The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”
New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting that St. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928. St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly. New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”
In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like lowernine.org and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with lowernine.org during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.
The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person: devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.