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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Leonard Earl Johnson covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Consumer Affairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the books FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Lafayette / May 2016

May's column is dedicated to the heroic efforts of Bernie Sanders, a democratic-socialist who changed America's political dialog to what America can do for Americans.

LEJ's Louisiana
Yours Truly in a Swamp, 
Monthly e-column 
on paper at
~ Les Amis de Marigny ~
publication of New Orleans' famed Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association
Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Archives: www.LEJ.org

May 2016

Pete Seeger's 1983 images by
 Leonard Earl Johnson
Bernie Sanders image courtesy of San Francisco Gate

Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Lafayette 
by Leonard Earl Johnson
© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

Pete Seeger appeared on stage the first week of the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ~ and turned ninety the next week.  

He passed away in 2014, at ninety-four.  I meant to make mention of his death earlier but other funerals and weddings, Summer parties, heart attacks and Hurricane remembrances littered the path. Seeger was a friend of mine and two, three million others.


He opened back in 2009 on the Acura Stage, with Midnight Special, a song written by Louisiana native, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, of Mooringsport, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola.  Leadbelly was a man who literally sang his way out of both Louisiana and Texas state prisons. 

Seeger told a story as we walked across festival grounds, about an invitation to sing at "A little music festival in Lafayette," back in the daze of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, circa 1955. 

HUAC was a witch-hunting committee born in the heady afterglow of World War Two, and fed by politicians driven to keep on fighting and throwing themselves victory parades. Thought was regulated by these politicians, and poet/troubadour Pete Seeger became their natural HUAC prey.

Offended at being forced to appear before HUAC, Seeger testified to the tune of his Constitutional right to think anything he wanted without telling them what those thoughts might be. 

This was in the middle-late 1950s, remember, when Seeger was a very popular figure in the burgeoning American folk music revival of the day. His group, The Weavers, recorded such huge Louisiana hits as Shrimp Boats are Coming, on the back-side of their Billboard bestselling 45-RPM, On Top of Old Smokey. "On the old DECCA label," Seeger said, pausing to great a young Mother with a boy in her arms. "This is why we do it."  Everyone smiled and kept walking.

He was a famous artist with famous principles that caused him to hold Congress in contempt for, he said, such un-American activities as HUAC. They indicted him for his contempt, and smeared his reputation. His exact sentence was soft.  He served no time, and paid no fine.  

("He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten one-year terms in jail -- to be served simultaneously, but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction." ~  Wikipedia)

"Who wouldn't be locked up today?" L. A. Norma asked. "Even our scrub woman holds Congress Critters in contempt!"


Seeger got fewer gigs after HUAC. And less radio time. Television was new and mattered little.  Ironically it later played a huge role in bringing Seeger back on stage ~ more on that in a moment.

The next few years he spent almost camping in a log cabin without running water or electricity that he built near Beacon, in New York's Hudson Valley.

For Every Season 
few generations later, Seeger lost his signature instrument, a long-neck banjo he had designed and built in 1945. It was made to accommodate his long arms and vast voice and set a new standard for banjos that came to be known as The Pete Seeger Banjo.

The lost banjo was found near Seeger's upstate home ~ the home he had built with his own hands during the blackballing years.  It was in the case he'd painted with his name and phone number. It had fallen from the roof of his car and was sitting poetically alongside a state roadway. 

"Waiting for Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to catch up," 
L. A. Norma said.

The young man who found and returned it told reporters that he did not know who Seeger was.

Some years before that, Pete and his wife, Toshi were in New Orleans for an earlier Jazz Fest, and staying in the Faubourg Marigny home of the late Shirley Jensen, across from Washington Square Park on Frenchmen Street. It was my good fortune to interview and photograph him and his long-neck twelve-string guitar.

Afterwards, we walked back to Squalor Heights, my garret apartment, to hear Sweet Emma Barrett records. Seeger loved her cover of Jelly Roll Blues, "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jellyroll," available through George H. Buck Records ("Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music," GHB-141). Later Seeger wrote about her in Sing Out!, the sixty-year-plus folk song magazine publishing still today, where he wrote the column, "Appleseed."

That day, on our way to Squalor Heights, Seeger wore a Medieval looking cap with a long peacock feather that dipped and bobbed behind us as he stepped his long body across Faubourg Marigny curbs and stoops. I was thrilled and wondered if anyone seeing us would recognize I was walking in the company of the great Pete Seeger.


In New York City that following Fall, a New York University student on a downtown subway listened to my gush about lunch with Pete Seeger ~ we met on Fifty Seventh Street for crab cakes and tofu ice cream!  I was on my way back to the East Village, and the student was showing this out-of-towner where to get off.  He listened politely to our boast of touching greatness, then said, "I don't know who Pete Seeger is."

One thing Seeger is/was is political, in the candid way of a troubadour. His early days were spent roaming America with Woody Guthrie, whose own guitar famously boasted his slogan: "This Machine Kills Fascists." Guthrie wrote and sang significant songs, like This Land Is Your Land. Both men were union supporters and candidates to someday lock horns with reactionary Washington Congress Critters.

