New Orleans storyteller Angela Davis talks with host Steve Curwood about rescuing people in the city during hurricane Katrina. She also tells us a Louisiana ghost story.
CURWOOD: Storyteller Angela Davis is my next guest. She calls herself the yarnspinner, and over the past two decades she’s been telling stories, mostly about New Orleans. Thanks for taking the time to be with us, Angela.
DAVIS: Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: Now, you’re from New Orleans, and I understand you were there when Hurricane Katrina hit. What happened to you?
DAVIS: Well, I watched Hurricane Katrina rage around a lot. I saw trees snapping like toothpicks, crashing into my neighbors’ homes. I decided to wait out the storm because my daughter was trapped in New Orleans, and when I found out she wasn’t leaving I made a decision to stay behind because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back into the city once the hurricane was over. And lucky for us, she’s well and I was able to go back into the city to retrieve her.
CURWOOD: Well, that’s an awfully short version of the story, c’mon. We’re back and the wind is blowing, things are slapping into your neighbors’ houses, and what happens next?
DAVIS: Oh, the chimney came ripping off the roof. I kept an eye on the water. It didn’t flood in my neck of the woods – which is Mandeville, Louisiana – but the water got pretty high closer to the lakefront, I understand. Homes were pretty devastated in my neighborhood due to the trees, and once I got into the city – it took me about three hours to actually make the trek over there to retrieve my daughter. But each day following the storm I was over in the city rescuing people. It was a harrowing experience.
CURWOOD: Rescuing people? Just because you had a car that would go?
DAVIS: Yeah. I had a car, and I was able to go in. We had about 27 people staying in my home at one time. We had no power, we had no water. But I’ll tell you, after I picked up my daughter the first day, we were coming back across the causeway between Kenner and LaPlaz , and there was a young woman carrying her gasoline can. And she was just walking out on this lonely stretch of the highway, and I said – I just pulled over and gave her a ride – and once she got in the car she pretty much crumbled. She started to cry and tell me what had happened to her during the past three days while she was caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And I remember stopping her in the middle of this conversation. I said, “Look, sweetie, you’re going to be okay. Just like I stopped to give you a ride, there’s gonna be someone at the gas station” – and the gas station was 60 miles away in Sorrento, by the way – “there’s gonna be somebody at that gas station to give you a ride back.” Now, the interesting thing was, when we got to the gas station in Sorrento, not only did she find gas and a ride, but there was free food. There was a family out there from New Roads, Louisiana, and they were serving fresh food – hot jambalaya and bread and free water – and they were giving it out free, just from the goodness and kindness of their heart.
I went over to them and I said, “Listen, how is it that you're all out here?” I thought some church had put them up to doing this. And they said, “Well, we just wanted to do something for the people of New Orleans.” And so they got in their kitchens, cooked up this food, and let me tell you, it was the best jambalaya I had ever had. Edna was able to bring plates of this food back to the people waiting for her in the car with the gas can. And she got her ride.
One of the things I told her, I said, “Listen, honey, there’ll be someone here for you every step of the way.” And I want you to know, I was listening to these words. It was as if somebody was talking to me while I was telling her this. And the thing that I felt about this is that, you know, if you’re doing your part – whatever your small part is, like that family from New Roads – this world would, you know, be a wonderful place. If everybody just does their small, wonderful part.
[MUSIC: Tuts Washington “When The Saints Go Marching In” from ‘Mardi Gras Time’ (Ryko – 1998)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: Angela Davis, the yarn spinner, is going to tell us an honest to goodness New Orleans Ghost story. Also, the Jazz playing coroner of New Orleans will join us for some stories and music of New Orleans Christmases past. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Michael Doucet “Auld Lang Zyne” from `Christmas Bayou’ (Swallow Records - 1991)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and our Christmastime special, “Louisiana Longing,” continues with storyteller Angela Davis. Angela, it seems to me that New Orleans celebrates just about everything, including death and dying.
