It’s been ten years.
In June of 2005, blues singer and guitarist Scott Ainslie wrote his remarkable song, “It’s Gonna Rain.” A rhythm and blues song about love lost in southern Louisiana, it was a poetic and lyric evocation of the culture where “people drag themselves to the graveyard,” as Ainslie often says, “and dance their way home.”
Six weeks later Hurricane Katrina hit. It scraped the Gulf Coast clean. The levees failed in New Orleans, inundating the Lower 9th Ward and creating a modern day diaspora out of the city that has only partially been reversed. That was ten years ago this August.
Overnight, without changing a word, “It’s Gonna Rain” became a song – not about losing somebody – but about losing a city.
“And for my money,” Ainslie says, “one of the coolest cities in the world. A place where people follow the band down the street in what they all the ‘Second Line;’ where people don’t just tolerate differences – they celebrate them! New Orleans has always given America more than its taken. This song is for them.”
Playing with Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo in a benefit performance for the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh three years ago, “It’s Gonna Rain” brought the house down. For Marsalis, born near Bayou Teche, a native of Breaux Bridge, raised in the music of New Orleans, the song was a natural fit.
“Playing that particular song with Branford and Joey was a dream come true for me. I’d spent years working and making lifelong friends in Breaux Bridge and Lafayette, LA,” Ainslie says. “I was channeling that when I wrote the song: the Spanish Moss hanging in the Live Oaks, the cotton wood trees, the smell of the rain on the streets. It’s all there.
“I just didn’t know how much the meaning of the song would shift when the levees failed in New Orleans – levees that repair money had been appropriated for by the Clinton Administration. The George W. Bush administration wouldn’t release the funds. There were something like 143 editorials in the Times-Picayune in the years before Katrina hit, begging the Federal government to release the money to repair those levees.”
Expressing a sentiment with which devotees of the blockbuster cable TV series Treme (on the post-Katrina Lower 9th ) will be familiar, Ainslie quietly notes, “This wasn’t a natural disaster. The worst of the storm had past when the levees failed. This was an unwitting, but very real political assassination of a largely black, democratic city. Call it what it was.”
And Ainslie’s latest CD, The Last Shot Got Him (Fall-2014), is entirely recorded on a little arch top 1934 Gibson from Louisiana.
“The guitar came to me from Linda Handelsman, a fine composer, arranger and musician who lived in Lafayette at the time. I played three chords on it and it sounded more like Robert Johnson’s recordings than any other instrument I had ever touched. It was made when Johnson was 23.
“The voice of this little Louisiana guitar was perfectly suited to the music of its time. So, I let it choose the songs for The Last Shot Got Him: Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, as well as Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, and Fats Waller. It’s a lovely instrument,” Ainslie says, “that came to me from one of my favorite places in the world.”
“Without planning it, I’ve become sort of an informal ambassador, an advocate for New Orleans and south Louisiana. I have friends who left and went back, as well as friends who left and won’t ever go back. The 2005 hurricanes, then the Deep Water Horizon explosion and Gulf oil spill have kept the troubles of Louisiana close at hand for me.”
Ainslie says, “Keeping all this in mind, I raise my voice and sing the blues.”