By Lamar White, Jr. | The Bayou Brief
Award-winning writer Jason Berry’s new book is the definitive history of New Orleans, a 300-year-old city that challenges, defies, yet still exemplifies the American mythos.
For his final article of 2018, publisher Lamar White, Jr. sat down with Berry for a candid conversation about the past, present, and future of New Orleans.
I. When the Saints Go Marching In
Yesterday, in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Superdome, the New Orleans Saints came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, securing the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage during the play-offs. Even the few locals who don’t care for professional football will acknowledge: the Saints, who nearly left the city permanently in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, have become an indispensable pillar of what it means to love New Orleans.
In their first game back in New Orleans after what locals simply refer to as “the storm,” a Monday night match-up against Atlanta, Saints safety Steve Gleason blocked a punt during the very first drive, resulting in an easy touchdown. Arguably, it was the most important play in the club’s history, because it transcended sports; it was a cathartic moment not only for the team but for an entire region. A few years later, the Saints won the Super Bowl. On Thursday, Gleason, who has lived with ALS for the past seven years, became the first football player in American history to receive the nation’s top civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, recorded his iconic version of a song synonymous with both the city of New Orleans and its beloved team in 1938, nearly three decades before professional football arrived. It is almost impossible to avoid hearing a variation of Armstrong’s rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” if you’re a tourist visiting the French Quarter and completely impossible to avoid hearing it at a Saints game in the Superdome, win or lose.
In Jason Berry’s new book City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300, he unearths the song’s extraordinary historicity, the result of painstaking research, and, in so doing, he forces readers to confront an ironic truth: A song that Satchmo reimagined as a celebratory jazz funeral anthem was originally a slow-tempo dirge of defiance and coded message against the white ruling class and the Lost Cause revisionism that dominated the politics of the Deep South during the years following Reconstruction.
Although its exact provenance still remains unknown, the song dates back to at least the 1890s, and its original version included a series of lyrics that Armstrong decided to leave out of his 1938 recording.
“The bleeding moon, war trumpets, horsemen, and fire echo the Book of Revelation, the New Testament scripture on the Lord’s battle over evil,” Berry explains. “James H. Cone writes that black spirituals had a message: ‘Slavery contradicts God, and God will therefore liberate black people.’”
“Louis Armstrong’s 1938 recording of an up-tempo ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ was quickly adopted by brass bands; few singers tried to emulate the satirical set-piece opening, ‘Reverend Satchmo’ calling out his trombonist like a preacher to the choir,” Berry writes. “The band uncorks a swinging melody, with no hint of apocalypse, only a surge of sweetness and joy.”
Satchmo’s iconic recording is not the only thing Berry forces readers to reconsider against its historical and cultural context; in many ways, City of a Million Dreams is as much about demystifying the city’s past as it is about reveling in its mystique, its million dreams.
II. In a city like New Orleans, the past is irrepressibly part of the present.
Ten days ago, Berry invited me to his home in New Orleans, which is only a mile or so away from my home on the edge of Gert Town. I’d told him I intended to write a review of City of a Million Dreams, before the end of the year; ideally, other than an obligatory Year in Review article, I wanted it to be the last thing I published on the Bayou Brief before 2018 came to an end, which seemed appropriate, as it coincided with the end of the tricentennial of New Orleans.
I had never met Jason in person, but we have been exchanging emails for a few years. I’d told him that I was a fan of his work, particularly the essays and articles he wrote for national publications about New Orleans history and the debate over the confederate monuments. So, he had graciously sent me an advanced copy of his new book months before it was released.
Shortly after I arrived at his home, a relatively nondescript place on the outside that is furnished similarly to my house- except with taller mountain ranges of books, a more eclectic art collection that testifies to a life well-traveled and a respect for the genius of folk art, and a room designed around conversation instead of a television set, I sheepishly admitted that I’d given the advanced copy before I could finish it to a close friend who was enthralled by the city’s history and who I felt was more deserving than I was of the limited edition “advanced” version.
Now, instead, I had the hardcover that was published last month, but there was no way I would allow myself to finish 2018 without finishing a book that had entranced me so thoroughly that it had nearly taken me hostage.
Thankfully, I made good on my resolution, because Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams isn’t only my favorite book of the year; it is a bonafide, lyrical masterpiece.
Berry is not primarily known for his scholarship on Louisiana history or his hometown of New Orleans. He is known, however, for breaking one of the biggest and most consequential scandals in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church.
