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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, and Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs News 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.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Pete Seeger in NOLa and Lafayette / Sept 2015

Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Laughingyette

September 2015

Pete Seeger's photographs, 1983 by
 Leonard Earl Johnson

Reprinted from Les Amis deMarigny, New Orleans

Pete Seeger in New Orleans and Lafayette 

Leonard Earl Johnson

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 a year-and-a-half ago, at ninety-four.  I meant to make mention of his death earlier but other funerals and weddings, Summers, 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 made famous by Louisiana native, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, of Mooringsport, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola -- a man who sang his way out of both Louisiana and Texas prisons. 

Seeger told a story 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 political witch-hunting committee. Seeger was their game.  Offended at being forced to appear he 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 1950s, remember, when Seeger was a very popular figure in the popular American folk music revival. His group, the Weavers, had such huge hits as Shrimp Boats are Coming, and On Top of Old Smokey.

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

"Who would not be locked up if such standards applied today?" L. A. Norma asked. 

"Even their scrubwoman holds today's Congress Critters in utter contempt!"

Seeger got fewer gigs after HUAC.  And less radio time. Television was new and mattered little. Later it played a huge role in bringing Seeger back ~ 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
A 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 New York home, 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, on the corner of Frenchmen and Dauphine. 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 (Available through George H. Buck Records, "Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music," GHB-141). Later he wrote about her song in Sing Out, a folk song magazine once huge now nearly faded away.

That day, on our way to Squalor Heights, Seeger wore a Medieval looking pointed 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 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 our gush about Seeger, whom we had just met for lunch on Fifty Seventh Street. The student was showing out-of-towner me where to get off in the East Village, and listened politely to our boasts of touching greatness, then said, "I do not know who Pete Seeger is."

One thing Seeger is/was is political, in the true honesty of a troubadour. His early days were spent roaming with Woody Guthrie, whose own guitar famously boasted his hand painted slogan: "This machine kills fascists." Guthrie wrote and sang significant songs, like This Land Is Your Land. Both men were union supporters and likely candidates to someday lock horns with reactionary Congress Critters.

In the 1940-50s, Seeger's popular folk-revival group, The Weavers, had enormous Billboard hits, like Goodnight Irene, On Top of Old Smoky, and the perennial Gulf Coast favorite, Shrimp Boats Are Coming. He is 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 first Jazz Fest day in New Orleans.


Back in Washington, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee charged him 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 whole world what he thought.

A resulting smear campaign led Seeger to being banned from American music clubs and media outlets. They feared the smear might smudge them, too. And their clubs and media outlets would themselves be pushed off the stage.

He 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 now middle-aged handshakes from grateful former camp kids.

Seeger's media ban was lifted in 1967 with his appearance on the brave, cutting-edge 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,

'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 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."

Be Safe This next Hurricane Season

Get an ice-box magnet of LEJ's fat faceto scare off hurricane vermin from your refrigerator.

"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box next time!"
~ L. A. Norma

Send a self - addressed & stamped envelope along with $5, $10 for both images.

Mail to:
Leonard Earl Johnson
Box 202
302 Jefferson St.
Lafayette, LA 70501

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Ten-Year Post-K. Review / August 2015

Yours Truly in a Swamp, 

LEJ's Louisiana

Monthly e-column by
Leonard Earl Johnson, 
of Lafayette and New Orleans

August 2015

The Ten-Year Post-K. Review

by Leonard Earl Johnson

This column is dedicated to community, family and friends of
 the Lafayette Grand theatre shooting as well as those of post Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

The train pulled in to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal ahead of schedule, exactly more-or-less ten years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew us away.  

We are back for a month of august filled days remembering the decade since 29 August 2005. When we turned the lock at Squalor Heights (my pre-K Faubourg Marigny garret) never again to return to the life lived there. 

Katrina was the largest storm loss in American history. It ushered in a time too painful for poets, when it and Hurricane Rita gave the coast of Louisiana a deadly thrashing. It has been no less bonding an experience than Death dancing the decade away locked in the arms of radiant Resurrection. O
ne giant decade of storm and salvation! Where is Wagner when you need a big opera? Hallelujah! 

Big Swamp City is better'n ever!

It is re-populated with thousands of newer versions -- even movie-making versions of ourselves eating in hundreds more restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and bars. There we sit with them, talking movies like we are the largest movie-making state in the Union. We are. Or were. 

"Bible-thumping, budget-juggling, selfish maharajah Bobby Jindal," 
L. A. Norma says throwing her arms towards the sky then folding them back on herself, "threatens the dreams of all us little untouchables."

We talk with these new movie people as if we know their biz as well as we know the bars on Frenchmen Street. 


Recently we had dinner on the Sunset Limited with a film ingénue moving from L. A. to La. for movie work. Holy cow!


Elysian Fields Avenue in Faubourg Marigny is home to the fictitious house where Stanley yelled for Stella in Tennessee Williams' opus, STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Near the spot where the house would have stood, an independent movie house called, Indywood opened, then closed. Indywood has floated locations since, cleverly operating as a bicycle drive-in.  Their search for a new permanent home is documented here by these talented lovers of cinema in a New Press Release is Born. (my title)


"I still see plump Ignatius J. Riley almost every time I ride the bus," Norma says. 

