The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
-- (1947; Music by Louis Alter; Words by Eddie DeLange)
From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:
New Orleans, the most populous city in Louisiana, is world-renowned for its distinctive music, cuisine, architecture, and multicultural traditions and holiday celebrations. The 1947 film of the same name highlighted the city’s role in the birth of jazz, with this song performed by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in her only feature film appearance.
Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’ As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song. The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song. From Georgia last week, we now continue southeast to Louisiana.
…New Orleans? may be one of the oldest-to-the-chorus songs on the Travel set. (It's certainly the one with the longest title!) This piece was one of the first ones I learned upon joining the Sounds of Indiana in autumn of 2013, under our previous music director and at our previous rehearsal location. If I remember correctly, we performed it at one of the Cardinal District contests the following year, but then we didn’t really touch it again for another long while.
In preparing for The Travel Show, then, this song’s perfectly applicable geographic name and content prompted us to pull it back out of the archives. But we were a different chorus now; in the past few years, our musicality and showmanship have blossomed immensely. This song begged for an updated interpretation.
I’ve talked before about the “internal music video” concept of presentation: if you see the story in your mind, the audience will see it in your face and body. As with Georgia On My Mind, the whole chorus explored this piece line by line to develop a collaborative narrative. And on top of the music video idea, we also used our 1/2/3 technique.
1/2/3 is a method of presentation based on the storyteller’s point of view, paralleling grammatical verb inflection. 1 is first-person POV; the singer is talking to himself (“me/I”). 2 is second-person; the singer is talking directly to one other person, or perhaps to a closely-packed small group immediately nearby (“you / you all”). 3 is third-person; the singer is either outside the story narrating about someone else (“he/she”), or else is himself talking to a large group, or to the world/universe at large (“they / everybody, and I don’t care who hears it!”).
Let me share the lyrics, and then I’ll walk through the different points of this story:
(Well,) I never had this kind of feelin’,
with troubled heart an’ brain a-reelin’ (reelin’).
(What’s) what’s the matter, well here’s the matter,
(the thing) the thing that’s really wrong with me (with me).
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans,
and miss it each night and day?
I know I’m not wrong; the feelin’s getting’ stronger
the longer I stay away.
Miss the moss-covered vines, the tall sugar pines
where mockingbirds used to sing.
And I’d like to see the lazy Mississippi
a-hurryin’ into spring.
The moon-(the moon)-light on the bayou,
a creole tune (a tune) that fills the air (the air).
I dream (I dream) about magnolia’s in June,
and soon I’m wishin’ that I was there, right there!
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
when that’s where you left your heart?
And there’s something more:
I miss the one I care for
More (yes more!) than I miss New Orleans.
More than I miss New Orleans.
More than I miss New Orleans!
So where does this song take place? Who else is there? How does that affect our mood, the mood of the character we’re presenting?
Again like Georgia last week, New Orleans is not set in the place the song is about. Rather, as before, we’re in another location, reminiscing about that place and what happened there…
Interior, night. We’re in a dimly-lit bar. Smoke curls through the air. The clink of glass punctuates the indistinct lull of voices in the background. A small jazz band plays in a corner.
We sit on a stool at the bar itself, swirling our drink, staring contemplatively at the liquid. It’s not giving us the solace we had hoped for. Something is still eating at the inside of our chest.
“I never felt like this before,” we comment to the bartender. (2nd person) “My heart, my head.”
“What’s the matter?” we repeat his question, with a hint of self-scorn. “Well, just let me tell ya ‘what’s the matter.’”
We ask him the title question. (2nd person)
We reflect to ourself (1st person) that this feeling is real, and growing. Can we keep suppressing it?
“I miss the vines, the trees, the birds,” we recall, now drawing the attention of the patrons sitting next to us (2nd person). We chuckle a little. “Especially the old river.”
Then, as much as we’ve been trying to avoid it, a specific scene slides back into our memory: one made of moonlight (sight), music (sound), and magnolia flowers (smell) on an early summer evening (touch/feel). At this point, we’re not sure if we’re still speaking out loud, describing the picture to the others (2nd/3rd), or if they’ve faded away while we’re so completely caught up in our own flashback (1st).
We suddenly spin around on our stool and address the whole room (3rd). We’re finally, somehow, willing to be vulnerable, so we ask the question again. But this time, it’s not about the place. In fact, it was never about the place. The trees, the moonlight, the birds, the flowers are all just a backdrop, don’t you get it? They’re setting the scene for being in that place, yes, but most importantly with that person!
We pause, arms outstretched, chest heaving. The room has gone silent, including the band.
“It’s not the city, it’s the person,” we repeat again for emphasis (3rd, to the room), dropping our arms and shoulders. We turn around to throw back the remainder of our drink and set some money on the bar.
“There’s no use denying anymore: it’s not the city, it’s the person,” we repeat again to ourself (2nd), making our way to the door, hands in our pockets. The band and low conversations resume, untroubled by our outburst.
“Don’t forget this time: it’s the person,” the trombone growls one more time (3rd, to the universe) from inside as the door swings shut and we wander out into the starry night.
The crux of the song, the emotional and melodic climax, as you might be able to tell from the narrative above, is “And there’s something more: I miss the one I care for!” That’s where we, the chorus, realized that the entire song up to that point is a metaphor, and that what we don’t say may be more powerful than what we do.
One of our coaches over the summer, a couple months before the show, made this connection: New Orleans is a typical “guy” song in that we, the character, are finding as many ways as possible to not say “I love you.” We avoid it the whole time, cutting ourselves off with new images whenever we get too close to the real one, unwilling to acknowledge that that’s what this feeling actually is. But when we, the performers, complete those sentences in our heads and on our faces, even if not with our words, the audience can tell there’s some deeper feeling going on.
Georgia and New Orleans were two heavy songs performed right in a row. With similar sentiments in their lyrics, both require a deep understanding of the underlying story in order to present them effectively to the audience, and that underlying-ness is what I’m happy to share with you here. But phew! To conclude, I think the best I can do is reiterate Joe’s quote from last week: “Barbershop is a full contact sport!”
December 9, 2018
PS: I told you last week that I would ask JRC to comment on Chattanooga Choo-Choo for us, but we’re starting our annual holiday performances and I didn’t get to them in time. Now they already have another coming up in the list: Basin Street Blues. Maybe I can get these two together to share with you during SoI’s Winter Hiatus. Fingers crossed!