The only time James Gordon played New Orleans, it wasn’t exactly Mardi Gras
Already a singer-songwriter, author, musical theatre performer and politician, James Gordon can add one more item to his resume: Roots Music Canada columnist. He’s graciously offered to share some entertaining stories with us from his lengthy career in the arts. Get ready to laugh!
I’m reminded of the only time I ever played in New Orleans
“It was many years back,” the storyteller began, sounding even more ancient than he actually is.
With my band Tamarack, we were part of a large entourage of Canadian acts engaged to play at the World’s Fair in “N’Awlins.”
We travelled in a caravan of Winnebagos, each act assigned to their own vehicle.
Heading into Louisiana, we stopped first to perform at the Red River Revel in Shreveport. I remember sharing a stage with my musical hero, Pete Seeger, there, as well as with Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, who arrived separately and performed on opposite sides of the stage since they were not on speaking terms.
We were billeted at the mansion of a millionaire heiress named Suzibelle, who treated us with genuine southern hospitality. One night she asked us if she could have a ride in our smelly cramped motor home. She enjoyed every moment of our cruise around town, her limo following behind, driven by her chauffeur, who whisked her off to the race track after she had tired of the diversion.
(The old storyteller has to pause here, for there were TWO similar tours through Louisiana back in those days… one that ended up in Guadelajara, Mexico via Texas and another that ended at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. They’ve become one in his questionable memory, and he’s not sure which Winnebago adventures belong with which trip.)
In New Orleans, we performed at the frightfully tacky World’s Fair in the blues and jazz tent, and I remember feeling like a pretty nervy Canadian kid playing dixieland trumpet solos in the birthplace of Louis Armstrong!
While we felt like road warrior rock stars in our motorized motel rooms cruising along the interstates, the fact was that the tours had ZERO traveling expense budgets, and we were left literally playing for our food. Each vehicle was equipped with a cupboard full of donated Magic Pantry instant dinners in a bag – enough to last us the trip. I remember contests being held to see who could actually prepare a palatable meal from the meager supplies offered.
By the time we reached New Orleans, our larders were pretty empty, and we had exhausted all the different ways to make Swiss Steak in a bag digestible. Our band was dispatched to do a performance at a suburban Renaissance Fair in exchange for dinner for our entire 30-odd member traveling circus. (Well, most of us were pretty odd).
The three of us had honed a rather bizarre act early in our so-called careers that came in handy when times were tight. At these events, we’d dress as gypsies, (though I was surprised that the Sally Ann housecoats, pajama bottoms, puffy shirts and ripped tweed jackets convinced anyone. We looked more like grad-student pirates), and we had written a handful of fake gypsy songs that we played over and over. “Rum and Rancid Goat Milk” was our gypsy/pirate hit, I recall. The deal at these fairs for the aspiring actors and musicians desperate enough to take the gig was that you’d be given a character and a map of the grounds and told to intersect with various kings, courtiers, wenches and knights at various times to do little improv vignettes. Early on, we decided that gypsies would ignore any directions given, and we’d burst in on scenes, demanding food, wine and women, much to the delight of the patrons but to the great consternation of the other actors. The director of our first fair recognized the crowd appeal of our bad behavior, and he gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted. ‘Whatever we wanted’ turned out to be appearing in public as little as possible, then retreating behind the cardboard scenery to consume the spoils of our raiding expeditions, (mostly turkey drumsticks and ‘mead’).
At the New Orleans fair, we donned our quasi-costumes in blistering heat and were told to do our ‘act’ for the afternoon, after which the whole gang would come out to the site for their free dinner. We mostly shouted at each other in bad Eastern-European accents and played anything we could think of in a minor key, which seemed to convince the locals of our artistic integrity. To our delight, we discovered a booth that was selling small bottles of liqueur; we’d burst in demanding free samples, quaff them with gypsy relish (sort of like goulash), then stagger back to pester King Harry’s court for a while.
As the afternoon wore on, we were still sober enough to notice that there didn’t really seem to be any food there and wondered what might be offered to our Canuck compatriots when they arrived. (Still not sure why WE had to sing for THEIR supper!).
After some investigation, we determined that in the capital of Southern Cuisine, a culinary paradise floating in gumbos and jambalayas, we were to be fed hot dogs. The Winnebago parade was shortly going to make its way from the French Quarter, laden with the aromas of the finest cooking in America, to a suburban football field to eat hot dogs. We told the tour manager, who had come out to watch us sweat under the Southern Sun, that he would surely have a musician’s revolt on his hands if another plan was not made soon.
The old storyteller’s recollections get hazy here – too much liqueur. His companions must have been fed somehow. His mind wanders to other Winnebago tour mishaps: being saved at the Mexican border by our resident magician, who made balloon animals for burly machine-gun-armed border guards, who until then were not letting us through for lack of a big enough bribe; playing as “La Groupo Tamarack” in Guadalajara in a large stadium while an interpreter simultaneously translated as we sang; eating a rare restaurant meal at a place called the “Casa Maison House”; getting stopped in the desert by more armed soldiers, who were placated with free copies of our latest vinyl album, and wondering how our Canadian folk songs went over back at their haciendas; leaving the tour early because we had a gig that paid THREE HUNDRED WHOLE DOLLARS at the Delhi Ontario public library!
Ah, but these are stories for another time my friends.