Photograph and words by Julie Pointer
“In New Orleans—if you could get to New Orleans—would the music be loud enough?” So goes the final line in Annie Dillard’s coming-of-age reflection, An American Childhood, during which her father laments that he can never experience the music quite loud enough for his taste. He seemed to think that maybe in New Orleans he’d finally find a place where the rhythms moved through him the way he wanted, and “the music would smell like the river itself.” I can’t vouch for the smell of the music, nor the Mississippi itself, but if ever there was a place where the music could be loud enough, it is surely in New Orleans.
Here there is music everywhere one turns—on street corners, park benches, crossing Esplanade Ave., on roadway medians, drifting out of cafés and finding its way through private shuttered doors. Music pervades the city in a rather unsuspecting way, catching you unawares if you’re not ready for it. I don’t just mean any old music, but Dixieland, and blues, and zydeco and sounds I don’t know the names for. The local radio station even plays the kind of nostalgic Southern tunes I always crave on those slow summer days, but never seem to know where to find.
Who needs the frenetic top 100 hits when you have songs that perfectly suit the pace of life here, where porch-sitting and iced-tea sipping is celebrated instead of pooh-poohed as being too unproductive? Enjoying the music is not a separate event in and of itself—like intentionally going to a concert or paying to see a performance—but rather an integral part of everyday life; it simply happens to you. It’s a pastime to partake in at the farmer’s market, while strolling to brunch, or during those long evenings on the patio while sharing a bottle of rosé. In New Orleans, the sounds of the South accompany you everywhere you go.
Music pulses across the city in the same way that color is central—not merely just an adornment in the urban landscape, but woven into the fabric of how and why the city thrives. Both bring a kind of quirky improvisation to the streets, where the horns and steel guitar provide a backdrop for the mélange of peach-colored-then mint green-then purple-then coral buildings and homes—all, of course, accented by the blooming pink crepe myrtle trees, geranium flower boxes and tropical palms. Not only does the music get loud enough, but frankly, the colors, smells and tastes get loud enough too. It’s this vibrant and sometimes chaotic cacophony that makes New Orleans so charming, and which, in the heat of summer seeps quite literally into your skin.