DAVIS: Yes, well, you know, there’s a thin line between the living and the dead. And so we don’t say that they’re dead, they’re just in another area that we can’t see. That’s why we celebrate it.
CURWOOD: So, please, Angela Davis, the yarn spinner, tell us a story that shows us how in New Orleans your vibrant musical culture blends death with rebirth.
DAVIS: Well you know what? I’m going to tell you the story of a hot day in an old New Orleans cemetery, and it goes like this:
“Thank you for coming here.”
I jumped and looked up. A moment ago I was the only living person in the whole cemetery, and now there was a man standing before me dressed in a black three-piece suit, a black tie, and his skin was dark, about the color of a plum.
I didn’t know what else to say to him, so I said, “Thank you. I’m collecting herbs.”
I heard a rumble in the distance and I turned looked behind me. An early summer thunderstorm, black and boiling, filled the horizon.
“Be rainin’ in a little while.”
The gentleman limped with his cane among the groves over to the mausoleum. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a massive keychain, started fingering through those keys one by one. He stopped at an old skeleton key and inserted it in the gate. The lock slowly turned, stiffly, and he pushed that gate open with his cane and in the dim shadows I could see he was motioning for me to follow.
Well it didn’t take much to motivate me. I heard another crack of thunder and the next thing you know I was right behind him. There were empty tombs on either side as we walked through. And at the end of the passageway it looked like there was a nice altar at one time. Broken stained glass was all over the floor, and there were two benches for mourners. We sat down on those benches. There was a long silence.
I looked down that passageway and I could see the rain was falling heavy, coming in slanted sheets. Daylight was turning dark and greenish just like it does before a hurricane hits. I said about as much, and we were quiet awhile, listening to that storm raging outside. The sky grew darker. The winds were whipping and roaring ferociously outside our shelter.
“Well,” he sat up straight and slapped his heavy hands on his thighs. “Looks like we gonna be here for a while, doesn’t it?”
And then he turned and looked me dead in the eyes. Now, I’ll never forget that look for as long as I live.
He said, “I hear you a storyteller. You know any ghost stories? Why don’t we pass the time telling ghost stories.”
This is the tale I told him, “At the Seams”:
Everybody knows old Joe Johnson was a great comedian. He could make you laugh! Have you rolling on the floor with yo sides aching and tears coming outta yo eyes. Old and wise, he was a big ol’ wide man with a grizzly beard, and he liked to play practical jokes on his poor friends Tina, John, Carla and Lewis.
They were talented youngsters. They climbed with him out of that trashy neighborhood in the city where they were born. Tina became a great singer. She sold gold and platinum records. And John? Oh my, John was a writer, and he was a regular on the bestseller list. Carla? Ohh, Carla was a world-class actress. That girl won an Oscar. Lewis, like Joe, was a comedian. He had his own television show before launching himself head of his own entertainment network.
They climbed up out of the hardness of the streets, polishing their language and smoothing their ways, putting some distance between them and the city. But not old Joe. You see, he remained behind like a diamond in the rough, with his old taste and his old speech and his old way of dressing. Despite his talent, Joe was always in a pile of mess or a heap of trouble. He went from one house to the other, one bankruptcy to another, one job to another. There was always something with that man.
His friends watched and now they helped him out when they could. But they had to be mindful of their own careers. But you gotta keep in mind the way old Joe lived. See, he wasn’t going to be around forever. Matter fact, he died. Now, you have to know how many times he wrecked his car. See, the end just wasn’t a surprise to nobody. They found him and his twisted remains of that car in and ditch. And his will asked that he be buried at St. Expedite with his four friends as pallbearers.
Well they decided to do it on a cool, rainy day. I remember just like it was yesterday. They brought him down to the crypt with this jazz band. Big old crowds came down from the projects. They were dancing to that New Orleans jazz and a thumpin’ of that big bass drum. But that night after the funeral they sat in a local restaurant in a private room reminiscing over wine. And they were talking about old Joe’s practical jokes.
