John Boutte, 48, is a critically acclaimed jazz vocalist and songwriter, born and raised in New Orleans. Our interview took place in Detroit, on February 28, 2007, a few hours before his performance at the Music Hall. When not traveling, he can be seen at his regular Friday night gig at dba on Frenchmen Street. To sample his music, please check out his Myspace page. Several performances can also be found on YouTube.
My name is John Boutte, from New Orleans, Louisiana. I was born November 3rd, 1958.
I’m the eighth child of ten. Six girls, four boys. By the same mother and father. A Catholic, Creole family from New Orleans. I was born in the seventh ward in New Orleans, which is about a half a mile outside of the French Quarter.
Family’s been in New Orleans since the French were there. Probably since the Indians were there. On my father’s side, Boutte, there were two brothers. They came from the north of France. One was an architect. The other was a slave-trader. In Boutte, Louisiana was the plantation where they used to bring the chattel before they sold the slaves in to New Orleans. My mother’s family came out of Port au Prince. They were Creoles out of Haiti. They came to New Orleans during the Revolution.
When I was seven years old, what did I really love to do? Sing. I really did. I would be singing to my dog. A little mutt. I would drive my older sister crazy. I would be in the hallway while she was studying art at Xavier University. I was singing nursery rhymes over and over and over again. She’d scream: Make him stop! I’ve always loved music. Always loved music. At eight years old, my mother gave me a coronet. That started my music career.
In high school, we had all these great ambitions. You’re thinking that the world is open to you to do anything. Then the reality comes: you’re black and you’re poor and you can’t do anything. You do have limitations. Especially in America. I love America, of course. Born and raised here. I was an Army officer, etc. But the reality is that when you’re born in the South, in a city like New Orleans, in the 50s, grew up in the 60s and the 70s, very turbulent time, it’s limited. It’s still limited.
My first hurricane was Hilda. We were in a new house that my father and grandfather built. I still remember my father running towards one side of the house, opening all the windows so that the roof wouldn’t blow off. The pressure [could] blow the roof off the house.
I remember Betsy. Man, being in the hallway, because he had us in the hallway that ran the length of the house. I remember sitting on the floor with my grandmother, and my great aunt. All of us with candles, saying the rosary, and praying that we live through the storm.
I was scared. You know? I was excited, but I was afraid. I mean, as a kid, it was kind of exciting in a way. The lights were out, and a football team with sledgehammers was beating one side of the house. Afterwards, it getting very quiet. Then it changed sides; they were beating on the other side of the house. [laugh] The wind direction changes with the eye of the storm.
I remember my cousins from the lower-lying areas of the city coming into our house and taking shelter. We were a family of ten. We must have had twenty relatives on top of that, who had come to seek shelter at my mother’s house. A bunch of adults and kids in the house.
I always knew that where we lived was on high ground. New Orleans Esplanade Ridge, which is the part of the city that runs from the French Quarter to City Park. The Esplanade Ridge was like this avenue that ran from City Park, to the river, to the French Quarter, where Andrew Jackson used to quarter his troops, from the river to that plantation, blah blah blah. That was high ground. We never ever ever flooded. Ever. My father built the house on a slab. We didn’t build it on an elevation. We never got water. Ever.
We lived on Derbigny. It runs parallel to Claiborne Street. Claiborne is where they came in and put the I-10. The Federal Government pulled out the most incredible oak trees in the country. I hate to say it was because it was a black neighborhood, but that’s why they did it. [The I-10] didn’t go through the French Quarter. It came through this corridor that was one of the most active economic corridors for people of color in America. They completely ruined it. They completely ruined it by putting an interstate up through there. It went from beautiful oak trees, and birds, to a constant humming of trucks and carbon monoxide and lead poisoning the neighborhood.
You know, underneath those trees, that’s where the African-Americans had held Carnival in New Orleans. It was by design. Without a doubt in my mind. It was by design. I hate to sound like I’m angry, but I am. I’m pissed.
