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Song for My Fathers

March 22, 2012

I am in New Orleans during one of its very few "quiet" periods. Quiet is a relative concept, especially in The Big Easy, where music and booze flow every night of the week, working life be hanged, and festive Mardi Gras beads festoon bicycle handlebars and fence railings no matter the season.

And yet there's relatively little going on this week in New Orleans. The only cultural draw to speak of right now is the city's annual Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival.

The Festival is in its 26th year and takes place in a variety of locations around the city. It features a gratifying mixture of academic discussions, poetry readings, writing workshops, performances and offbeat stuff.

My favorite thing on the program in the latter of these categories is the wonderfully bonkers-sounding "Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest" on Sunday afternoon at Jackson Square at which "contestants vie to rival Stanley Kowalski's shout for 'STELLAAAAA!!!' in the unforgettable scene from A Streetcar named Desire." I gather that this is a festival tradition and I wish I weren't leaving town today so that I could take part.

Williams spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans. The dramatist moved to the city in 1939 to write for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He lived for a time in the French Quarter -- initially at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carré.

I got to spend last night in the company of the festival attendees, organizers and various other hangers on for an opening celebration and performance event at The Old Mint Building on the edge of the French Quarter.

I am still tapping my feet and smiling as I recall Song For My Fathers, a euphoric, tightly-spun performance piece based on journalist, New Orleans native and jazz clarinetist Tom Sancton's memoir of his formative years as a musician on the New Orleans jazz scene.

Sancton is an engaging storyteller. His narrative, which tells of how a middle-class white kid from uptown New Orleans found himself learning the clarinet from the great jazzman George Lewis and then playing alongside some of the trad jazz world's finest musicians (most of them disenfranchised and black), is accompanied by live music performed by the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, audio footage and powerful black and white photographs projected on a screen.

Sancton's is a story about human solidarity achieved through art and the ebbs and flows of a city's cultural heritage. It's also incredibly funny and touching. Much of the pleasure comes out in Sancton's eye for detail, such as his recollection of a sign detailing the price of song requests to the band that hung in the Preservation Hall jazz club which read: "Traditional request $1; Others $2; The Saints $5". At other times, the work is loaded with gravitas. The moment when the brass band marches through the audience performing a funeral dirge is as somber as it is full of life.

There were many locals in the audience last night and I overheard people talking happily about their city when the performance was done. "This makes me proud to live in New Orleans!" I overheard a woman in a big hat and gaudy floral dress say to her friend.

I'm a stranger here. This is my first visit to New Orleans, in fact. I can't think of a better introduction to this city than Song For My Fathers. I'll be coming back.


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