Down south by the Gulf of Mexico they call the fall by a different name than most of us do, Hurricane season. Most years if one of those storms comes inland, it usually hits Florida that sticks out into the ocean like a safety net for the rest of the Gulf. But on occasion the winds will be just right that they’ll carry them around the panhandle and they’ll sweep down onto Louisiana and Mississippi.
It’s happened before, and really bad back in the twenties wiping out whole villages of poor black people and anybody else who was close to the shore line. There’s only so much that a man made structure like a levee or a dike can hold back before they give up the fight.
I guess they must have figured that the storm in the twenties was one of a kind and could never happen again, or maybe it was just negligence that not enough was done to prepare the coastal towns and cities for another big storm. So when Hurricane Katrina showed up on the weather satellites and could be seen to be heading towards New Orleans there was a lot of collective breath holding about whether the levees would hold.
For three days the winds and the rains battered the coast and it looked like they had come through it relatively all right. But then the disaster struck, the levees protecting New Orleans broke under the strain of so much pounding, and the water flooded in submerging houses, streets and neighbourhoods. People climbed up onto the roofs of their houses to await rescue that might never come.
We’ve all heard all the horror stories from 2005, and the fact that to this day little or nothing has been done along the lines of rebuilding: The major of New Orleans says if people come back they’ll rebuild, but when you’ve got no home to come back to it makes it kind of difficult to come back.
Blues singer Marva Wright was one of those people who evacuated and then watched on television in horror as their homes and lives were swept away. Now two years later she is finally able to release an album of songs about the experience of Katrina.
After The Levees Broke on AIM Records was recorded in Australia when Peter Nobel, the head of the label, shipped everyone down from America to make this album. He even went so far as to bring recording engineer Marc Hewitt in, Marva’s regular engineer, who lost his whole studio to the flooding. One track on this CD, “That’s The Way It Is”, was salvaged from the wreckage of Sound Services Recording Studio. It was originally supposed to have been on another AIM release, but was now given a place of honour on this disc.
Marva’s long time bass player and producer, Benny Turner wrote the opening two tracks on the CD, “The Levee Is Breaking Down” and “Katrina Blues”, for Marva. She openly admits that the wound was still too fresh for her to write about the experience. So Benny tried to create the song as she would have; trying to see the experience through her eyes.
When Marva sings “The Levee Is Breaking Down” and “Katrina Blues” they sound like so much like a piece of her soul on display that if you didn’t know you’d swear she had written them. She has a voice that works equally well in the church as it does in the tavern and when she reaches out with her voice you can feel the spirit behind it.
That the third song on the disc is a gospel number called “God’s Good Hands” only seems to make sense with what she had described happening to the people of New Orleans in the first two songs. When all else deserts you faith and hope are what will keep you going. If you are able to believe in an entity or group of entities that offer that solace, it seems only fitting to sing a song in praise after singing about a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina.
Marva then works her way through a series of standards turning them into songs that are uniquely her own. Not since Brian Ferry’s version of “You Are My Sunshine” have I heard anyone interpret it and make it their own as Marva has on her version. But while Ferry sounded like a lounge lizard on downers, Marva’s Blues version is heartfelt and poignant.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that a person with as big a voice as Marva’s can do more than proclaim songs loudly enough to fill a cathedral. But on both “Your Are My Sunshine” and the old classic Willie Nelson tune “Crazy” she shows that she can also pick her way delicately through a song when it’s called for.
Closing out the disk with the old Civil Rights tune “Change Is Going To Come” can be taken in quite a few ways. One is, judging by the government reaction to people’s loss in New Orleans, not much has changed in the treatment of poor black people since the hurricane of the 1920s when people were just left to die with no medical relief, emergency shelter (anybody who thinks the Super Dome was adequate as an emergency shelter couldn’t have been there) or post disaster recovery plan.
But the other is all the kindness and generosity Marva is so quick to point from The Blues societies of Maryland and vicinity who took her and her family in, found her gigs, and finally a temporary apartment.
Events like Katrina are a proving ground for the survivors, for those who are responsible for dealing with their aftermath, and those who observed from afar. Two out of three, in most cases, isn’t too bad a ratio, but in the case of something the size of Katrina when the one who fell down on the job were the ones in charge of the recovery, it’s a disaster of the first order.
The people from all over the world volunteered their services to help people whose own government seemed incapable of doing so. No change has come for poor black people; they are still marginalized and swept under the carpet. No change has come for the working poor of any colour; they have no voice that can be heard by those in power.
“Change Is Going To Come” is both a plea and a demand in this version of the song for change. Please, Marva seems to be saying, don’t make us go through this again, while saying at the same time, that we won’t go through it again.
After The Levees Broke is an album that shows Marva Wright’s diversity of talent. It is also one the best musical responses to Katrina by an individual artist yet. It’s beautiful and heartfelt, haunting and life affirming all at the same time. If more voices like Marva Wright’s could be heard perhaps New Orleans could be saved for the people who live there, and not just the tourists. After all if it weren’t for their music there wouldn’t be any tourists.