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Dr John's latest albums are the 2005 Hurricane Katrina benefit CD Sippiana Hericane and Mercernary (May 2006).

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Before the ho-hum came

The Third Ward of New Orleans was a racially mixed place, and it seemed to be busting with music. Everybody around town would be playing those songs my aunties and uncles played, but everyone did it just a bit differently. The music came from all kinds of sources, but one of the most interesting for me was laid down by the black Indian tribes. The tribes hung out together on the streets and in local bars; they usually formed small groups - tribes - of anywhere from half a dozen to a couple dozen members. Many of the Indians worked together, whether on the docks, at the brewery or around the refineries. These neighbourhood outfits maintained a real sense of pride about themselves, about being black, and about the black New Orleans heritage.

Back in the late forties and early fifties, there were twenty or thirty tribes in the city: the Wild Squatoolas, the Yellow Pocahontas, the Red, White and Blue, the Golden Blades, the Monogram Hunters and others. So on Mardi Gras, you'd have hundreds of tribesmen out on the street all over town. They were ridiculous and funny all at the same time. They'd come busting out of their dives, their dresses and suits lined in satin and glitter, real sharp-looking and hilarious. They'd march down the greens, that broad strip of grass that separates one side of the street from the other, cutting up, shakin' the bacon and carrying on, and everyone would back off to let them start high-steppin'. And you had best back off, too, because they took their kicks seriously. They were real rowdy. Cats would brandish switchblades, and whip them out in your face if you got too close.

One of the gangs was made up of all the whores and pimps from Perdido Street; their parade was called Gangster Molls and Baby Dolls. Everyone in this group dressed as outlandishly as possible: the women wore eye-popping dresses; the ones who looked highest priced wore ultra-sharp women's suits, but with see-through bras underneath. Others wore slit miniskirts showing lace panties, stiletto heels, and flowery low-cut blouses. The pimps got decked out in acey-deucy Stetsons with cocked brims, jelly-roll-peg zoot suits, one-button roll coats with wide lapels and zebra-skinned shoes; not infrequently, they'd strut down the street with canes made out of bull dicks.

Each tribe had a different route through town, but the uptown tribes often started in Shakespeare Park and ended at twilight around Robertson and Dumaine Streets. St Roch Park was favourite spot for some of the downtown tribes, because it had a lot of voodoo vibes attached to it. In any event,
by the evening the tribes had decamped at one of the city parks, where they built bonfires, or stopped at a bar and played music and danced.

The tribes had another big do on St Joseph's Day, when the queens of the tribes danced and jumped over bonfires, which was part of their ritual. They always drew a big crowd of black and white folks, but this kind of thing seemed normal to me as a kid. Didn't every town have tribes? I thought so.

The Third Ward back then was a real liveable place - not always peaceful or safe, but it was comfortable. Like every city in the South, it was segregated into its black and white neighbourhoods; generally, the uptown side of the ward was black, the downtown white. Because we were white, my family lived in a white neighbourhood of the Third Ward. But this pattern of segregation didn't follow no strict line: the area around my house was arranged into a funky checkerboard of races, a couple of black blocks side-by-side with a chunk that was white. And even within the white and black neighbourhoods, you'd find families here and there of other races. In spite of the best efforts of segregationists, the races had a natural tendency to mingle and mix, jook and jive, rock and roll. Wherever you went - black neighbourhood or white - there was a real feeling of community.

In a few years, new freeways and so-called urban renewal would cut up neighbourhoods, creating a no-man's-land where before there had been places full of clubs and streets where people looked after each and other. Canal Street, which had been thriving, died. Where you could have walked in the Texas Lounge, the Brass Rail, or the Monkey Bar any night of the week and seen great music, now there are just cut-rate drugstores, burger-chain joints - ho-hum crap.

But before all this came down, I had my own private freeways to travel. The streets was my home; for a while they was good to me, kept me from harm while I went about my own brand of tragic magic.


Extracted from Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of Dr John the Night Tripper by Mac Rebennack and Jack Rummel (St Martin's Press).

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