The Hurricane Experience
I was in Brazil. I was on my way to Sao Paulo. I was concerned, and I was looking at the weather report in the Atlantic and what was going on. Oddly enough, I saw the wave that turned into Katrina come off the African coast. It was a powerful wave. I had an ominous feeling about it. When Katrina passed the city of New Orleans—because it didn’t hit New Orleans, it hit sixty miles to the east—I was in Brazil and I couldn’t get back home. I’m no holy man, but I was on my knees praying.
I can remember distinctly on the 28th calling my mother’s home and speaking to my older sister. I told her, you better get out. My older sister said: I’m not going anywhere. You know, I’ve got a dog. I told her, I hate to be cold-blooded, but your dog is going to be dead in three months. He’s old, not doing well. Do you want to die with your dog? Well, she didn’t want to speak to me anymore.
She gave me my other sister, Lynette. I said, you’ve got to get out. She said, My shop, my shop. She’s a cosmetologist. I told her, I said, Look, you’ve got to be crazy. You’re not going to be able to cut anybody’s hair. You’re going to be scaling fish. She didn’t want to speak to me. Then my mother got on. My mom said, I ain’t going nowhere. I said, I don’t want to talk to you. She gave the phone to Lolet, my other sister, I said, Leta, if you don’t do anything else, I love you, but I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t get mother out of New Orleans. And she did. Thank God.
My other two sisters, in their infinite wisdom, stayed. They got stuck on the I-10 for five days. Right where the cameras were showing them on CNN. They were right in that crowd. They had stayed in their house. Their house was elevated enough that they didn’t get much water. Then they thought they would be able to get to higher ground. Somebody they knew passed in a boat, and they left the safety of their home and got stuck on the Interstate.
These are hardworking women. I just can’t imagine…it broke my heart. The trauma, the terror that they went through. My older sister said that she remembered, at night, these guys were walking on the Interstate. They called them “nomads.” Lots of them were smoking crack. So they couldn’t sleep. They were walking up and down, just doing some horrible stuff. It was just really rough for them.
One night, they saw there was a big explosion on the river. They did have a radio. My sister’s like, oh my god, we made it this long. Now we’re about to die from a gas explosion. They thought there was a chemical cloud coming. They’re totally traumatized over this thing, you know? Without a doubt. Without a doubt.
Fortunately, I was able to call my home. I live in the French Quarter. My roommate answered the phone. In the French Quarter, they had phone service. I couldn’t believe it. Everyday I checked with him. I found out what was going on. He waded through water, across dead bodies to check on my sisters and them. They said they were fine. They had food, they had water, they felt secure.
The third time he went, I said, look, I want you to go over there, and if you have to pull your gun out, and force them to come with you, get them out of that house. He went. They had already left. I didn’t know where they were for a week. That really tore me apart.
Everyday I called home. I called my roommate and I said, hey, do you have water? Yes. Do you have food? Yes. Do you have ammunition? Yes. I said, I hope you don’t have to shoot anyone. He said the same because it would have been a tragedy. If he shot somebody, where would they get any help? You know what I’m saying? He’d have to shoot him to kill him. That would be the humane thing to do. Otherwise he would have languished there and died. He described some horrible stuff. Gangs running through, and army. It wasn’t America.
One of my best friends, who I grew up with, by chance called me. Actually called the house. He was able to get my roommate. My roommate gave me his number. I was able to catch him on his cell phone. My roommate couldn’t get my sisters and them, but he happened to pull out my best friend’s parents who are both in their 80s. He walked them back to the safety of our apartment. He cared for them for about four, five days, till they could get them out on a bus. To Houston, or wherever they went.
[Singing the song] Why took on a whole new meaning. Annie Lennox’s song Why. Also the song that I wrote, At the Foot of Canal Street. I wrote that about six years ago with a friend of mine, Paul Sanchez. Which predicts the flooding of New Orleans, and I never really thought of it like that.
I could hardly finish the lyrics to that. I’d get choked up, you know. I mean, still now, man, it’s like 19 months. There are times where I can’t talk about it. Just thinking—the images that come back. I start thinking about how poorly we were treated. I feel like I wanna cry. I cry. I’ve been crying forever. Still do. I still do. Thinking about all this stuff. All the people we lost. The lifestyle we lost. The injustice of it. I feel very hurt.
