American Routes Shortcuts: Earl Barthé

Aug 30, 2019

Earl Barthé
Credit American Routes

This holiday weekend we have live music from the French Quarter Festival as a soundtrack for a break from work. In New Orleans, there has long been a link between the work of building artisans and music. Johnny St. Cyr was a jazz banjo player in Louis Armstrong’s band, The late trumpeter Lionel Ferbos was a tin smith. Mardi Gras Indian Chief Tootie Montana was a lather. R&B piano player Eddie Bo was a carpenter. In 2002 the New Orleans Museum of Art presented “Raised to the Trade,” an exhibition of Creole building arts based on research by the urban studies program at the University of New Orleans. Among the many people interviewed was the late Earl Barthé. Mr. Barthé would go on to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award in 2005 and appear posthumously in a recent PBS film Good Work

Nick Spitzer: I’m Nick Spitzer. This is American Routes for Labor Day weekend. In addition to music, our New Orleans home is a city noted for its buildings and the work that goes into them. Nearly three centuries of workmen have built and maintained this beautiful, historic landscape of creole cottages, antebellum mansions, lacy ironwork, and ornamental brick and plaster. Master plasterer Earl Barthé says that the talents of New Orleans craftsmen are known across the nation. 

Earl Barthé: Well, if you travel in America, plastering like I did when I was a young man, if you said you were from New Orleans, you can bet you’ve got a job. Anywhere you went, because they were known for their articular craftsmanship.

NS: Barthé grew up in New Orleans, as part of a rich tradition of Creole craftsmen. 

EB: 99% of the plasterers in New Orleans or in Louisiana were Creoles of Color. For the audience who doesn’t understand Creoles of Color, that’s a mixture of white and Negro blood, or Haitian blood. That’s what you call a Creole of color. 

NS: There are plasterers in Barthé’s family, dating back a century and a half, starting in Nice, France, through Haiti, and then to New Orleans. Conversations with Earl Barthé inevitably contain recollections of his storied lineage and their talents. 

EB: Peter was a very good plasterer. He had a son by the name of Alexandre. He was a super plasterer, carpenter, plumber. He had the gift of all gifts. That was Alexandre, and it was said that he was even greater than Peter or Leon. And Alexandre had four sons, Paul, Louis, Henry, and Alvin. They say that Alvin was just as good as Alexandre or Alexander. They called him Alec. 

NS: Earl’s ancestor Peter connected the Barthé family with plasterers nation-wide through his work in organized labor.

EB: And then around the turn of the century, that’s when Peter organized the plasterers union, Local 93. They had this broadcast go out around America. I’m sure there are plasterers who would remember plasterers union Local 93. We’re getting ready now; we’ll celebrate 100 years next year. Nick, it’s a strange thing about plasterers, there’s this old saying that plasterers never die. 80 and 90 is nothing for a plasterer to live. 

NS: Building craftsmen have noticed, says Barthé, that New Orleans musicians often make good plasterers. It gives their work an artistic touch. Earl Barthé loves Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Fats Domino, and more. 

EB: I even play opera in my office when I’m working, and guess what I listen to, and you can guess why: Carmen. (sings) It’s the beat. It’s the plastering beat. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.