Galatoire's is John Shelton Reed's favorite restaurant in the world, largely because of the century-old institution's sense of tradition. He and his wife love the French Quarter, so when the retired sociologist was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Louisiana State University, he jumped at the chance to spend months in the historic district researching the circle of artists, writers, academics and bon vivants who constituted a bohemian cluster in New Orleans in the 1920s. The lecture series includes a book project published by LSU Press, and Reed's Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s is the result.
Although the bohemian circle included then-famous author Sherwood Anderson, a young William Faulkner, Lyle Saxon and Oliver La Farge, Reed's assessment of their bohemia may sound familiar.
"Stereotypically, New Orleans was one continuous party," Reed says in a phone interview from his North Carolina home. "It was remarkable any work got done at all."
Reed quickly adds that the group was extremely small compared to its contemporary intellectual and artistic communities in Paris and New York's Greenwich Village. But the group was very active, and besides the colorful exploits covered in Dixie Bohemia, the members left behind significant legacies, contributing to the foundation of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, even if no masterworks of literature or art emerged from them at the time.
Dixie Bohemia is one of several recently released and forthcoming books about Louisiana culture and arts. Also of note are John McCusker's Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz, Buddy Guy's entertaining autobiography When I Left Home, My Story, and Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century by Arthe A. Anthony.
Reed and his wife collect Mexican silver, and he stumbled upon the subject of his book because they like the work of William Spratling. Fans of Faulkner will recognize Spratling as the artist who shared a rented home with him at 624 Pirate's Alley. As a self-flattering and humorous project, the two created the book Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles in 1926. It featured profiles of 43 people in the bohemian cluster, including artists, architects, journalists, writers and socialites. Spratling illustrated the book, and only 250 copies were printed initially. Anderson, of course, was not a Creole, and in fact, only two of the subjects could lay any claim to that label.
The tome, however, was a rich introduction to the scene and what was happening in the French Quarter during the late 1910s and 1920s. The historic district was heavily populated by Italian immigrants, and artists and writers liked the cheap rents. Like many in the city, the bohemians were particularly devoted to flaunting Prohibition. Faulkner's early novel, Mosquitoes, reflected his time in New Orleans, and Reed notes it includes a boozy boat trip thought to be based on an actual cruise to the Northshore by a party of bohemians. Many New Orleanians tried to match the fictional characters to the actual participants. One of the bohemians' more inspired creations was the founding of the Bals des Artists, indulgent masquerade balls thrown by the Arts and Crafts Club.
Dixie Bohemia offers solidly researched profiles of the group members and their collective antics as well as a discerning assessment of their social context and interactions. Reed also provides a short biography of all 43 "Famous Creoles," including what they had accomplished up until the publication of the book and what they did after.
One of the surprising revelations in Reed's book is how little the bohemians were interested in jazz. The cluster's early years overlapped with raucous development of the "hot" music covered in McCusker's Creole Trombone. The biography is exhaustively researched, and McCusker smartly notes not just who played music together, but who lived in which neighborhood and who were their neighbors and extended families. That background makes his book an excellent primer on the many stages and complex relationships affecting the development of jazz in New Orleans, from the Buddy Bolden years to the era of exodus leading up to the 1920s, when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong went to Chicago and Ory went to California. McCusker details the divides between musicians who could read music and those who played by ear and other issues influencing who played with whom and where.
The early chapters focus on Ory's upbringing and family life outside of New Orleans and their Creole roots. McCusker notes that Ory fit any definition of the term, having ancestors from both Europe and Africa, and that Ory always claimed to be Creole. And while Ory was an extremely gifted musician who once ran the best band in New Orleans, one of the things that set him apart was that he was a shrewd businessman. The middle chapters about his time in New Orleans illuminate how factors other than musical talent also shaped the development of jazz.
Buddy Guy's autobiography When I left Home, written with David Ritz (who has co-authored autobiographies with Ray Charles and Etta James), is a much more breezy read. In tone, it's as if Guy is sitting on a barstool telling you his life story. Actually, both the introduction and final chapter set such a scene in his Chicago blues club, Buddy Guy's Legends. That's a bit heavy handed (he mentions he's there to sign merchandise on many nights), but the story makes it sound amazing that he actually got to that point, having waited decades to realize monetary rewards for his talents.
Some of the best moments are the too brief tales of rough Chicago clubs full of fights over cheating lovers and accounts of going to Muddy Waters' house to find the legend with his hair up in curlers. Early in his career, Guy adopted the wild showmanship of New Orleans' Guitar Slim, who used an extra-long cord on his guitar to roam through the audience and outside the club's front door. As much as that gimmick helped Guy get early club gigs, for nearly three decades he struggled to sell records, and he ascribes much of the problem to forsaking his wilder live playing style in favor of smoother, restrained sounds preferred by producers at Chess Records and other labels. Guy drove a tow truck to support his family for years before he was able to rely on income from his music. In this account he's not bitter, but he waited a long time for the blues to pay off, well after it had fallen out of favor with black audiences and was embraced by hippies, folk music producers (including George Wein at the Newport Folk Festival) and British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones, who sought out Muddy Waters and later Buddy Guy. It wasn't until after a second blues revival started in the 1980s that Guy realized steady financial success.
In her account of her great aunt Florestine Perrault Collins in Picturing Black New Orleans, Anthony offers insights into New Orleans life and racial issues prior to 1949, when Collins retired and moved to California. Collins was a studio photographer, and one of the city's only black female professional photographers. She led a pioneering life, though more out of her independent spirit than a consciousness of gender or racial barriers. She grew up in a strict Catholic family but moved out of their home at a young age and later divorced her first husband, neither of which was common at the time.
The book includes 59 of her photos, and there are standard portraits of family and clients as well as stunningly rendered shots, like a photo of Arthe Perrault as a debutante. There also are a couple of childhood portraits of Andrew Young, who served as mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. Collins seems to have been a reluctant subject, taking her achievements in stride, but Anthony delivers a warm and detailed portrait of Collins and some facets of New Orleans' rich and richly complicated culture in the early 20th century.
Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s
John Shelton Reed
Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz
University Press of Mississippi
Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century
Arthe A. Anthony
University Press of Florida
When I Left Home: My Story
Buddy Guy with David Ritz