Music, Healing, and the Intersection of Public Culture and Health in New Orleans

By Julia Silver


New Orleans is a city with a heartbeat—that distinctive bamboula rhythm—and a city with soul. In the city of New Orleans, music is more than a simple pastime; it is at the center of festival and ritual, of family and neighborhood life—from Carnival and street parades to Jazz Fest and nightclubs. Beginning with the rich musical traditions of West African slaves, New Orleans has earned a reputation as a city of raw talent and has shared joy with communities across the world. Musicians often speak of their music in transcendental terms—it does not belong to a specific person or time:

But you know, Jazz isn't just me. It isn't just any one person who plays it. There'll always be jazz . . . You take a melody . . . people can feel a melody . . . as long as a there's a melody there's Jazz, there's rhythm. But here's what I really mean. All God's children got a crown. My race, their music. . . . It's their way of giving you something, of showing you how to be happy. (Bechet 1960:2-3)

Music in New Orleans also has healed ethnic tensions within the city and brought stability to a weak economy, and in a city so often cast aside as a center of corruption, music provides a vital force of healing and education. The realms of music and health exist as one within the Big Easy, where spiritual and physical health are impossibly intertwined. A rich second line culture and jazz funerals, a tradition of musical artists emphasizing the connection between music and health, and post-Katrina recovery efforts imply that in music, New Orleans society may have discovered its most potent form of medicine.

Second Line Culture and Jazz Funerals

Among African societies, music has long been used as a way to make sense of death. Rather than live in fear of its mystery, second line culture and jazz funerals have become one of the most important ways to celebrate the unknown and continue a distinctive West African memory. Many scholars have discussed the juxtaposition of life and death and unique morbidity that pervades New Orleans culture (Turner 2009; Christian 2002). In “The Formation of Afro-Creole Culture,” Gwendolyn Hall discusses the three tenants of the Bambara culture, a major source of New Orleans' slave population: balance, duality, and the unity of opposites (Hall 1992:80). The “unity of opposites” is displayed in many public forms of expression, and the relationship between history, memory, and performance lays the foundation for cultural creation and identification (Roach 1996:3). Ritual performances not only maintain a communal memory, but provide healing and catharsis in times of suffering.

Removed from their homes and culture, the slaves brought to New Orleans were forced to recenter their identities and adapt to a harsh and violent environment (Roach 1996:6). Rather than live in fear of its mystery, jazz provides a mechanism to celebrate the unknown. After the passing of his mother. Richard Turner, author of Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans, found that “participating in ecstatic music and dance . . . provided great comfort and helped me to heal” (Turner 2009:76). Jazz funerals are a tradition rooted deep within the black community and “synthesize aspects of the healing arts and music traditions” (Ibid.). The rhythms heard at New Orleans jazz funerals are older than the city itself and are sometimes referred to as “Congo Square” rhythms. For the slaves of New Orleans, Congo Square served as the perfect platform to perform their West African identity (Roach 1996:4). Weekly Sunday performances at the square strengthened their oppositional identities to the whites of the city, giving rise to a new circum-Atlantic identity.

Thus, jazz funerals and the Congo Square rhythms yield a rich source of healing and memory for communities coping with death. In Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans, Turner discusses the deeply rooted tradition of performance in jazz funerals and suggests their continuing significance:

These funeral processions have roots in at least four rich sources: the West African Yoruba concept of rituals as transformative journeys; the music and burial traditions of New Orleans black brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs, and the Black Church; Catholic street processions and religious celebrations; and Haitian Vodou's ancestral spirits. (Turner 2009:89)

Second lines and jazz funerals maintain a remarkable cultural memory of the African-American community's West African origins. As with so many other traditions, this deep rootedness provides comfort and strength in times of uncertainty.

The Yoruba belief of healing through musical rituals has maintained a strong presence within the New Orleans community. Second-liners often appear in traditional Yoruba masks, with “powerful aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual consequences” (Turner 2009:96). The music and dance, the joy and mourning— these are all vital components to a community-wide healing. In the Yoruba culture, these musical rituals represent the completion of a journey, and heal a community during a time of death (Turner 2009). Large-scale ritual performances like the second lines and jazz funerals connect to the past, yet also allow a community to move forward and imagine a future.

The Artists

Music often becomes a mechanism to make a process or event more easily understood and relatable, and music as a remedy for the pains and trials of the human condition is hardly a new phenomenon. Early blues was born out of the work songs of enslaved plantation workers. Hip-hop music often expresses the pain of the sometimes-hidden-sometimes-blatant racism still present in society. However, music's continued presence as a force of ritual healing speaks to its power, especially in New Orleans.

