Johnson has had setbacks before. He waited almost 40 years after his namesake anthem was recorded before he ever saw any money from it. "They took it," he says. "Joe Ruffino put on 'Carnival Time' that he was 50 percent the writer and 100 percent the publisher, and he never paid me anything." Johnson went through years of negotiating and litigation to get compensation. Ruffino's catalog eventually was sold to Rounder Records, which has been paying royalties to Johnson.
However, Johnson was not so fortunate after the levees broke. "I lost everything in Katrina. I was in Mississippi for a barbecue the Saturday before the storm, and we tried to come back that day, but they wouldn't let us in." Johnson's home was on Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. "Water filled it up. The house got moved off the foundation and back into the yard 25 feet. We came back after the storm and Armand and Patty St. Martin and the Arabi Wrecking Krewe went in and salvaged some stuff, some laminated stuff."
But his ordeal wasn't nearly over. According to Johnson, "The city came in and bulldozed the house. I didn't request it. In fact, I was trying to get them to let it stay, but they said that it was in imminent danger."
Since then, Johnson has been spending half his time in Houston and half in New Orleans. He has been approved for a house in the Musicians' Village, and there have been several benefits on his behalf. The Arabi Wrecking Krewe presented him with a check for $10,000 in February, and money was raised at a benefit organized by fans in Watertown, Mass., in late March. Johnson is handling all this as best he can. "Everything is uncertain," he says, "I had one address for years and now I don't have one. I was at the credit union the other day and they had the old address and I didn't know which address to change it to. It's really something."
Johnson's uncertainty is reflected in the song he recently recorded in New Orleans, which has just hit local record store shelves. It's called "The Lower 9th Ward Blues." The song is Johnson at the piano playing chords in the old-time junker blues New Orleans style and singing: "I don't know / what to do / I'm calling it / and I'm living it / The Lower 9th Ward Blues." It is simple in its execution and words, but the song reflects the feelings of that hard-hit but resilient neighborhood and the city as a whole. In some ways, we're all living the Lower Ninth Ward blues. Al "Carnival Time Johnson is living them more than most. But still he perseveres. "I'm optimistic that I'm coming back, but New Orleans is kind of difficult now. I'm just doing the best I can with this." Al "Carnival Time" Johnson with Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots: 2:45 p.m. Friday, May 4, Southern Comfort Blues Stage
- Jacob Blickenstaff
- Al "Carnival Time" Johnson recorded his namesake hit in 1960