In the early 1960s Thomas caught a vein of pain and defiance that was altogether her own. “Wish Someone Would Care,” from 1964, was both more and less than soul music was supposed to be: less because it was so fragile, more because it demanded more of the music than the music could give. The singer was demanding that the song—or something, someone—stop her from killing herself. After that, the spark was gone.
When the producers of Our New Orleans gathered musicians from the city’s diaspora—in Memphis, in Houston, in New York City, in Maurice, Louisiana, a village halfway across the state—they must have told them all the same thing: You have to do your best work now.
And so Irma Thomas, for four decades a hardworking, dedicated woman of noble mediocrity, stepped out of herself. In New York City she sang a blues.
Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues” was made in 1927: it has been associated with the 1927 Mississippi flood, a disaster that marked the South for generations, ever since. But the song was art, not journalism: Smith wrote and recorded it before the flood broke. It was a story she had imagined, and it’s the art in the story, its abstraction, that sets Thomas free.
She sings the song as if she’s digging a trench. Her voice deepens with fatigue. The rhythms in the music are rhythms of work—up, down, up, down—and in an instant, Thomas physically validates the story she will tell. As she recounts what happened to her, you are with her: as the water climbs to the front door, as she’s rescued by a rowboat, as, finally—in a blues fragment that was old when Bessie Smith took it—you are with her when she says, “I went out and I stood on a high old lonesome hill/I went out and I stood on a high old lonesome hill/I looked down on the house/Where I used to live.”
Could anything follow this? Dr. John’s “World I Never Made,” which catches the feeling of a man staring at a wall in an SRO hotel, has already preceded it. But now, from Memphis, comes eight minutes of Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Cryin’ in the Streets.” “Listen!” Zydeco says as the song begins: He’s watching a funeral procession—and then he’s part of it. “That’s Jesus!” he says, as Ry Cooder steps into a guitar solo so strong that at first you can’t even tell what it is. A woman’s voice? A horn? It comes across as a single bent note, bent like a bow. As you listen, your whole body strains as the note is straining, for release. Release never comes but the song goes on, for six minutes, fading into itself, exploding out of itself, unpredictable: the weather itself.
There is the Wardell Quezergue Orchestra, a 16-person assemblage led by “the Creole Beethoven,” Quezergue himself, with an instrumental version of Louis Armstrong’s 1964 hit “What a Wonderful World”: that corny song every hotel singer in New Orleans had to cough up whenever a drunken tourist shoved a ten-dollar bill into his snifter. Here it’s made ineffable: the moon hanging over the ruins, refusing to set. There is Allen Toussaint’s dark, minor-key “Tipitina and Me,” a piano solo that changes a beloved nightclub romp into a meditation on eternity, its melody weaving “St. James Infirmary” into Randy Newman’s “God’s Song”—and there is, inevitably, Randy Newman, with “Louisiana 1927,” his own song about the 1927 Mississippi flood.
Unlike the dutiful performances of the song that Newman has been doing since Labor Day—on TV, at benefit concerts—this has no mastery. Newman grew up in New Orleans; recording last fall in New York with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and members of the New York Philharmonic, he’s singing as if he just then realized how cheap the conceit of the song always was—until that moment.
He used a terrible historical event for a song, he made a lot of money from it, it turned up in movies, and then the event in which the song began comes full circle and says, You called the tune, now it’s time to pay the piper—and you thought you were the piper, didn’t you?
Interview, March 2006