See, he had some common ways, and Whoooo!, the way he loved them poor people? The way he put it, their ways, their music, their lives! And someone who had an idea, a great idea, they said, “Let’s make something good happen out of this. Why not make a song and donate the money to the poor in our own neighborhood?”
So what song could they sing? Now, they thought about it, and the answer all came to them at the same time: “Going at the Seams.” It’s an old spiritual and it had been Joe’s favorite whenever the bottom fell out on old Joe. Now this city might be a sleepy backwater, but it ain’t dead! And in the middle of the night, Tina’s agents called in some back-old debts, and they went out and got this jazz band off of Bourbon Street. And as a final touch, Lewis stopped by the convenience store and got a bottle of cheap whiskey.
Everything was set. Tina, John, Carla and Lewis sat on this little platform in this recording studio, surrounded by all these little microphones, passing this whiskey bottle around and reminiscing. Now, the engineers were in the glass booth playing with the dials. The jazz band, they were tired, and slumped around waiting for everything to get started.
At that moment, the door opened and old Joe walked in. He was dressed in his black burial clothes and his shiny black shoes, starched white shirt and black tie. That mortician had done a good job, ‘cause you could hardly see where the stitches were from the accident. Whatever, Joe looked like his old self, rocking from side to side, waving his arms and roaring in his deep voice. He reached for that bottle of whisky.
His four friends were petrified. They didn’t know what to do. The jazz band waved and shook hands with him, patted him on the back, took out their instruments and got ready to play. One brought an extra chair and a mic for Joe, who beamed back, “Thank you very much, thank you very much. Hey guys, that’s a good man. Get that man a drink!”
Joe grabbed the half-empty whisky bottle and he took himself a long swig. A dark liquid stain appeared about the waistline in his suit, and the room started to smell like whisky. Tina, John, Carla and Lewis, they didn’t know what to do. Joe turned to that jazz band and he said, “Hit it, boys!” He nodded to the engineers in the control booth, and in a real voice said, “Roll that tape.” And Joe started to sing.
“At the seams, keep them from going at the seams.”
He looked at his four friends and motioned for them to join in. That old song tucked him! Joe laughed. Tina closed her eyes. Lewis tapped his foot on the floor to keep time. And that jazz band just fell into the groove. They were rockin’ that place. John looked at Joe. He saw his whole body singing. Saw it doing a little coming apart, too. Carla looked over at Joe and she saw some stitches popping out round his ears. That dark liquid drizzled down Joe’s ankles to the floor.
That band just kept on playing, they never even noticed. Old Joe got out of that chair, he grabbed that whisky bottle in his hands, and he said, “Ya’ll made it, and I didn’t. Now I come back to claim what’s rightfully mine! Here’s to success!” All of a sudden there was a massive ripping sound that tore right through the center of Joe’s body, and he fell to the floor with a mighty thud.
The song was a success! It sold millions of copies. The critics loved it, the jazz band said, “Ooh, it sure was nice to have someone imitating old drunk Joe to come on and help out with the session.” Oh yeah, old Joe had finally hit the big time!
I turned to look at the stranger, and he was nowhere to be found. I felt the sunlight shining on my face. Light poured in through a broken window and I felt like I was just waking up from a long nap. I looked around; no sign of that stranger with the silver flask. I made my way back out into the cemetery, and the most amazing thing is this: there was no rain on the ground. There wasn’t even any indication that there had been a thunderstorm!
Phww. I left those herbs in the cemetery, and you know, I haven’t been back since. And every now and then I think back to that day and I wonder, did I make it up? Or did it really happen? I guess I’ll never know.
CURWOOD: Whoa, that’s quite a ghost story. I’m not sure that I’m gonna ever feel the same walking by a cemetery, especially one of those above ground numbers there in New Orleans. You think Joe’s still out there?
DAVIS: Absolutely. He’s ready to hear another story.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Angela Davis calls herself the yarnspinner. Thank you so much for taking this time with us, Angela.
DAVIS: Thank you. I’ve had a lot of fun.
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