In the late ‘80s, I tended bar at a Daiquiri place on Bourbon St. in New Orleans on weekends and during college breaks. Saturday nights were hectic as you’d image and we made good money for college students, but I really enjoyed working daytime shifts. You had more time to converse with people, find out where they are from, and generally observe the interesting cross-section of life that passes through the city on a daily basis.
Street performers add to the uniqueness of the French Quarter experience. There was a clown back then who would walk the street and offer to make little balloon animals for the kids for tips. Seems like fun, until you think about 8 hour days in the outdoors in New Orleans in the summertime in full makeup and costume. Typically temperatures reach 94-95 degrees with 90% humidity. He’d often walk into the bar to get a break from the weather and ask for a cup of ice water.
I recall watching him once as he stood at the bar exhausted, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the dripping sweat from his forehead. I could see his makeup beginning to melt away, and I could see the fatigue in his eyes. I realized under the makeup that he was of an advanced age, certainly not immune to the physical effects of his environment and of the demanding nature of his work.
I gained an appreciation of the sacrifices of the cast of performers and characters who roamed the area and put a smile on peoples’ faces on a daily basis. With this in mind, years later I composed a song as a tribute to the street performers of New Orleans titled “City Soldier,” including the line:
“There’s a clown with a tattered costume roamin’ through the square today. He never says a word, but he makes balloons for the children every day. It’s a long way from the big top, but he doesn’t really seem to mind. The smiles on their little faces help him forget about those dreams he left behind…”
Here’s City Soldier, featuring Romy Kaye on vocals and Tony Dagradi on saxophone.
Tonight I saw a music video that plays annually on a local news broadcast in New Orleans this time of year, and it brought back to memory a departed musician from my past.
The late Harry Ravain was a “musician’s musician.” A veteran drummer with a great enthusiasm for his craft and for other musicians, Harry was to music what actor Kevin Bacon was to the movies – he had a connection to most every musician who ever passed through the Crescent City, and was respected and beloved by them all.
For the last dozen or so years of his life, Harry played with Benny Grunch and the Bunch, a legendary New Orleans band known for their colloquial tunes that pay tribute to nuances of life in the Crescent City. In 2006 I started on a quest to realize a lifetime dream and finally record a music CD (one of my “bucket list” items) with talented musicians who could bring a few of my songs (and a few interpretations of others) to life. A mutual musician friend referred me to Harry.
In 2006 and again in 2007 Harry laid down the drum tracks for the CD, perhaps his last recorded work. Later that year, Harry was diagnosed with cancer that ultimately claimed his life in 2009. It is my regret that I didn’t complete the project until after his death, but I was gratified that I had the opportunity to work with him and capture his work for others to enjoy. Harry’s energy and enthusiasm for music and the recording process made the experience pure joy.
The New Orleans street performers add ambiance to the French Quarter area and draw visitors to the area. Those visitors support restaurants and businesses. And if you’ve ever been in New Orleans this time of year, you know that being outdoors in the heat and humidity for 6-8 hours is no picnic. All of the residents of the New Orleans metro area benefit from their hard work and dedication.
When I was in college, I tended bar on Bourbon St. on weekends and holidays. Occasionally, some of the performers that included musicians, dancers, and mimes, clowns would come in for a glass of water. While they were all smiles for the crowds, I could see how grueling that heat could be by the expressions on their faces when they came in for a little relief from the hot weather.
The city is considering enforcing an ordinance limiting the hours that these performers can play. While I understand that there are concerns from French Quarter residents, they should proceed with caution. I don’t think it’s appropriate to limit music in the city that is defined by it. The prudent approach would be to simply handle compaints on a case-by-case basis rather than enforcing indiscrimanantly.
The New Orleans French Quarter is a unique and wonderful place. Some say it’s the only real Bohemian society in America. Let’s not let the beaurocracy ruin a good thing.