When you can’t actually be in the most interesting city in America, you can read about it and pretend you’re there. And, in honor of Saxophone Day (November 6), you can listen to some New Orleans music –with or without sax—to get the feel of the place. Below, some of my favorite books about New Orleans, along with some of my favorite songs associated with the place.
New Orleans City Guide (1938)–It’s one of my most-prized possessions and one of the best of the state and city guides published in the thirties and forties under the auspices of the WPA to put writers to work. All these decades later (even post-Katrina), one can use this book as a reliable tour guide to the wonders of the city. And it has a foldout map!
Nine Lives (2010) by Dan Baum–This well-written book follows the lives before and after Katrina of a wide variety of New Orleans residents. By turns tragic and hopeful, it gets at the reasons its people are so attached to the troubled place.
Lost New Orleans by Mary Cable (1980)–There are so many wonderful old buildings in New Orleans that have managed to make it into the modern era, it is astounding how many others didn’t. This book presents page after page of architectural treasures lost forever.
New Orleans Then and Now by Richard and Marina Campanella (1999)–This one goes Lost New Orleans one better. The preservationist/photographer authors compare aerial views, taken decades apart, of various sections of New Orleans. And I guess there’s now a need for a third set of photos, following the ravages of Katrina.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1962)–This novel won the National Book Award. Main character Binx Bolling is on a search for meaning in his life. Not much happens in this book, but I recommend it to anyone who may have spent some time wondering what they’re here for. And Binx is doing his wondering and wandering in New Orleans.
Elysium: A Gathering of Souls, Photographs by Sandra Russell Clark (1997)–What better idea could there be for a coffee-table book? It tours New Orleans’ marvelous mysterious cemeteries.
E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits (1970)–Well, OK, this may be an even better idea for a coffee-table book. It features photographs taken in the 19-teens of New Orleans prostitutes in their natural habitat. The photographic plates of the little-known New Orleans photographer were discovered after his death.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)–Controversial in its day, this novel features a New Orleans wife and mother straining against the constrictions and expectations involved with being a woman in that place and time.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)–A tragic-but-true tale of post-Katrina mishaps and humiliations experienced by one very kind, very unlucky soul.
The New Orleans Bicycle Book by Louis Alvarez (1984)–This guy had the right idea. The bicycle has to be the best means of sight-seeing in New Orleans. I’ve not yet been able to try it out, but the book is a fascinating guide to the city’s eccentricities—even if you don’t have a bike and even if you don’t have New Orleans.
Some suggested New Orleans music to set the book-browsing mood:
“Shout, Sister, Shout” by The Boswell Sisters (1931)—The best of all vocal groups comprised three New Orleans sisters who brought swing and rhythm to close-harmony singing.
“Hey Mama” by The Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976)—Mardi Gras Indian parade group meets the Neville Brothers in the studio—magic happens!
“Black Bottom Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton (1926)—Mr. Morton said he invented jazz. He was going out on a limb a bit, but he was there close to the beginnings, probably playing for the ladies in Mr. Bellocq’s Storyville photos.
“Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups (1965)—Just an upright bass, claves, and the unaffected vocals of this New Orleans girl group—perfect!
“Such a Night” by Dr. John (1973)—Dr. John did a whole wonderful album, Gumbo, that covered Crescent City classics (including “Iko Iko”), but I also like this jaunty little number he wrote.
“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven (1927)—Can’t have any list of New Orleans music without the great Satchmo represented. (You could also choose Louis Armstrong’s wistful “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?”.)
“I’m Walkin’ to New Orleans” by Fats Domino (1960)—I used to love to listen to my Aunt Kay’s 45 of this classic by the New Orleans legend, whose house was destroyed by Katrina.
“Have You Seen My Baby?” by Randy Newman (1970)—Randy Newman spent some time in New Orleans, and it shows up often in his music, especially in this tribute to Fats Domino.
Two bonus tracks:
“I Wish I Was in New Orleans” by Tom Waits (1976)—Tom Waits also spent some time in New Orleans. This one’s from the excellent album Small Change.
“Bye Bye Baby” by Robert Pete Williams (1965)—One of the few Southern acoustic blues players from New Orleans, Mr. Williams went his own way, with free verse, unpredictable meter, and unique guitar tunings.
What’s your favorite thing about New Orleans?
— Steve, aka The Buy Guy