August 26, 2007

A Soundless Dirge: The Musicians' Solidarity Second Line Protest

This afternoon, just as the sky finally gave up some rain, we joined around 100 of our fellow citizens in a silent second line to protest the treatment of musicians in this famously musical city. Instead of whirling parasols and the blare of brass instruments, we shuffled along under a black umbrella as a motley of guitars, trumpets, and tubas sat dormant in their owners' arms.

The march began outside of Donna's, then crossed the street to launch from the gates of Louis Armstrong Park at a little after 12pm. The procession made it's way up Rampart Street with a two-man police escort. Music-lovers and players of all ages and colors then took a right towards the river at Conti Street and padded through puddles in the quiet of the Quarter on a Sunday.

Well, here we are, I thought: a hardy, unadorned crew of people fed up with the low wages and shoddy treatment endured by the very people who make the Quarter and the rest of the city worth a damn; who fell from the tree of Louis and scramble to survive on minimum wage, ever threatened with quick replacement by the too-common scoundrels in charge of the hotels and nightclubs; who have no hope for a fair shake from a local recording industry, as there is no such thing; who have blown and cried at the short end of the stick since the first note sounded from Congo Square; who watch far-off celebrations of and toasts to their culture while making $8 a shift on Bourbon Street, if they can find a job there, just as their predecessors watched the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc., swim in gold on the TV with songs lifted from these sidewalks; who are lucky to get a gig at the Fairgrounds in late April while Rod Stewart receives an athlete's salary for an hour of lame covers; who are expected to suffer and smile and make due when the rest of the nation shows up to get tanked, soiling their heritage while barely making enough to feed their families....

Then we turned left on Bourbon Street and passed by the junk and neon and rock bands of that great gutter. Though we go there quite a lot, much more than your average citizen, Kim and I noted the bewilderment of some of our group, people who rarely see the newest mutations on the city's most famous blocks. The few tourists awake on a rainy Sunday watched us in mild perplexity, unsure if this was part of the Disney-fying, or some sort of threat.

We took another right and walked to Jackson Square, where the group gathered around a microphone, some holding banners. The first speaker was the great Antoinette K-Doe, wife of the legendary Ernie K-Doe, and owner of the bar that keeps his memory alive. Miss K-Doe promised every musician a fair wage and free food at her place, and was the one club-owner present who put anything on the line, which is a little astounding when you think of the size of her joint vs. the big fish who didn't show up. Union Head Deacon John also spoke, along with Uncle Lionel Batiste and some others, and then the whole thing broke up, with not a note played in front of the cathedral.

The overcast skies, as well as Miss K-Doe's black hearse, lent a somber air to the event, and the stillness of the square reflected the seriousness of the problem. For over a century now, this raw deal has persisted, and with so much of the culture under fire after the storm, a lot more protesting needs to happen to stop a larger recession of what's important.

I'll just say it right now: this is going to be one fucked up, sad week.