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While his latest CD is an occasion to celebrate his musical persona once again, Dr. John should also be appreciated as one of New Orleans' great songwriters.

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Malcolm J. "Mac" Rebennack created one of the most recognizable celebrities in New Orleans cultural history, Dr. John. This creation is a shrewd and not always intentional combination of myth, oral history and personal experience that echoes such literary constructs as the Arthurian legends, Parsifal and Don Quixote more than any musical template. Dr. John's Holy Grail is the practice of voodoo, which deals with the same issues of spiritual life, physical health and earthly bounty that the elusive chalice promised the Knights of the Round Table.

Dr. John isn't just the most prominent proponent of New Orleans culture; he's the embodiment of it on the world stage, nowhere more so than on his new album, N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda (Blue Note). The lineup is a who's who of New Orleans musicians including Nicholas Payton, the Dirty Dozen, and Walter "Wolfman" Washington, along with R&B legends Earl Palmer and Willie Tee, among others. Guests on the album include Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Mavis Staples, but none of this talent distracts the focus from Dr. John, a living connection to the New Orleans piano tradition of Professor Longhair and the patriarch of piano professors, Jelly Roll Morton.

As Dr. John, Rebennack is well regarded for his skills as a bandleader, live performer and celebrant of New Orleans music. Aficionados also laud Rebennack for his contributions as a producer and performer to the classic era of 1950s and '60s New Orleans R&B. But this dazzling array of talent has obscured what may well be Rebennack's most enduring legacy -- his work as a songwriter.

Rebennack himself appears to have little interest in promoting his songwriting talents. He has made his living on the road and has voiced suspicions about anything more ephemeral than playing in front of an audience. The record industry has desecrated some of his most cherished works, so much so that he calls it "the music racket" to friends. It's easy to understand how a musician might be cynical about a business in which his label, Warner Brothers, rewarded him for his Grammy-winning 1992 Goin' Back to New Orleans by dropping him from the company's roster.

Rebennack's compositions are so tightly woven into the fabric of New Orleans musical history that it's sometimes difficult to tell where the folk music source material ends and the original composing begins, especially when he adds his own touches, or even entire verses, to existing songs. On his latest album, N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda, he transforms such well-known material as "Stakalee," telling the story Lloyd Price made famous as "Stagger Lee" with entirely new lyrics. His account recalls street life writers like Iceberg Slim, beginning, "Back in the game there was a scrimpin', pimpin' man with a moneymaking stable / Whenever he played cards or shot craps he left his money at the table. / He was a bad luck sucker. / They called him Stakalee." Rebennack's understanding of the story and the R&B tradition is such that the casual listener might not notice the difference between newly minted classics and old favorites like his versions of Dave Bartholomew's "The Monkey" and "St. James Infirmary."

Nevertheless, those originals gild a catalog that makes a strong case for Rebennack as a woefully overlooked songwriter. Like Lou Reed, he uses a reporter's sensibility and street-corner language to shine a light on the underside of city culture, one many want to pretend doesn't exist. In Dr. John's case, voodoo in New Orleans is his primary subject. The smoky, undulating "Marie Laveau" delivers in a hushed, deliberate storytelling cadence the life story in five verses of the legendary voodoo queen who "made her fortune sellin' voodoo, interpretin' dreams."

The Dr. John persona itself was a writing conceit originally intended as a voodoo performance piece for singer Ronnie Barron with Rebennack in the support band. Mac based the idea on the historic figure Dr. John Creaux, a 19th century voodoo priest Rebennack believes may be one of his ancestors. When Barron balked at the idea, Mac decided to adopt the persona himself. His debut 1968 album, Gris-Gris, stands as a definitive codification of voodoo cultural rituals set to popular music.

Dr. John Creaux, Harold Battiste and Jessie Hill receive writing credit for the songs, and Mac handles the vocals with a whispering chant rather than singing them. His croaking is particularly effective in contrast with the deeply spiritual vocal harmonies laid down by a vocal choir that includes Barron, Hill, Shirley Goodman and Tami Lynn. The band, assembled with the help of Batiste, who also played bass clarinet and percussion, fashioned a swamp music sound out of a lineup that included two bassists, Bob Fraser and Bob West, with John Boudreaux on drums and the incomparable Richard "Didimus" Washington on percussion. The title track, along with "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom" and "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" defined a sound that has been much imitated but never improved upon.