In 1986, he won a Catholic Press Association Award for his reporting on Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a priest in Lafayette, Louisiana (and subsequently assigned to churches in Henry and Erath) who had been tried and convicted of molesting a young boy. Berry, then a freelance journalist, dug into the history of Rev. Gauthe and uncovered evidence that the priest had been molesting young boys for decades; later, Gauthe admitted to abusing at least 300 children. “It all began in Lafayette” is the title of the first of a four-part series published in 2004 by Minnesota Public Radio about the worldwide scandal.
In 1992, Berry published Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the first-ever comprehensive book about widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. His book and his name are both mentioned in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” which focuses specifically on the work of a team of intrepid journalists at the Boston Globe on their series of groundbreaking reports about decades of allegations and subsequent coverups of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
Berry spent much of his career investigating and writing about what eventually became revealed to be a global scandal, and without question, his reporting saved lives and helped victims secure the justice they had been denied for decades.
However, although he is understandably well-known and well-regarded for his work on and investigation into the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal, Jason Berry’s second book, published the same year he broke the story about Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, had nothing to do with the Vatican.
The book is titled Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II, and when you consider that, then it should come as no surprise that his latest book is the one he has wanted to write for more than thirty years.
“I’m a jazz historian,” he tells me. And though he does not say it aloud, I know what he means, and I know it is true: If you want to understand the history of New Orleans, you first need to know about jazz. Ideally, you need to be an expert in the subject.
In 1973, when he was only 24 years old, Berry wrote his first book, Amazing Grace with Charles Evers in Mississippi, detailing his experience as a press aide to the gubernatorial candidate and the ways in which racism poisons the politics of the Deep South. If you want to understand the history fo New Orleans, you also need to know about the politics of racial identity.
City of a Million Dreams presents itself as a history book, but that is not quite accurate. It definitely is a history book, but like its subject matter, it defies conventional categorization. Berry unfolds the story of New Orleans through telling the stories of the people who shaped the place as we know it today, many of whom may be familiar but most of whom have been largely relegated to the footnotes.
I anticipated our conversation would last for about an hour. Instead, we talked for four hours.
The book may be organized in chapters that seem linear, but there’s a reason Berry opens with an excerpt from the book of poetry “Gulf Music” by Robert Pinsky, with a reference to Faulkner’s famous line.
Pinsky, the former poet laureate, is also performance artist, as anyone who has ever heard him read will attest. (As a college student, I attended a few of Pinsky’s readings and was always struck by the deliberativeness of his cadence).
Forgive the slight digression, but this is video of him explaining what “Gulf Music” is about and reading from the final poem from the book, which, to me, perfectly reveals exactly why Berry chose to begin City of a Million Dreams the way he did.
Time is not linear, and a book of history cannot be honest or accurate without recognizing this paradox. Lives intersect and overlap with one another. There are parts of our past that were once powerful, then forgotten, and then rediscovered again by those who either imbue them with meaning they require or exploit them to justify cruelty and marginalization.
In a city like New Orleans, the past is irrepressibly part of the present, and the musical hum of the city, which the late Allen Touissant told Berry was in the note of B-flat, has lingered in the background for generations. As much as things change, they still remain the same.
Berry understood, intuitively, that to tell the city’s history, his narrative must zig and zag, but most importantly, it must be unapologetically, exhaustively, and fearlessly truthful.
“This may seem like an unfair question, but out of all of the characters you researched, who were your favorites?” I asked Berry.
He didn’t hesitate. “It’s not unfair at all. My favorites were Bienville, Latrobe, Mother Catherine, and Gertrude Morgan.”
III. Mystics and the Lucid Dream of New Orleans
Appropriately, the first chapter of Berry’s book is about Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French-Canadian colonist and explorer who is known as the “Founder of New Orleans.” The Bienville that emerges from Berry’s book is not the one conventionally taught in middle school Louisiana history classes. (With all due respect to my late, great aunts Sue Eakin and Manie Culbertson, who co-wrote the textbook Louisiana: The Land and Its People, which had been a part of the state’s curricula for nearly three decades).
He is also not the regal man depicted in portraits of him. We learn from Berry, right away, that Bienville looked menacing, deliberately covering his entire body with the same type of tattoos worn by the leaders of area Native American tribes. “Mr. de Bienville who is the general of the country has all of his body covered in this way and when he is obliged to march to war with them he makes himself nude like them,” a French general wrote in 1720, in a diary Berry uncovered during his research. “They like him very much but they also fear him.”
