Back in 1929, blues singer Memphis Minnie recorded "When the Levee Breaks," a mournful number about a catastrophic flood. British rockers Led Zeppelin, who likely never had to flee high water, put their heavy spin on the tune in 1971. Residents of New Orleans - including guitarist and songwriter Chip Wilson - experienced the real thing last year.
Wilson is an ex-Vermonter who has made his home in the Big Easy since 1994. A professional musician and writer for Vintage Guitar magazine, he plays close to 400 gigs a year - most of them within Crescent City limits. Wilson has firsthand experience of Katrina's might; he fled the hurricane with little more than a guitar and a change of clothes.
A mere week after the disaster, the fiftysomething performer played his first post-storm benefit. Many more followed; along with other artists, Wilson helped raise nearly $100,000 through a series of relief concerts. His New England background helped him connect with area audiences, and he embraced the opportunity to represent New Orleans' many displaced musicians.
Wilson's reflections on Katrina and its aftermath are expressed in his latest disc, Gloryland. The laidback shuffle "Bayou de Chat Noir" paints a grim but hopeful picture of the NOLA music scene. "Most of the musicians have finally headed out of town / The club still opens up, but it's empty every night / But the guitar and piano usually sound all right," Wilson sings in an empathetic tenor. It's a poignant tune on an album that plays like a love letter to the struggling city.
Now, after a year of semi-nomadic living, Wilson has returned to New Orleans. Much has changed since Katrina, but he's optimistic about the future of his beloved Big Easy. Seven Days recently spoke to him before a gig at Leunig's Bistro in Burlington.
SEVEN DAYS: You were a Vermonter for many years; what made you decide to head to New Orleans?
CHIP WILSON: I'd been interested in New Orleans music for a long time. My first exposure to it was a Champion Jack Dupree record. He was a blues piano player. And the Neville Brothers used to play here in Burlington, back before they were a known quantity. Those were some of the most amazing shows I've ever seen.
My ex-wife wanted to move there, but I was reluctant at first because I felt pretty on top of things here in Burlington. But I'm very glad we made the decision. It's amazing to be so close to the source of so much incredible music. The guys down there know hundreds and hundreds of songs. So when you move down, you might be a little behind the eightball. But people were very open and receptive - probably more than when I moved to Burlington in my early twenties.
SD: Why is New Orleans' musical culture so special?
CW: Music is everywhere. I'll never forget my first carnival season. I was living in almost a ghetto. Across the fence in another yard, I heard a little girl singing "Iko Iko." She didn't get that from Cyndi Lauper or the Grateful Dead. It was a part of her. I got chills when that happened. I felt I really did come home to someplace.
SD: Some worry the reconstruction might result in the city being more like a Disney theme park than a cultural Mecca. Are these fears justified?
CW: I'm less worried about it now than I was nine months ago. In terms of the music scene, a lot of people are gone, and possibly for good. Unfortunately, as vibrant as the scene is, it's as flawed in the same ways as the city itself. Business is very casual, and there's a tropical, manana attitude. Some people were probably already tired of it.
I thought about staying away; we all went through that process. But I'm glad to return. I'm finding that my work is positive, and I have the nucleus of my career back.
SD: During the storm, you were forced to evacuate with very few possessions. What was that like?
CW: I left with two cats, one guitar and a change of clothes. I thought I'd be back in three or four days. Most of us did. Even seeing this massive thing coming across the Gulf on the Weather Channel, we had blinders on.
SD: People have lived through a lot of that kind of weather down there.
CW: I evacuated for Hurricane Ivan, and a couple of branches fell down. But I'll evacuate again!
SD: Where did you go when you split the city?
CW: I went to my sister's place in Massachusetts. She was the closest relative to me. For about five or six weeks I didn't know if I still owned anything. My roof was kind of leaky already, and my neighborhood was severely looted. But a cousin of mine had a friend in the National Guard go by and look it over, and he said it didn't seem broken into. I could've moved back in, but none of the places I worked were open.
SD: A lot of the venues were hit hard, then?
CW: Some. Other places are in the French Quarter, which suffered only marginal damage. It's kind of the highest part of New Orleans, which is why it was originally settled. A lot of those buildings have been through decades and decades of hurricanes.
SD: Watching the events unfold from afar, how did you feel about the government's response?
CW: I was very lucky, because there was no cable TV at my sister's, which is 2 miles out on a dirt road. I went from being in the French Quarter with a guitar on my back every day to living with chickens, sheep and a horse. I couldn't obsess over CNN, and that was probably good for my mental health.
I was appalled by what the city government did, or didn't, do; I was appalled by how long it took the feds to get in there. The state government of Texas got in quickest, and they're still dealing with ex-New Orleans residents. They're worried about crime in Houston. The good thing is that we got busted for so many things that were wrong. The corruption in the Louisiana state government goes back a long time. A lot of stuff the politicians used to get away with, they can't be so breezy about now.
That said, the Army Corps of Engineers and, by extension, the federal government is responsible for the levee failure. That's why we think that they should've bailed us out.
SD: You participated in a lot of post-Katrina benefits up here. How do you feel about Northeasterners' response to the crisis?
CW: I think Americans in general were incredibly generous, and Vermonters were no exception. There was the feeling of support as well as logistical and financial assistance. In times like that, you really see the best of our country.
SD: There has been effort by outsiders to help NOLA musicians get back on track. The Edge from U2 had an instrument-replacement program, and I heard Brian Wilson was making personal calls to people who donated a certain amount of money. What benefits have you witnessed?
CW: Well, Habitat for Humanity is building a musicians' village. I went and took a look at it. There's really something amazing about seeing 250 volunteers out in the tropical sun hammering together houses for people just like me. And I know lots of people who got instruments. They're very grateful, and they'll tell you that.
SD: Now that you're settling back in, what can you say about the music community as it stands today?
CW: It's definitely starting to come back. I first went down last fall, and one of the most touching things I saw were some friends of mine playing traditional jazz in a place that had never had live music. It gave me a great feeling. There's the sense that musicians are truly valuable.
SD: The media is still portraying much of the city in a crippled light. How bad is it, really?
CW: It's pretty bad. But the parts of town that people want to go to are still viable. And other parts of town are coming back. Places that used to feel like ghost towns now have activity.
SD: Is there any bright side to the devastation?
CW: One thing that I really feel is that the people who live there are very grateful when people like me come back. I can only say that because so many people have told me. I'd go see musicians that I was only somewhat acquainted with - maybe we'd have done a couple of gigs together. When one guy saw me at the French Quarter fest, he jumped off the stage and threw his arms around me. Musicians are loved and respected in New Orleans; we get to go in through the front door. That feeling alone is enough for me to go back.