In these songs, the mystic meets real life. On 2001's Creole Moon, he sang about "Bruha Bembe," an herbal healer. Dr. John describes her as "sorta like your local HMO without all the forms to fill out." "Mama Roux" includes an etiquette lesson for dealing with mystics. In the second verse, he explains, "If you see a Spy Boy sitting in the bush / Mess him on the head, give him a push. / Get out the dishes. Get out the pans. / He's an advance for the Medicine Man."

Officially, Dr. John Creaux also wrote the second album, Babylon, a masterpiece that has been overlooked because it bears so little relation to the rest of Rebennack's work. The apocalyptic visions projected by both lyrics and music are certainly frightening, but his description of the underworld nightlife shows a world where beauty and horror are two sides of the same coin. The songs, written in 1968 during the depths of the Vietnam War and in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, evoke alternating images of the end of the world and forbidden love with voodoo priestesses in New Orleans cafes and Louisiana sugar cane fields. These dreamlike scenarios are set to beautifully disorienting music based on sinuous voodoo cadences performed in time signatures such as 11/4 and 5/4 in addition to straight 4/4.

In hair-raisingly biblical terms, Dr. John condemns to damnation the warlike nations in the title track, a sentiment that carries an eerie ring of deja vu 36 years later. Although he's in no hurry to revive the material, Rebennack is aware of its enduring power. "Babylon talks about today just as much as it did then," he says. "I took it from the Bible but you could take it out of any book that was a sacred book ever written. You can pick out things, because people repeat the mistakes, repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over. It's been a long time since then, but it's still all there."

Because Dr. John is fascinated by people's secret lives, particularly in New Orleans, the voodoo material dovetails with Mac's fascination with Mardi Gras and particularly the Mardi Gras Indians, the subject of "Chickee Le Pas" from the new album. The celebration of the good times comes with a recognition of the violence that's never as far away as it should be in New Orleans. His description of the parade includes "A crazy white man with a shotgun in his hand. / In a while on by he's going to take a stand." Mac's latest Fat Tuesday invocation joins such timeless gems as "Mardi Gras Day" from the album Remedies. That 1970 release frustrated Rebennack when handlers ruined one of his most ambitious works.

The focal point of Remedies, "Angola Anthem," was a 17-minute, 33-second epic addressing the horrific conditions inmates are subject to in Louisiana's Angola penitentiary. Somehow, Rebennack's main vocal track was left off the release and was lost to history. Oddly enough, the powerful rhythm track makes it fascinating, anyway, but it's clear that Mac is simply sketching out his ideas with his truncated vocal.

On 1972's Gumbo, Mac went on to codify yet another aspect of the New Orleans tradition, a tribute to his roots in New Orleans R&B that sparked a revival in the genre. He then wrote a group of songs in that tradition powered by the funk sound his bands have been identified with ever since -- "Right Place, Long Time," "Such a Night," "I Been Hoodood," "Quitters Never Win," "Mos' Scocious," "Desitively Bonnaroo." That sound is epitomized by the title track of N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda, a freewheeling journalist's sketch of New Orleans street life peppered with Rebennack's y'at-inspired jargon.

Rebennack went through another musical evolution with the 1978 release, City Lights, which marks the beginning of his creative relationship with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus. The two wrote scores of songs together, and Rebennack has recorded many of them (Creole Moon contains four of them). In this period, Dr. John consciously plugged into the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition, and though the songs are less obviously about New Orleans' culture, they bring the same observational sense and sympathy to the fragile couple in "Imitation of Love" and the old-timer in "One 2 A.M. Too Many."

N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda is an invocation of life in all its wonder and horror filtered through his experiences growing up and playing in New Orleans. Part mythmaker, part journalist, part historian, Rebennack is always a truth-teller.

"That's the world we live in," he concludes. "We'd love to see the world where it ain't NRA populous, where the weapons wasn't on the street. Let's face it. It ain't happenin'. I'd love to see a place where kids ain't killin' kids. But you gotta deal with it; the fact is they are. Look at it. You try to duck it, it's gonna jump on ya. You'll see it sooner or later."

Dr. John's new album, N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda, features a who's who of New Orleans R&B including Earl Palmer, Willie Tee and Walter "Wolfman" Washington alongside such guests as B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Mavis Staples.
  • Dr. John's new album, N'awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'Udda, features a who's who of New Orleans R&B including Earl Palmer, Willie Tee and Walter "Wolfman" Washington alongside such guests as B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Mavis Staples.

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