Dr. John Talks New Orleans Music 10 Years After Katrina

"If you can get even one politician to realize the value of a second line, it would make a difference," says Crescent City piano legend

Dr. John performs in New Orleans in 2013. "A lot of the musicians were really not ready for this storm," he says of Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

"The whole Lower Ninth Ward hasn't really recovered, but I feel a good spirit in my heart that something is going on — music is coming back slowly," Dr. John declares in his trademark growl, reflecting on the state of his hometown, New Orleans, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The 74-year-old singer-pianist, who was born Malcolm Rebennack, has seen a lot of loss and change in the city during his half-century career in Crescent City R&B. "Things were really solid back in the game," he says of the glory days on Bourbon Street, when there was "funk and Dixieland in every club. Even the hip jazz musicians like Ellis Marsalis were there, playing the real music."

Dr. John is encouraged by the resurgence in music education since the storm, citing the Roots of Music, a program co-founded by Rebirth Brass Band drummer Derrick Tabb and recently praised by President Obama. But gentrification has been complicated by "a weird un-solidarity," as Dr. John puts it, including civic battles over noise ordinances and legal restrictions that threaten the future of street music, especially second-line funeral parades, in New Orleans. "If you can get even one politician to realize the value of a second line," he says, "it would make a difference."

What do you remember about your first hurricane?
It was probably before they even had names for 'em. I was staying at my grandma's house. My aunt drew something on the door, some [gris-gris] symbol that protected us. But I actually saw an oak tree going down the street. It looked like it was walking. That freaked me out.

New Orleans survived plenty of storms and flooding before Katrina.
A lot of the musicians were really not ready for this storm. I remember hearing that some of the bands didn't have enough people to get together for a second line for quite awhile after Katrina. That's how many people were gone — and how many left but had not come back. It's better now. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America and the Musicians Clinic take care of a lot of people.

How has the struggle for recovery influenced the music?
The music is strong. I don't get out that much to hear all the youngsters playing. But certain things are happening that are good. Rebirth has that thing, the Roots of Music. They are teaching kids downstairs in the Cabildo [in Jackson Square]. They're doing a pretty damn good job on that. That's a damn good band. They travel around the world. But they still do the work for the people at home.

Could the city's government do more to support the music and musicians?
Oh, yeah, I know that. I mean, they are trying to get guys in the bands not to march in the second lines. That's ridiculous. That wasn't in the picture before

Is that a result of gentrification — that some of the newcomers don't appreciate or understand the music's role in daily life?
It's obvious some people don't have an emotional thing for the music. There was some lady in the Tremé [neighborhood]. She had just moved there. She was complaining about the second lines, how they were too noisy. She is not on the reality tip.

"It's obvious some people don't have an emotional thing for the music."

I remember when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was first starting. They marched for so many people, so many funerals. I remember thinking, "These guys are the real McGillicuddy." But I don't care what band is doing it. That this city has second lines — it's something I'm proud of. When the bands come back from the cemetery, they'll play something up — something like "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead (You Rascal You)" — that will bring the people back to life.

There is still a great need for healing and rebuilding. But I was in New Orleans a few weeks after the storm and amazed by how many clubs were already open again. The city does not give up easily.
I look at people's spirits here — it's a good thing. There are so many people that have passed away. But the locals are always going to want the traditions to stay alive. I just hope we can do something about them politicians.

In a way, the second lines are vital to New Orleans' recovery; they are the medicine that comes with the grieving.

On my [2008] album The City That Care Forgot, there's a song called "My People Need a Second Line." I think we need a second line for all of the people that's not living here no more.