In the 1950s, Seeger's group, The Weavers, had enormous record sales and radio play.  Their first Billboard hit, On Top of Old Smoky with Shrimp Boats are Coming on the backside, was followed by GoodnightIrene, written by Texas / Louisiana prisoner, "Leadbelly." The Weavers' cover of "Irene" stood as the nation's number-one Billboard hit for thirteen weeks.  Seeger is also said by many -- though not by him -- to have written the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.

"All that I did was change 'will' to 'shall,' "  he told us, that early Jazz Fest day in New Orleans.


In Washington, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee charged Seeger with contempt of congress for not telling them his thoughts. An odd situation, given that Seeger was a man who spent his entire life telling the world what he thought.

Pete Seeger in NOLa, 1983 / © LEJ.org
The resulting smear led Seeger to being banned from music clubs and over the air.  Fear spread worry that the smear might smudge them, too, and their clubs and media might themselves be pushed off the national stage.

Seeger made his living during those days doing small gigs at mostly upstate New York camps for mostly New York City children. At our lunch, years later in Manhattan, we were stopped in every block by middle-aged handshakes from grateful former camp kids.

Seeger's media ban was lifted in 1967 with his appearance on the sometimes brave, sometimes compromised but always cutting-edge, trend-setting and important CBS Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Pete Seeger singing "Waist Deep," CBS Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour 

The Lafayette Story

Pete Seeger: "It was 1955, The House Committee on Un-American Activities had questioned me about my political beliefs, and I said,
Pete Seeger, Faubourg Marigny, NOLa, 1983      /     ©  LEJ.org

'It's America, I have a right to think anything I want, but I don't have to discuss it unless I want to.'

"They said, 'That's not sufficient.'
"I had been asked to come down (to Lafayette) and sing some songs at a new little festival. They (festival organizers) said, 'Mr. Seeger, this evening we're going to have a little party, so you can hear some of our local music.'
"Well, at the door, they said, 'Pete Seeger, meet Congressman Edwin E. Willis.' "
(Edwin Edwards Willis was the Louisiana Democrat, from nearby Arnaudville, who served as chair of the Un-American Activities Committee, 1963-69.)
"Well, he did a double-take, and I did, too.

"They said, 'Let's get some singing going,' and Willis glowered in the corner.
"Later, he (Willis) said, 'Mr. Seeger, it's a small world. How did you get here?'
"I said, 'Well, I was invited.'
"He said, 'Who invited you?'
"I said, 'The Chamber of Commerce.'
"Willis was not amused, or appeased. He said, 'Well, you're not welcome.'
"I went on to California. I didn't want to make trouble for anybody."
Your comments are welcome, click here

Copyright, 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson

all Rights Reserved

Lagniappe du jour:
L. A. Norma, "I see Seeger on a Heavenly Cloud singing to a convocation that Edwen Edwards Willis is required to attend.  Both Heaven's rewards and Hell's punishment in one location!"

I could not find a link to Shrimp Boats by Seeger and The Weavers,
 but I did find this 1951 Jo Stafford hit: Shrimp Boats

Studs Terkel narrates and a gaggle of Folk icons do the rest.

Second Carnegie Hall reunion concert

For more L. E. J.'s Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp go to 
w w w . L E J . o r g

Go here For T-Shirts, Koozies, LEJ.org icebox magnets
and such falderal ...

You may not receive a monthly e-mail notice for YOURS TRULY IN A SWAMP, LEJ's Louisiana unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system. But you can always go to www.LEJ.org

(Don't hold your breath on my figuring out le Internet.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer). 

Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed. If you wish to read any month's column they are archived at www.LEJ.org. Each new column is posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks. 
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary. 

© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Easter on the River of Bourbon St / April 2016

LEJ's Louisiana, 
Yours Truly in a Swamp

April 2016

Monthly e-column by 

Leonard Earl Johnson 
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Archive: www.LEJ.org

* * *
April's column is 
Dedicated to David Egan...


"Our parade grows shorter." ~ L. A. Norma
Easter on the River of Bourbon Street
by Leonard Earl Johnson
Music Fest Links in
Section Lagniappe du Jour
à la fin. 
* * 

After Easter Mass, L. A. Norma and I left the witch-hat-towers of Saint Louis Cathedral behind us, and headed for the soaring two-storey balconies of Bourbon Street.

Jackson Square, NOLa      /      J. R. Tullos
There we were lifted further on the chaliced wings of whiskey, served from temporal cathedrals named Oz and Bourbon Pub.

There are many Ozs and Pubs on many streets like this in every port city of the world. But only these two dance-halls flanking this intersection of Bourbon and Saint Ann are major cultural demarcation lines. 

Once populated exclusively by gay men. Then gay men and gay women. Now added to the mix are folks who might read the National Geographic and yearn to explore.

The dance-halls have become the line that turns Reader's Digest level tourists ebbing back towards Canal Street's comforting hotels, and those yearning to venture past the gentrified mysteries of the lower French Quarter, into Faubourgs Marigny, Treme', and Bywater.