While music and health are often seen as occupying separate realms, one artistic and one scientific, most musicians see this as an impossible distinction. Music is intrinsically tied to the soul and can be used as a type of spiritual medicine. From herb shops to songs about health, the crossover between music and health speaks to the importance of the spirit—of medicine for the soul, not just the body. The late Eddie Bo, Ernie K-Doe, and Dr. John— still inhabiting what he calls the “meat world”—stand as three highly successful New Orleans musicians who led the way in protecting a different kind of health: that of the spirit. Although each of them manipulate health and ideas of medicine in different ways, the overarching message remains clear; not all doctors are licensed MDs. For these musicians, public health as a medical policy and institution exists side-by-side and within practices of spiritual, psychic, and social healing practices that often find their form in New Orleans music.

Born Edwin Bocage, Eddie Bo hails from a locally famous family of musicians in the Ninth Ward. The acclaimed pianist studied composition and arranging at the Grunewald School of Music and was heavily influenced by his mother and Professor Longhair. With a career lasting over fifty years, the only New Orleans artist to record more singles is Antoine 'Fats' Domino. In the city of New Orleans, it is not unusual for musicians to refer to themselves as professors: Dr. John, Professor Longhair, etc. These are true professors of practice in every sense of the word. Eddie Bo, however, is unique in that he claims to be a doctor of both music and healing. In an interview with American Routes, Bo claims “music has a way of causing any hurt to disappear” (American Routes 2000). Music is simultaneously a “contagious disease” (American Routes 2000) and a remedy for fatigue and a weary soul. Bo highlights the deep connection between music and health in many of his songs. “Roamin-itis” speaks of the traveling “bug”: the infectious desire to explore:

I've got the roamin-itis in my bones,
Oh, I'm gonna travel to the East,
I'm gonna travel to the West,
I've got to roam,
I've got to roam,
I can't get no rest.

In the language of blues, this also refers to his unwillingness to stay home in domesticity, or commit to a single woman.

Beyond the music, Eddie Bo also ran a successful herb store called “Treasures from the Earth” (American Routes 2000). He sold various herbs and remedies, and was a strong proponent of holistic medicine. Music as a remedy for the pains and trials of the human condition is hardly a new phenomenon, but its continued presence as a healing force says much about its effectiveness. Bo is just one of many musicians who use their songs to make sense of complex and discomforting medical conditions. Shared experiences so often hold a community together, and in this instance, music serves to not only transform a personal restlessness into a humorous song, but to project it onto a communal body. This creation and explanation of a shared experience may offer a catharsis of sorts.

The self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Universe,” Ernest Kador Jr. (born February 22, 1936) does the same. He eventually adopted the stage name “Ernie K-Doe” and went on to become a successful R&B singer. “Mother-in-Law,” his greatest hit, made him the first New Orleans artist to top the R&B and pop charts. K-Doe never quite achieved the same musical success after “Mother-in-Law,” but gained a national fan base in the 1980s with his unpaid DJ slot on WWOZ.

K-Doe was a recognized character that found lasting fame through his flamboyant dress, hairstyles, and personal narratives. Perhaps his most often-repeated vignette is of his beginnings in Charity Hospital:

On the second month, the twenty-second day, nineteen and thirty-six, eight-fifteen in the morning time, Charity Hospital went to rumblin' and a-grumblin'! The building started to bendin', the walls started shakin', and the doctors said, 'What's wrong? What's happening?' The people told them doctors, 'A boy-child is being born on the third floor, at this particular time!' (Sandmel 2012:23)

K-Doe never let anyone forget that he was a “Charity Baby” and believed his genius came from his Charity Hospital birth. “If I was born somewhere else,” K-Doe proudly said, “At another hospital— I'm not trying to put down any other hospital, but I tell you one thing—I might not have been this smart as I am today!” (Sandmel 2012:23)

K-Doe worked hard to brand himself as a product of Charity Hospital and in his own eccentric way, promoted the hospital to his audience. “Some people ask me, 'Ernie K-Doe, why you brag on Charity Hospital? Why do you brag on Charity Hospital?' “Fool, Charity Hospital is the one that got me here!” (Sandmel 2012:23). Built in the 1930s under Huey Long, Charity Hospital was one of the few public hospitals in the country. It primarily served New Orleans' large indigent population, and many poor African-American women gave birth there (Big Charity: The Death of America's Oldest Hospital 2014). Hospitals are rarely viewed as pleasant places; they typically inspire feelings of trepidation, fear, and anxiety. However, Charity Hospital is unique in that it is celebrated by the community it served. The hospital maintains a mythic presence within the city (Ibid.), with other respected musicians such as Dr. John referencing Charity in their music. The repetition of Charity Hospital in K-Doe's oratories speaks to a culturally persistent relationship between music and health. Both directly deal with the soul and one's spiritual health, and this relationship frequently appears in musical literature.

Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. was born on November 20, 1941, on the cusp of an era of great musical transformation. The soulful fatigue and pain of R&B was fading as rock-and-roll stormed the scene during his 1950s teenage years. “Mac” Rebennack Jr. found his calling in the guitar riffs, frenzied rhythms, and flamboyant performance of the New Orleans rock-and-roll genre. Fleeing arrest for drug abuse among other violations, Mac was purposely exiled to Los Angeles in 1965, where he began working under former AFO Record producer Harold Battiste. With Battiste's encouragement, Rebennack adopted the persona of New Orleans voodoo legend Dr. John.

Ever since he was a child, Rebennack had been fascinated by voodoo practices. He attended ceremonies and studied books on syncretic religion with ties to Haiti and West Africa. The historical Dr. John lived in New Orleans during the mid-1800s. He was a black slave-owner who claimed to be a Senegalese prince. Dr. John was a highly sought-out fortuneteller and healer; he could lift and place curses and knew medicine and astrology. California, with its youthful energy, was a prime location for Rebennack to test out his new character. As Dr. John, Rebennack's “voodoo rock” was a hit, largely in thanks to Battiste's marketing strategy. “We'll make him this mysterious character, and these people out here will go crazy for him. And they'll be ready to worship him,” Battiste recounts of his planning (Berry 2009:203).

At a talk hosted by the American Planning Association in New Orleans on April 11, 2010, Dr. John brought up a subject near to his heart: Charity Hospital. “Charity Hospital, in the city of New Orleans,” Rebennack reminisced at the event, “saved me personally a bunch of times” (Interview with Nick Spitzer for the American Planning Association 2010). Dr. John spoke passionately about the need for affordable healthcare in the city. “One of the things that bothers me that's going on politically right now is that so much people, of so much hatred and confusement about health care . . . and it's a hustle,” says Rebennack. “They're makin' a fortune offa people dying.” He went on to describe the pain many New Orleanians experienced in trying to find healthcare after Hurricane Katrina (Ibid.).

Although Rebennack's fascination with the healing arts began at a young age, it did not fade with time. In the 2005 wake of Katrina's flood devastation, Rebennack went on to become a powerful advocate for New Orleans' environmental and public health. He joined the musical group “Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars” to raise money and awareness for Louisiana's fast-disappearing wetlands. Rebennack leads a powerful new wave of sociopolitical advocacy amongst New Orleans musicians. Perhaps his Dr. John persona is not too far off—while he may not be placing or lifting hexes, Rebennack continues to work tirelessly to protect the health of his home and people. From fundraising concerts to talks like that for the American Planning Association, Mac Rebennack fights to maintain a public dialogue on issues of health. He provides a voice for those who have none, and highlights a way in which cultural practitioners can function as political advocates as well.

Post-Katrina Recovery

The events of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 left a lasting imprint on both the cultural and physical landscape of the swampland. Increasing violence and discord between citizens and the government permeated the very air of the city. While the rest of the nation shook its head in disbelief at the sad state of political leadership, the reality of the city was a grassroots movement of progress. As the post-Katrina recovery continued at an agonizingly slow pace, local organizations and leaders took matters into their own hands. With few material possessions remaining, New Orleanians clung to the one thing as old as the city itself: the music.

Music, and the arts as a whole, provided a way to transcend the frustrations and pain of the present. They gave hope, healing, and a cultural memory so vital in a city founded in family lineages. The extent of the loss of important cultural and historical artifacts will likely never be truly known; music, however, could not be taken away by the flood or irresponsible politicians. The combined efforts of Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans Musicians' Village, Make Music NOLA, and so many others prove that music has been, and will always be, the center of the Big Easy.

