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New Orleans Still Struggles—In Song—With Katrina

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? If you live in the Crescent City, you won't know what it means to miss that song: Along with "Louisiana 1927," it has become an almost-inescapable civic anthem, as sentimentality and paranoia—"They're trying to wash us away"—reach new heights in a city that has often been prone to both.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina, music remains central to how New Orleans measures recovery. When the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival returned to its traditional seven-day schedule this year with the Neville Brothers back as the closing set, producer Quint Davis proclaimed: "This is the family of New Orleans coming back together with the first family of our music, our soul." (Yes, he talks like that.)

However, the music hasn't served only as a yardstick; it remains therapy, in both the best and worst sense of the word. Club shows in late 2005 felt meaningful, even when they included the hits "Funky Blues in C" and "Slow Jam in A." "Oh Katrina" by Anders Osborne—who wrote a No. 1 hit for Tim McGraw—equated the storm to a ne'er-do-well woman. As an expression of rage, it captured a mood, even though the song's sentiment ("Katrina, you bitch") was better suited to a Bourbon Street T-shirt (which eventually did make its appearance).

More commonly, the storm was approached in the usual singer/ songwriterly fashion, setting unimaginable cataclysm to an orderly meter-and-rhyme scheme sung in the kind of faux-confessional voice traditionally used to dissect heartbreak. Those songs made Katrina seem small and manageable, which was bad enough; even worse, however, were the garish attempts to dramatize the dramatic, as if Category 4 hurricanes might otherwise lack impact. Detroit's Colin Dussault rewrote Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" to include the lines "Bourbon Street is one big grave/Thousands of lives could not be saved/Due to our nation's leader who has no brain." In Cowboy Mouth's "The Avenue," Fred LeBlanc sang: "My best friend's house lies beneath/The tears that God has bequeathed us."

In truly therapeutic songs, it's always best to avoid words like "bequeath." Susan Cowsill's "Crescent City Snow" nailed the meaning of home when she sang, "I want to go back to the place where I know who I am," while trumpeter James Andrews, in "One, Two, What You Gonna Do," raged against the threat to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition ("They put FEMA trailers on the Indian grounds . . . ").

"I hate most Katrina songs," songwriter Mary Gauthier told Geoffrey Himes, "because they're too angry and too broad. Once you try to paint the big picture, the song fails. You need to tell it through one person." But she added that she understands the bad Katrina songs, "because I wrote a big pile of songs like that myself." Her own "Can't Find the Way" is grounded in the common speech of an aging African- American man stuck in Texas, who asks: "Ain't it sad when you want to go home and you can't find the way?" She also trusts her audience to recognize the drama that undergirds seemingly simple lines like: "The levee broke, the water came/Rose all the way up to my roof/I crawled up there and cried/What else could I do?"

Of course, Katrina songs are there to make people feel less alone—a common anxiety in the Big Uneasy these days is that no one knows what we're going through—and Lil Wayne's "Georgia Bush" certainly finds common ground by joining the communal mockery of the president. But you didn't hear it banging out of car stereos, which made me wonder if our post-Katrina anger has dulled, if the city is only interested in therapy these days.

Juvenile shows no interest in therapy in "Get Ya Hustle On." Like "Louisiana 1927," the song offers a narrative set in a period after a disaster—but instead of holding your hand to help you get through, it slaps you in the face to wake you up. The world of "Get Ya Hustle On" is one where money rules and the government has outsourced the city's recovery to KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary. When the song came out in 2006, Juvenile foresaw what was about to happen: With money sloshing around the city (although never where it was needed most), laborers getting paid in cash under the table, and a lot of depression, unemployment, and unsupervised young people everywhere you turned, it was an easy bet that the drug trade would soon be flourishing. "Get Ya Hustle On" calls for a response as ruthless and cold-blooded as the Bush administration itself: When life gives you lemons, sling rocks.

Not surprisingly, "Get Ya Hustle On" has had few sequels, the most prominent being Johnny Sansone's "Poor Man's Paradise." It describes a place where the poor suffer the bad effects of the ruling class's decisions, though he could also be describing America at large. That knowledge leads to another question: Does the rest of the country realize that a government that has gotten out of the people-helping business, even after a major American city is destroyed by a hurricane, won't think twice about abandoning them as well? We're not alone in New Orleans, but not in the way that most people think.

 
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