"Ignatius now uses e-pads and smartphones in ways that would have caused his earlier heart flap to flutter, and his New York City girlfriend to launch another tour d'force to awaken wee the people. 

"They would likely attend Indywood screenings, don't you think?"


Two years after Katrina, a young writer we know rented Squalor Heights. We decamped to Cajun country. 

We first arrived in Lafayette in time for Hurricane Rita, the bigger of the storms.  Rita hit Acadiana three weeks after Katrina and pushed the Gulf of Mexico up over New Orleans broken levees a hundred-and-forty miles away -- for a second time in a month. 

We were punished sinners, said hateful preachers on the radio. Or holy ones!? 

"Like Job punished by a serendipitous Gott." Norma said.

 "Like Louisiana and Governor Jindal,we asked?

My new rooms are in an old railroad hotel where once Elvis Presley stayed. Around the corner is an Amtrak stop, where I catch the Sunset Limited to Big Swamp City once or twice a month. I live a new Life now, where I'm both gone and present. A fine metaphor for an old man.

I still hold membership in the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association and attend its meetings.  And I see squarely both sides of the argument between Wendell Pierce (HBO star of Treme / Wired, NOLa native, and Faubourg Marigny gas station owner)

Wendell Pierce

Gio Lisa Suarez

and Gio Lisa Suarez (humanist, former Bourbon Street stripper and president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association).

Pierce wants a bigger gas station. Gio wants a more fitting one. "Not one'a those twenty-story exceptions they like on Canal Street," Norma adds.


My old garret was two flights up, 
the first being on the outside of the building. And looked out over its neighbors towards The River. It was a block off Frenchmen Street. 

"When high you could see ship's stacks rounding Algiers Point," the young writer's Wife told me years later at their going away party. "Ships sailed magically between little dormer windows.

"Each window aglow with hope and hangover," Norma said.

We remembered it well.


Early evacuation found New Orleans columnist Chris Rose speaking one night at a kind of teach-in at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, where I was teaching writing to the scattered.

He said our Storm news was so vast and life-changing that it would be an above-the-fold story ten years into the future. 

Now it has been ten years.  Look at the front page -- if you can find one -- and see if the story is not there, above-the-fold.

Rose went through and wrote about stress-related depression after Katrina and Rita. His columns grew darker as he went from writing about the Kenner, Louisiana child-canary, Britney Spears farting on stage to documenting the sight of a Mardi Gras Indian's New Suit nailed to the front porch wall of a house below the waterline. 

He moved from one publication to another and is today writing lovingly of Louisiana foods and fun for MY ROUSES EVERYDAY magazine. 

We love Rose's new writing, and all our new Lives ten years later -- much of mine lived waiting for Amtrak's Sunset Limited


In the decade since Rita welcomed us to Acadiana -- forty thousand New Orleanians came with me -- I have learned d
ifferences between things I hadn't known were things. Like bousillage and boudin.

Bousillage is a mud-and-moss building material favored by early Cajuns and current restorationists. Boudin is a rice and liver sausage equally favored and eaten at gas stations and crossroad stores all across Acadiana.

La nourriture 

Though similar in Big Swamp City and out in the Great Mother Swamp, some foods are different. One of the more shocking differences is that Cajuns put scoops of cold potato salad in their hot Gumbo! There is no explaining this. Either you like it or you don't. You will have to try it to know.

A story aside

Beginning before The Storms you likely had occasions to seek flavor in the popular tasteless fish, Tilapia -- a curse not hurricane-related

Tilapia has no flavor, but restaurants love the fish because it stays firm with a long shelf life, and never loses flavor because it never had any. Think veal. 

In Lafayette, think Tilapia in the hands of the skilled kitchen at Pamplona Tapas Bar, on Boulevard Jefferson.

Pamplona Tapas Bar, Lafayette Louisiane
Photo courtesy of Pamplona
Chef Jackson Nevitt has succesfully introduced taste to this veal-of-the-Sea. 

Twice I've had it, and twice it was good! Once it came with a simple brown butter sauce, sweet potato puree over high quality aromatic rice. The other was with grilled squash and zucchini with mojo picon. Try it, mon amie / mon ami, a firm fish deserves a bit of flavor, don't you think?


French Press on Vermillion Street in Lafayette has been invited to participate in a ten-years-after-Katrina dinner in New Orleans at La Petite Grocery, Uptown on Magazine Street. For details contact either French Press or La Petite Grocery

Chef Justin Girouard will lead his Lafayette contingent. Girouard is a Lafayette native who spent years in New Orleans working from scullery-to-chef at the acclaimed former Stella's in the French Quarter. He returned to Lafayette after Katrina to found French Press in Lafayette's booming downtown restaurant scene. What a difference a decade can make, cher!

Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments

Lagniappe du jour: 

Great song of Sam Rey, "Meet Me in New Orleans" fitting the ten year celebration.

NOLa / Lafayette Letter to N.O. Advocate about State movie budget

Ignatius J. Reilly is an educated but slothful 30-year-old man living with his mother in early-1960s New Orleans, in the novel A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole.  Great telling of New Orleans character and characters.
Copyright, 2015, 
Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments

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

© 2015, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
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