I got on a plane [to come home]. We had stayed about a week. From the hotel, you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in the band was from New Orleans musicians. Everybody realized we had no home to go to, yet we have to leave.
When we got to the airport, there must have been 20 cameras. I realized how serious it was. Global—every major network was there. It was very strange because I couldn’t speak. They were putting a camera in my face. I don’t speak Portuguese, so I put up my Miracle Mary necklace and I just asked them to pray for us. That was it. I cried like a baby. What can I say? Everybody did.
The day before, some lady came and gave me this beautiful silk bracelet. She said it was a good luck charm in [her] family. Evidently it worked, because you know, everybody—they didn’t come out physically unscathed, because, I mean, mentally they were really traumatized.
For me, it was like watching a car wreck on the interstate. With your family in that car and you can’t get to the other side to help them.
How is that trauma ever going to be healed? I don’t think it ever will. Some will stay with me until I go to my grave. You see the response that our government did. To see the politicians all posing, all of them totally incompetent. The reaction totally—can I say this? It was a clusterfuck. That’s what it was. To think that they couldn’t get to American people quicker with a better response. Yet they’re all on TV, making like a promo or something about how great things are going? That was total bullshit. I’m still angry about it. I’m mad, I’m pissed, and guess what? Nothing’s changed. And I don’t mean about my attitude about it. I mean the response. Nothing’s changed. So far, only 280 families have gotten money in Louisiana. Can you believe that?
What they did was they ran all the poor people out of New Orleans. Just happens to be that the poor people are the black people, huh? God Bless America. Bush’s reaction. Blanco’s reaction. Nagin’s reaction. Brown. The only glimmer of hope was when General Honore showed up. I said, thank God. When he pulled up, the first thing I saw him do on TV was tell soldiers to stand their goddamned weapons down. They had their weapons pointed at these people like they were killing. It was bad enough that all the major networks were calling us fricking refugees. Tax-paying citizens, refugees.
Upon Return to the United States
I went to Miami. Then I went to Orlando with my baby sister, who’s a producer with NBC. My sister from New York asked me to go to Orlando to comfort my baby sister. So I went there. Then I moved on to just south of Naples. I hooked up with my roommate and we went to Asheville.
I spent about 4 weeks in Asheville with some dear friends. Thank God, man. These people were so incredible. They were just selling their house. They had an upstairs and a downstairs. They gave us the downstairs.
Those first early days in Asheville? Strange. Drunk. Depending on the kindness of strangers, you know what I’m saying? I mean, I’ve always been independent. To have people looking after [me] you know?
It really didn’t strike me on the plane. When we were coming from Brazil, the stewardess asked us, are you from New Orleans? Yeah. She gave us handkerchiefs. I kind of like looked at her, like, what do I need this for, you know. She should have given me a two years’ supply because after I got home to America and I saw what was really going on, I cried almost every goddamned day. I still have those handkerchiefs. I still cry.
I guess I was in denial. You know? It can’t be that bad. But believe me. We got back to New Orleans on about the 16th of October. When we were coming back from Asheville the first time, we were coming through Mississippi, and I saw those pine trees broken like toothpicks. Across the Lake itself, there was not a wave in the lake. You know. It was hot hot hot. We had one bird that 24 mile section. Just looking for something to eat or whatever. Nothing out there. The stillness was like, I don’t know, like I was about to go to a wake or a funeral. Then when I saw the city…
My first image was the water line. This black line, like someone took a big marker and wrote across the whole city with a paintbrush. A line. A nasty city dirty muddy shit that they just wrote on everybody’s house everywhere. That’s it. Cars upside down. Trees. Shit where it wasn’t supposed to be. Things where they weren’t supposed to be. It was just horrible. Everything was brown. There was not a speck of green in the city. Everything was brown. The whole city was brown. It was like a bad UPS commercial.