Today, we would describe Bienville’s strategy as a type of psychological warfare. He emulated Native Americans in appearance; he learned their languages; he slept with Native American women. And he employed some of the same techniques in battle: Eye for an eye “justice,” massacres, beheadings.
Bienville does not come across as a sympathetic figure, but he was most certainly a sophisticated and shrewd if not unscrupulous tactician. He commanded respect, at least for a time, not merely because of his social status, but also because he played the role of a kind of visionary mystic. Ultimately, Bienville was ordered back to France, where he spent his remaining years nearly destitute and completely powerless. To some, his ignoble ending may seem unfortunate, but considering the brutalities he committed without any consequence for most of his life, his demise into obscurity is better understood as a kind of cosmic justice.
Indeed, although Berry did not expressly make the connection to me when he named his four favorite characters (and the word “favorite” should not be understood as “most admired”), all of them, in their own unique ways, share a variation of the same characteristics: They were each visionaries and, to some of their contemporaries, that imbued them with a type of mystical quality.
Two of them, Mother Catherine and Gertrude Morgan, were self-proclaimed mystics.
Benjamin Latrobe may have been less preoccupied with the supernatural, but he is widely known as the “Father of American architecture,” a title that carries with it the implication of secular sainthood.
I found all of Berry’s characters fascinating, but I imagine these four people- two white men and two African-American women- were most notable to him because like the city itself, they each represented a tension between the sacred and the profane.
IV. A City of Youth
In a century from today, as New Orleans celebrates its 400th anniversary, it is possible that historians will regard the past forty years as the most significant period of time since Reconstruction. In 1978, New Orleans elected its first African American mayor, Dutch Morial, a milestone that cannot be diminished or overlooked.
The World’s Fair of 1984 was a pivotal moment. To its boosters, it led to the revitalization of a huge swath of the Warehouse District; to its detractors, it was an expensive boondoggle that made a handful of wealthy people even wealthier, while taxpayers footed the bill. But it may have also proven something else about the city and its identity: New Orleans should not aspire to be FutureLand.
If Robert Moses had his way, there would not be a riverwalk along the levee in front of the French Quarter; there would, instead, have been a raised highway floating alongside the banks of the Mississippi River.
This defining view, for example, would have been destroyed.
But obviously, the most pivotal moment in the city’s modern history was the Federal Flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and more than thirteen years later, the city continues to grapple with the tensions between revitalization, rebuilding, and displacement, which was exacerbated by the failures of corrupt leadership. History will not be kind to former Mayor Ray Nagin, who is currently sitting in a federal penitentiary in Texarkana. It may also ultimately be unforgiving to the scores of self-proclaimed urban planners who swept in like vultures.
Even those who remember vividly their experience of the trauma of the flooding and its horrific aftermath will find Berry’s closing chapters essential, if not overwhelming. Because the sheer scale of the ineptitude, the abuses, the corruption, and the negligence is made even more stark when the story is told as a chapter of the city’s history and not as a series of reports that trickle out over the course of several years.
Still, Jason Berry is more hopeful about the future of New Orleans than cynical. He considers the removal of confederate monuments to be a significant turning point in healing the divisions that have plagued the city for most of its 300 years, an act of exceptional political courage by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“New Orleans is the American city with the deepest African identity,” Berry tells me. “The dynamism of African culture is our future.”
The culture and rhythm of jazz, Berry says, did not entirely originate in New Orleans; it can be traced back to Africa.
Although he did not say it, I would add that the cuisines for which Louisiana are most well-known, Cajun and Creole, also trace back to the experiences of forced migration.
Years ago, tourists came to New Orleans mainly to drink and party. “Today, people are coming to experience our culture, our arts, our restaurants, and our music,” he said. That is a cause for hope.
Before I leave, I ask him two more questions. Should people be concerned about the influx of new residents and the possibility that they could erode that culture?
Of course we should be mindful of that, he explains, but we should also acknowledge the fact that most people are not moving to New Orleans because they’re being lured in by a high-paying job; they’re moving to New Orleans because they want to participate in the unique culture that no other place in America can offer. The culture is itself a life force.
Then I ask, “If the past 300 years of New Orleans can be characterized as a city of a million dreams, what are we today?”
“A city of youth,” he says.