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American Routes Shortcuts: John Boutté

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John Boutté

This is American Routes, about to go into the studio with Creole jazz and soul singer John Boutté. You may know him for singing his theme for the TV series Tremé. John comes from an African, French, Spanish, Native, and Irish family background that begins in the mid-18th century New Orleans. His immediate family numbered ten kids; singing was a household and street corner pastime. John counts the influence of jazz elders, like Paul Barbarin, Louis “Big Eye” Nelson, and Danny Barker, as well as New Orleans piano and vocal heroes like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and James Booker. The quality of his voice has been recognized by Stevie Wonder. He's been paired in shows with Lou Rawls and Herbie Hancock. A New Orleans vocal icon who was raised in a storied, musical neighborhood. I asked John about it.

Nick Spitzer: I know you grew up in the Tremé and New Orleans, you know, Gentilly, and out across Claiborne Avenue, but tell us a little about your involvement with the TV show, Tremé, and how you felt about doing television, both as yourself and in a fictional world of a show?

John Boutté: That was a special moment, Nick, because I had been on the road a whole lot. When I got home, I was just, kind of like, I was so over it. I was washing dishes, looking out of the window, you know, in the yard saying, "Man, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give," you know, "What am I doing?" And the phone rings, and I get this guy with a British accent, and he says, "Hi, I'm Blake Leyh, and, you know, I'm with HBO, and I'd like to, basically I want to buy that song and put it in the series." And I hung up on him, because I thought it was of my friends just being–

NS: Your friends probably don't do British accents that well.

JB: Right, but that song I wrote–back in 1993, I was living on, uh, in the Tremé. It was St. Claude Street, and I was–Henriette Delille. I wrote that tune right there on the porch one morning because I heard a brass band coming, playing a dirge coming out of the church, and the bass drum woke me up with the boom. And I was fixing my coffee, and by the time I got outside, and they cut the body loose, they cut the body loose right in front of my house. That means they stopped playing the slow music, and they released the body, and the band started playing faster music, you know, upbeat. And I just ran inside and did a silly little clave, and you know, two chord, three chord tune right, and the lyrics though, for me were important. And, you know, I started off, “Hangin’ in the Tremé, watching people sashay, past my steps by my porch in front of my door,” and when you’re writing songs you want a visual thing. I wasn't thinking that, but I was seeing that, and that's what I wrote.

NS: Yeah.

JB: And I think also by saying "Hanging in the Tremé," and it invokes the idea of somebody being lynched. So there I had death. And then “Watching people sashay” was the voyeurism, if that's a word, right? So that's the sex. So, in the opening line you had sex and death. The two things that people are born and go to their graves never figuring out.

NS: Well, the show did make the song famous.

JB: It did, and not only that, when they first were playing Tremé on HBO, and they were having watch parties everywhere in the city, I couldn't go, because I would just, I’d fall apart every time it came on.

NS: Yeah.

JB: You know? It did put attention on the Tremé, man. For how many years? And nobody ever evoked the Tremé in songs.

NS: Despite all of its power in music and in culture-

JB: Everything, man! People talked–and you know another thing that Blake told me, one of the reasons why he took it, was that I never said, "New Orleans." I never said anything about the French Quarter or all the iconic stuff. But yet, when you listen to that song and the lyrics, you know just where you're gonna be.

NS: That's right. And well it makes the Tremé iconic too, which it deserved to be.

JB: So here you go y'all:

[music]

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