As with so many other New Orleans artists, Wynton Marsalis was born into music. His father, Ellis Marsalis, was a renowned pianist and musical educator at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and later University of New Orleans. He and his older brother, Branford Marsalis, both left New Orleans to study at prestigious schools in the North; Branford attended Berklee School of Music, while Wynton went on to Julliard in New York. Wynton Marsalis is unusual in that he capitalized on his talent as a classical jazz musician. Most New Orleans artists of similar caliber advertised their striking individualism, something that has not always fit into the classical world. Perhaps it is because of Marsalis' critical acclaim in both the vernacular and fine arts that he carries more political clout than the average Big Easy musician. Although currently based in New York as the Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis remains active in the New Orleans cultural scene. While many politicians floundered in the wake of the storm, Marsalis was quick to jump to the aid of his devastated home.

Post-Katrina news coverage was saturated with stories of financial woes and political ineptitude; Marsalis' campaign to restore cultural health stood out as a breath of fresh air. Issues of race, socioeconomic status, and corruption blared from every airwave. Marsalis, however, steadfastly held to his belief:

New Orleans people love being New Orleans people. And wherever they go, they'll bring their culture with them. We're blues people. You know, we absorb the pain, but we come back. . . . So you know, this is an unbelievable tragedy. It's gonna leave a certain type of scar on the psyche, but we're gonna cover that scar over with something with so much soul and depth that we're gonna astound people. We will definitely be back, just because that's what we're about. We are about coming back. (Berry 2009:301)

To raise money for the still-flooded city, Marsalis organized the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert on September 17, 2005. Many New Orleans artists, despite being spread out over the country as refugees, flew to New York to participate. This act was more than uplifting—it was humanizing. The musicians televised on the screen were hit just as hard as their fellow New Orleanians. At the time of the performance, Irvin Mayfield's father was still missing in the Seventh Ward. Musicians like Mayfield, Michael White, and Marlon Jordan were far more relatable than the politicians of Baton Rouge and Capitol Hill. They had suffered. They had lost. They were ready to rebuild.

The concert was hosted at the Rose Theater in New York and included the star power of performers like Paul Simon, Norah Jones, James Taylor, and Robin Williams, in addition to the New Orleans artists. The five-hour concert and auction was broadcast both nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, thousands remained without power in New Orleans. It was estimated that only 250 of more than two thousand musicians had found a way to return (Burgos 2006).

Mayor Ray Nagin, attempting to please politicians and potential constituents, formed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission report was the first attempt to assess the cultural damage of Hurricane Katrina. According to the report, uninsured damages to cultural businesses were more than $80 million (Burgos 2006). Three months after the storm, 75 percent of the non-profit cultural organizations remained closed (Chicago Tribune 2006). The Commission itself consisted of seventeen prominent city figures, with Wynton Marsalis as the co-chair for the cultural committee (Berry 2009). Despite his permanent residence in New York, he earnestly dedicated himself to the cause. “Our first objective is to bring the talent pool back. We're trying to get New Orleans back together,” he told the Chicago Tribune in a January 2006 interview. “We're not going to let our culture slip away.”

Marsalis' campaign to bring back the cultural practitioners reflected the views of many New Orleanians. In a city built on culture— defined by a strange juxtaposition of traditions of Southern wealth and an easy-going nature—losing its cultural sector was a grim and stark possibility. “Many Americans view New Orleans as a bastion of hedonistic corruption that must pay for its sins,” writes Bruce Raeburn in “They're Tryin' to Wash Us Away” (Raeburn 2005:812). “Katrina exposed the fallacy of the city's 'good time' ethos, and there are serious implications for its musical culture, rooted in the festival traditions of black neighborhoods that were largely destroyed. Yet that is precisely where the city seeks its inspiration for renewal” (Ibid.). New Orleans jazz musicians rarely sang about the city's precarious relationship with nature, instead focusing on subjects more in line with a joie de vivre theme. The disaster of 2005 severely impacted the musician population. Musical traditions at the greatest risk of disappearing were simultaneously the city's most steadfast symbol of hope and recovery.

Perhaps it should be unsurprising that New Orleans musicians led many major recovery efforts. Engaged in a profession built upon uncertainty and requiring a great deal of adaptability, New Orleans musicians seem to possess an aptitude for recovery simply missing among political leaders. Moreover, due to the tenuous nature of the musical profession for all but the most successful musicians, survival was not a transitory state after a storm for New Orleans musicians; it was an accepted way of life.

