I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself ( 1892 Version )
In his collection of essays Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, Henry Miller challenges the handle that scholars had assigned the American Poet Walt Whitman. Miller writes, “ I never understood why he should be called ‘the good gray poet.’ The color of his language, his temperament, his whole being is electric blue. America has never really understood Whitman, or accepted him. America has exalted Lincoln, a lesser figure.”
First published in 1855, Leaves of Grass was both Whitman’s breakout work and focus until his death in 1892. Many critics at the time of its first publishing found the language and content to be vulgar and explicit. Today we consider Leaves of Grass a defining moment in the history of American Literature. It was a work far ahead of its time.
Walt Whitman wasn’t always the inspired poet that he was at the publishing of Leaves of Grass. His work up to that point was fairly common and expected. His style significantly changed after he visited New Orleans. A resident of the city from February 25 to May 25, 1848, Whitman arrived at the height of the festival season. The next three months established the path for Whitman’s creative conversion and altered the course of American Literature forever.
Can a city, a community, really have that kind of effect? Can it launch an artist from simply existing to thriving in such a short span? All accounts of Whitman’s transition note that he returned a changed man. Spend a day in the Crescent City, and its not too difficult to understand how a community can have that kind of transformative impact on a person. And it doesn’t matter what day it is. It could be a Sunday. Actually, it was Sunday that we caught a little of the unexpected New Orleans spirit.
It was our first night down there, and we had just finished a long day of scouting. The team was starting to settle down, discuss the strategy for the next day and fade out for the night. Everyone was beginning to drift a little when the distinct but misplaced sound of a brass band begin to walk up from the street. It took a few moments for it to sink in but finally it became apparent that there was a parade happening close by. We all popped up and hustled down the stairs and into the street. Sure enough, decked out head to toe in electric blue uniforms and deftly cradling tubas, trumpets and snare drums was a youthful but large marching brass band. And they were bringing a groove and a crowd of people with them. We kept a brisk pace to to stay in step with the band as they made their way down Royal. No one in our group seemed concerned about why they were marching.* It was a random but colorful moment. Think about the last time a marching band surprised you. It only happens in one place.
And as almost to emphasize the dynamic nature of city, we were greeted the next morning with the sobering and blunt news of David Bowie’s passing. We were all shocked. He had just released an album a few days before. There wasn’t any mention of illness. Could David Bowie even die? He was so beyond everything, so extraordinary, it didn’t seem like he lived by the same limitations. We shot the first day of the catalog to an unending Bowie loop.
In the days following, it occurred to me that New Orleans isn’t a magnetic, alive, individualistic community because it invented the Sazarac or the muffuletta. Both of those things are incredible, by the way, and are a testament to its pervasive spirit of originality. No, the real beauty of this place and these people is the way that they blend so many contradicting forces into one fantastic, shining, electric moment. Life, death, music, grief, exuberance all merge into one line with no beginning or end. It all just rolls on together. Significant, traumatic, strange history lives just below the surface there. It’s powerful, and if you’re open to it, it will change you.
Parades play a significant role in New Orleans culture and traditions. The best known New Orleans parades are the second lines. Some have described them as “the quintessential New Orleans art form – a jazz funeral without a body.” So in hindsight, it made perfect sense that Win Butler of Arcade Fire had organized a second line tribute to his mentor and collaborator. It was all in hindsight, though. We were already in Richmond when they announced the event. It was a little strange to read about this major tribute passing one block from where we were just days before. Fortunately our fearless photographer had planned on spending a few extra days in the city and was there for most of the parade. Despite not loving a crowd, he was right in the thick of things and managed to capture more than a few compelling moments of sound and vision.
*It turns out that the band was leading an AIG conference directly towards the hallowed doors of Brennan’s, a New Orleans landmark. It was an odd thing to witness, but it made sense in its own way