We took seats on the balcony above the Pub's swinging shingle, and watched the masses with their arms upraised in jubilation of Christ's Resurrection, or for beads from any faith passing by.  

Touched by Easter's spirit and the elfin Mr. Booze, we saw Jesus walking down this street of sin. He wore a crown of thorns over His long black hair. He wore sandals, too, and was naked save for a loincloth cut like the one in the paintings.  He was thin and looked like He might be Filipino ~ but mostly He looked like Jesus.  Everyone on the balcony saw Him.

Bourbon Strassa, NOLa

True to His Book, he was slumming with the local rabble, and reveling in their Easter experience.  As they were with His.

"Their experience is a sight easier'n His,"  L. A. Norma said, tapping her fingers along the tiny silver figure on her necklace. A crucifixion on a silver chain. A two-thousand year old Roman gismo for torture elevated to a symbol of good. "It's like Donald Trump worked on the Gospels!" she snorted.

Norma exhaled a cloud of smoke and the proclamation: "Skip the crucifixion, forget the fasting, and go straight for the Resurrection!"

Everyone laughed and glowed in the righteous wonder of her thought. 

Chris Owens, 2016 Easter Parade
A few years back, a few blocks up the street, Chris Owens ~ an elderly Bourbon  Street dancer and club owner with staying power ~ conducted her annual Easter Parade with celebrity grand-master David Duke. A brass band made of midgets, elder ladies of the snatched-bodies cult, and a half dozen or so young bunnies in pastel furs marched on the street and rode atop convertibles. The bunnies threw underpants and beads. 

 Margareta and Chiquita Bergen, 2016 St. Pats Day
Spring Beauties, Houmas House ~ 2015 column


None among this human eddy gave any notice whatsoever to our walking Jesus, except a tourist family standing against the downstream wall of Pete Fountain's (now Club Oz), directly across the street from where we sat. 

The father was wide-eyed. The girl, about seventeen, waved   up to us. The pubescent son giggled and hugged his mother. Then along came Jesus headed straight for them. 
The tourist mother looked offended. She gathered her brood and paddled them off down the street. Jesus did not seem bothered by their departure. 

"After all," Norma said, "He wrote the book on forgiveness." 

The sinners went on with their sinning. Then the Pope appeared on the Oz balcony. He stood directly above where the tourist family had been, and he was dressed head-to-toe in yellow and white satin. He blessed all who passed beneath him. He looked across the River of Bourbon Street and blessed us, too. We waved, and he motioned us over. We crossed the street and took our seats at the Pope's table.

We looked back at the Bourbon Pub balcony. The Pope, ever wise, said, "You cannot see yourself on the balcony you have just left." We had all had a lot to drink. 

The Pope handed out Wild Turkey and iced water, "Holy Water from the Holy River, he said.

Three real nuns, in old-fashioned black-and-white habits, came trotting down rue Saint Ann, returning from a later mass. They passed our intersection headed towards Cathedral School. The Sea of Sinners parted. We all cheered.

"What would they think of seeing Jesus, L. A. Norma asked of no one in particular. She leaned over the balcony rail and yelled to the crowd below for Carnival beads. A photographer looked up and took her picture. I yelled down asking if he had seen Jesus. "No!" he shouted back. Would he like to? "Yes, of course, yes!"

The Pope lay his hands on my shoulders, and said, "Watch that woman, do not let her fall over the communion rail."

 Green Carnival beads landed on the Pope's pointy hat. They looked interesting, but he took them off and tossed them to two college boys on the street below. Norma told him the two boys should have opened their pants. He frowned and said sternly, "This is not Carnival!"

I said, "It is not Laughingyette either," but the Pope did not hear me ~ he was gone to find Jesus.

Norma looked past my forehead, and talked of far-ranging things.

The Pope returned without Jesus. He was balancing fresh drinks and passed them round the table."He can not be found in this wicked den," said The Pope, handing me a Wild Turkey and water.

When we looked up from our drinks we saw Him again. He was at our old balcony table across the street waving. We waved back. His naked arms were lifted heavenward. His loincloth flapped in the whiskey-flavored air. The man with the camera jumped and shouted, "Your cross, your cross, show us your cross!"

Jesus looked down and bellowed: "Don't you know what holiday this is? It is Easter, I have no cross!" 

When LEJ wore a younger man's beard
Presbytere coupla, Jackson Square
(Evacuated New Orleans, 2006)
The Pope, assorted communion-rail leaners, and other followers passing on the street below shouted, "Is it Carnival?"

It wasn't.  It was Easter on the River of Bourbon Street.


Copyright, 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

Your Comments and corrections are welcome
click here

For more L. E. J.'s Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp go to 

FYI:  You may not receive a monthly notice for LEJ's Louisiana / YOURS TRULY IN A SWAMP, until / unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system.  Don't hold your breath.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer. Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed.

If  you wish to read any month's story go to the archives at www.LEJ.org 

(They are posted newly on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks.) 

Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary. 

© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.

* *

Lagnappe du Jour