I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.
I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through a very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.
I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.
I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.
Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.
In New Orleans, the boatmen and carpenters really do sing their varied carols, but it’s no Whitmanesque fantasy. Voices aged in pain and hope rise from the bottom of the Mississippi Delta that Paul Simon, in a song called “Graceland,” sees “shining like a national guitar.” The players are everywhere: on the streets, in the strip joints, in the dance halls, bars, courtyards and restaurants. They’re bowing fiddles, blowing horns and shouting songs as a nation once again turns its lonely eyes away.
Meanwhile, Evangeline’s Acadian descendents got to be praying that the British quit coming. In the very model of a modern ethnic cleansing (called, exquisitely, Le Grande Derangement) the Brits forcibly removed their ancestors from Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s. Many settled in Louisiana, where, 250 years later, British Petroleum’s boiling the descendents in oil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned the tragic Maritime folk-tale of lovers ripped apart by a cruel, colonialist empire into a book-length poem, Evangeline. Hugely popular in the late 19th Century, it was performed at county fairs, festivals and schools. But how do you make poetry from a million barrels of oil and a poisoned Gulf of Mexico?
Best to dream of Evangeline. Miriam Cooper, remembered for her role in Birth of a Nation, played Evangeline in a lost Raoul Walsh 1919 silent movie. The alluring Delores Del Rio took a turn as Evangeline in a 1929 film that features a theme song by Al Jolson and Billy Rose. And she’s the tragic heroine of Robbie Robertson and Emmylou Harris’s haunting song from The Last Waltz.
Evangeline’s long search for love and freedom in the land of exiles and immigrants might make her a more meaningful American symbol to stand in New York Harbor than what we’ve got there. And there’s already an Evangeline statue to work with, in St. Martinville, Louisiana, modeled after and donated by Delores Del Rio.
When I came to New York from New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, I watched some immigrant Andean street musicians stand silent and curious before the Times Square pro-Palistinian protest of the Israeli attack on a ship carrying humanitarian aide to Gaza. Everywhere it’s another Grande Derangement, maybe the Grande Grande Derangement. We need a symbol for exiles and refugees, but I don’t know where to tell them to put it. Maybe Dylan does:
Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61
Can you think of a better place to make a stand with Evangeline against our global Le Grande Derangement? They’ve cut the throat of the Gulf of Mexico, and it’ll be hell to pay. As Levon Helm and Emmylou sing:
High on the top of Hickory Hill
Standing in the lightning and thunder
Down on the river, the boat was a-sinking
She watched that Queen go under.