How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?
For many musicians, New Orleans is as close to sacred ground as you can get in these United States.
New Orleans holds Congo Square, the only place in the antebellum South where slaves could and did regularly gather to drum and to dance.
New Orleans produced Louis Armstong, whose use of the backbeat revolutionized popular music worldwide and is the basis for his claim to the title of “Most Influential Musician Of The 20th Century”.
At the birth of rock and roll, before there was Elvis Presley (upriver in Memphis), there was the Creole-speaking, piano-playing, New Orleans native, Fats Domino (whose own birth was midwifed by his ex-slave grandmother).
It is partly because of that history that there was such a tremendous musical outpouring in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of musicians from across the full spectrum of American popular music wrote and recorded scores of songs for and about New Orleans and the “criminal ineptitude” (to quote one of them) of our government that led to the drowning of a great American city.
Now, on the 7th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, New Orleans is again being deluged, this time by Hurricane Isaac. Simultaneously, the Republican Party, gathered in convention across the Gulf, is making clear—by the platform it has adopted and the candidates it has chosen—-that its major criticism of the previous Republican administration is that it was too compassionate and not “conservative” enough.
Bruce Springsteen’s updating of Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 song, “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?”, may not be the best song to emerge from what happened to New Orleans after the levees broke. It does, however, capture something of the enduring shame, guilt and anger many Americans feel about what happened and, perhaps, something of their determination not to let it happen again. (Here’s a performance from earlier this year at Jazz Fest.)