It was almost like Calcutta, because of the flies and the bugs and the filth and the stench. There was no place to go get anything to eat. The Red Cross was there, giving out water and food rations. The military—these young boys were carrying M-16s riding around the city. The flies. Flies everywhere. Crows. All the scavengers. Some of the animals that made it through, that were emaciated. It was like a third, or a fifth world country. And everyday all these assholes are on the TV promising what they were going to do, posing, and not doing shit. And they’re still not doing shit.
I was afraid to leave the city again. I was afraid that if I’d ever leave I wouldn’t be able to get back again. I went straight back to work. Somehow we worked it out. We were the first musicians back on the scene.
It Was Like Church
When we had a gig, it was like church. That was the kind of reaction. People love what we do. They come like a little kid who was afraid to get away from their mom. They always begged me not to [leave New Orleans for outside gigs]. But I got to go because I got to make money. Some things didn’t change. That’s the financial situation of musicians in New Orleans.
The first gig I did was at CafÈ Brazil on Frenchmen. A club that I first started doing music at. This was in October. It was incredible. It was absolutely incredible. The electricity was still on and off. We were doing it almost acoustically. In this little club. And it was packed. People were amazed that somebody was doing music. It was packed. They were singing along. And musicians—the ones that I knew who were there—I just invited up on stage. We started doing a weekly thing there. Not for any money. I think somebody videoed some of that stuff. I’ve got some video of that somewhere around. Right after the storm. Very, very very intense.
It was like church. I got everybody—you know, it’s hard to get people to participate, sometimes, to sing along, whatever. When I’d open up, the first thing I’d do is, I’d make everybody stand up and I’d say, now I want you all to do me a favor, I want everybody to scream as loud as you can. Whatever you wanted to do, just scream. It’s very therapeutic. People would just get up and aaaaaahhhhhhhh! It was like this enormous roar. Get up and do it again. They’d scream again.
We’d start doing some of the old gospel tunes. New Orleans gospel tunes. It was incredible. Just a Little While to Stay Here, Down By the Riverside, Over the Gloryland, You Never Walk Alone.
What was the crowd like? The crowd was funky. Everybody was dirty, man. Nobody was dressed up. You never dressed up a lot in New Orleans anyway, but people were dirty. Nobody was like in suits, coats, ties. Nothing like that. It was kind of like a lack of a place to wash your behind. It was real funky, but it was real. It was really real. The people who have stayed throughout, they were special. They were people who had bonded together. Like never before. They really appreciated the fact that we were back and doing the music.
It’s difficult. It used to be the Big Easy. It’s difficult. I can wake up at 5:00am and go to sleep at 4:00am and still have stuff to do. You know.? Never-ending. Never-ending, man. Everything takes time.
The bars came up, some of the restaurants came back. The musicians came back. You know, but the city is inundated with carpetbaggers. It’s worse than after the Civil War.
They’re trying to pit people against the Mexican workers. But you know, guess what? They were speaking Spanish in New Orleans before they were speaking English. So when people would give me shit about the Mexicans, they were here before you. You know? Thank God—most are here trying to do something to help us get back on our feet.
Helicopters. Helicopters. Fuck. Every time I turn around, there’s a helicopter, you know. It would scare me. It was like we were under siege. There’s still helicopters. A lot of them are congressmen, and the senators. They need to get their asses out of the fricking helicopters. They need to go to work and legislate some shit to help the people instead of flying around wasting gas looking down and seeing what the fuck happened. You know what I’m saying? From up above, the ivory tower.
Some of the coffee houses came back. That was pretty cool because it gave people a place to sit in town and kind of talk. Kind of work through this thing.
Lessons from Katrina
We should count every moment that we have precious. Take nothing for granted. Also, [Katrina] taught me that we cannot rely on the government at all. You can rely on the American people. Which is a big difference these days. The volunteers that came down, and are still coming down, have meant so much. The people in charge who are supposed to be doing this shit haven’t done anything. It just taught don’t take anything for granted.
There’s a great divide in this country between the haves and have nots. It’s going to be a long time before that gap is ever closed up. Never in my lifetime. I don’t know man, it’s hard. My aunt used to say: from when you are born, till they put you in the earth, things might be bad, but they can always get worse. But I don’t know how much worse
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