like the tangled veins of cypress roots that meander this way and that in the swamp, everything in New Orieans is interrelated, wrapped around itself in ways that aren't always obvious." - Dr. John

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