By far, Hurricane Katrina hit downriver neighborhoods in New Orleans the hardest. As yet another example of the inseparability of socio-economic status and tangible culture, downriver neighborhoods feature the weakest infrastructure and the lowest- income families. Many of these families form the foundation for the New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs. The importance of these social aid and pleasure clubs cannot be overstated; they create, and continue to enrich, the unique vernacular that is New Orleans' music scene. Members of these social aid and pleasure clubs provide more than simply musical entertainment— they are a living connection to New Orleans' history as a rich, West African and Caribbean diaspora. Consequently, the displacement of this region's inhabitants meant the displacement of a large portion of New Orleans' musician culture.

The construction of the Musicians' Village and Ellis Marsalis Center for Music sought to address this issue and bring more recognition to these musical families as cultural practitioners. Designed by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, two internationally lauded New Orleans musicians, Musicians' Village is nestled in the Upper Ninth Ward. The village includes seventy-two single-family homes, five elder friendly duplexes, and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. The idea for the village came out of Connick Jr. and Marsalis' belief that cultural protection is a critical factor in recovery. The pair also realized that musicians are often the most vulnerable; most lack W-2 employment, health insurance, or other government-necessitated documentation. Teaming up with New Orleans' Habitat for Humanity, Connick Jr., Marsalis, and Ann Marie Wilkins devised the National Building Museum 2010 Honor Award-winning village to protect and host New Orleans' rich musical culture. The Musicians' Village fosters the important cultural tradition of occupational lineages by allowing musicians to live and work together in a safe environment.

The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music hosts a 170 seat-performance space, state-of-the-art lighting and sound, recording facilities, a computer center/library, dance studio, classes, and teaching facilities. Perhaps most importantly, the center strives to support all age groups—it offers a variety of after-school programs for children, summer camps, and general homework help. Once again, New Orleans proves infallible in its prioritization of the family. Children learn the music of their parents, and parents are able to focus on supporting their families. Considering the city's rich history of familial lineage at the heart of tradition— from Creole ironworkers to architects to jazz families—this musical teaching space plays an important role in New Orleans' cultural health.

Continuing the trend of recovery-through-music, Laura Patterson launched the Youth Orchestra of the Lower Ninth Ward in September 2011. Operating out of the All Souls Community Center, the program began with just five students. Although still a relatively new non-profit to the city, the program has been immensely successful. It now runs at five different schools: Arise Academy, Mildred Osborne Charter, KIPP Leadership Primary, KIPP Believe Primary, and Edgar P. Harney Elementary. With the expansion, the program adopted the name “Make Music NOLA.” Children attend the after-school program Monday through Friday and receive snacks, homework assistance, an evening meal, transportation to their homes, and musical instruction from local musicians (

The program was born out of Patterson's vision of an accessible artistic outlet for children of all backgrounds. In a city plagued by poverty and crime, free musical education for children was a way to bring beauty to the city (Interview with Patterson, January 28, 2015). Children in Make Music NOLA perform quite often in the city, working with musicians like Irma Thomas, the Tulane Symphony, and Dawn DeDeaux. They have performed at the Crescent City Classic, WWOZ's “Cuttin' Class” show, and at half time for the Big Easy Roller Girls ( The program not only exposes children to different musical stars within the city, but to varying forms of cultural practices as well. Considering that these elementary schools are located in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the city, this kind of exposure is invaluable. The overarching goal of Make Music NOLA is to provide children with hope—with something to feel passionate about. Not only does it seek to foster artistic development, but it also aims to guide the personal growth of its students. The musical repertoire in these youth classes is diverse, ranging from traditional African rhythms to Tchaikovsky to current pop music. Make Music NOLA frames music education as a way to remember the past and take pride in the present. In the post-Katrina recovery era, healing and education go hand-in-hand. Through music, the city teaches, heals, and grows.

Doctors search for patients' heartbeats as a measure of physical health. There is a comfort in the steady beat—safety in the sound. The city of New Orleans is no different; cultural, environmental, and physical health can all be measured by a quick listen to the sounds of the city. Traditions like second lines and jazz funerals show there is psychic comfort and spiritual healing to be found in cultural memory. Musicians like Eddie Bo and Dr. John prove they can be more than talented performers; they are cultural citizens as political advocates—a type of public health practitioner. Finally, in a post-Katrina recovery era that has proved to be more disastrous than the storm itself, local advocates show that to ignore the city's music is to ignore the city's health. Music is more than song or dance; it is the memory, hope, and health of New Orleans. Music can be a powerful source of healing and education. The only question that remains is, will we let it?


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Julia Silver graduated with a BS in Anthropology from Tulane University, where she is now currently pursuing an MPH in Epidemiology." This article was first published in the 2015 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.