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When we first interviewed Carol Fran for our Still Singing the Blues documentary, we knew immediately that she was a national treasure. The blues she sings are rooted in Louisiana’s swampy soil, from the throaty emotionality of her 1957 hit Emmitt Lee to the French Creole language she uses in Tou’ les jours c’est pas la meme (Every Day Is Not the Same). Her story of reinvention, particularly after she married her musical partner Clarence Hollimon, is classically American. And she toured with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, including Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed. Like many American musicians, she’s been more appreciated by fans in Europe (and Latin America) than by her own countrymen.

So we were delighted when the National Endowment for the Arts named Fran a 2013 National Heritage Fellow, given to practicing artists who are “worthy of national recognition and have a record of continuing artistic accomplishment.” Each fellow receives a $25,000 honorarium.

Last Friday, Richard Ziglar and I drove to Washington, D.C., to attend a performance featuring all nine 2013 fellows, who included musicians, a sculptor, and two Native American tradition bearers. Carol Fran—accompanied by her godson, “Piano Prince of New Orleans” Davell Crawford—was the final act. She traded some Louisiana-style repartee with host Nick Spitzer before launching into a jazzy version of the standard Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere.  She followed up with Emmitt Lee and Tou’ les jours c’est pas la meme. After the fierce applause died down, all nine winners stormed the stage, along with friends and family, as Fran led them in rousing versions of This Little Light of Mine and When the Saints Go Marching In.

Fran150You can watch her on the above video by fast-forwarding to 1:45:36. But I hope you won’t skip ahead, because the eight artists who proceeded Fran delighted and inspired us, and offered a vision of the United States at its richest. It’s a unique treat to hear Ralph Burns of Nixon, Nevada, tell the creation myth of his tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiute, and, in the same evening, listen to Nicolae Feraru, an immigrant from Romania, as he plays Gypsy and Romanian tunes at breakneck speeds on the cimbalom (a dulcimer-like string instrument). Not to mention enjoying the ballads of our home state of North Carolina performed by Sheila Kay Adams, of the Sodom community, who threw in a couple of mildly off-color jokes to enliven the evening further. Sacred Harp singing from Alabama; Irish fiddling from Maine; dance from Washington State’s Lummi tribe—this was our country at its most diverse.

It wasn’t a watered-down version, either. Some of the artists discussed the issues they cared about the most. Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, a guitarist and vocalist who was invited by César Chávez to perform at United Farm Worker rallies and marches, talked and sang about the labor, immigration, and education issues that motivate him. Verónica Castillo, a ceramicist from San Antonio, showed off a sculpture that warned of the perils of global warming.

As the federal government was headed toward a shutdown, I thought about all the divisiveness in Washington, and all the unity inside George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. And I thought to myself: If this is what American culture means, I’m in.

– Barry Yeoman

Above photo courtesy of NEA.

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Tribute to Doc

August 22, 2012

If you’re anywhere near New Orleans tomorrow night, Aug. 23, come hear the Louisiana Hot Sauce Band play a tribute to trombonist Eddie “Doc” Lewis, who died Aug. 11. You can read more about Lewis here.

The 8 p.m. show will take place at Club Gentilly, 1841 Gentilly Blvd. Proceeds will be used to send Lewis’ body to Georgia.

The Louisiana Hot Sauce Band is made up of the musicians whose music at The Place to Be opened our documentary “Crescent City Blues.”
 

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Coming soon: The new Mother-in-Law

by barry August 15, 2012

The Mother-in-Law Lounge—which has earned the adjective “iconic” so many times that it as become cliche, yet no other word really fits—is one step closer to resurrection under new owner Kermit Ruffins. This Times-Picayune article details the unanimous vote by the New Orleans City Planning Commission: http://www.nola.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2012/08/new_orleans_planning_commissio.html More on the lounge here. More on the […]

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Doc Lewis, RIP

by barry August 15, 2012

Eddie “Doc” Lewis, an iconic New Orleans street trombonist, died August 11. Lewis was a fixture in the French Quarter, where he would sit on stoops, shouting come-ons to passersby and offering to play any tune from any genre. “What do you want to hear?” he’d ask “Anything you like.” He’d play his tunes, tell […]

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Watch the cart! La. blues at the Olympics

by barry August 3, 2012

With the Olympics on everyone’s mind right now, we re-listened to our interview with Louisiana blues pianist and vocalist Carol Fran—particularly the story of how she and her husband, guitarist Clarence Hollimon, came to perform at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. We’ve edited this two-minute audio clip in which Fran recalls that special period […]

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The latest blues venue

by barry April 30, 2012

New Orleans blues lovers: It looks like a new Sunday venue is Kajun’s Pub, 2256 St. Claude Ave. (between Marigny and Mandeville) in the Marigny district. Most weeks from 5 to 8 p.m., the bar sponsors event called “Blues, Booze & Seafood.” There are oysters, shrimp, and crawfish for sale, plus a rotation line-up of […]

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Lipstick Traces

by barry June 7, 2011

Benny Spellman, the New Orleans R&B singer whose lent his bass vocals to Ernie K-Doe’s famous song “Mother-in-Law,” died last Friday at the age of 79. Spellman was probably best known for the song “Lipstick Traces” (click on the video above). We’ve heard songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint tell this story about the origins of […]

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Hello, Columbus

by barry May 28, 2011

Listeners in Central Ohio will be treated to both hours of the Still Singing the Blues series Sunday night, May 29, on WCBE 90.5 FM in Columbus. The shows will air back-to-back from 9-11 p.m. on Maggie Brennan’s “Roots ‘n’ Offshoots” show. WCBE is an 55-year-old NPR station owned by the Columbus Board of Education. […]

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Slewfoot 1953-2011

by barry April 25, 2011

New Orleans lost one of its best-known street musicians with the death this month of 57-year-old Mickey “Slewfoot” McLaughlin. It was a 2008 jam session involving Slewfoot (which you can read about here) that originally inspired our Still Singing the Blues project; his song Raining in New Orleans remains one of our Crescent City touchstones. […]

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Listen online

by barry April 23, 2011

After almost a year of broadcasts on radio stations throughout the country, our series is finally available for online listening at this web site. Click on this link, then click the “play” buttons to listen to Hour 1 (Still Singing the Blues) or Hour 2 (Crescent City Blues). The shows are still available to radio […]

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