Monday, July 27, 2009

High Lonesome New Orleans

My late friend and mentor, Neal Walker, a high lonesome, bad-ass criminal defense attorney and harmonica player, saw Bruce Springsteen with the Pete Seeger Band at Jazzfest in 2006 and reported that it was the most "musically transcendent" experience of his life, and possibly one of the best moments of his life, period.

Neal wrote my friend Ben an email about it, that Ben later shared with me:
He had nearly everybody in the crowd weeping at times with powerful spirituals and proletarian anthems like How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, dedicated to President Bystander ("We drove around Lakeview and the Ninth Ward yesterday . . . the criminal ineptitude makes you furious"). He had an 18 piece band with a six piece horn section, two fiddles, an accordion, multiple guitars, etc., and they were in the fuckin' pocket, stoppin' on dime.
Neal wrote out the lines to Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, one of the songs that Springsteen played that day:

Paul and Silas, bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The very moment we thought we was lost,
Dungeon shook and the chains fell off,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Only thing that we did wrong
Was stayin' in the wilderness so long,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Only thing that we did right
Was the day we begun to fight!
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

I recently went back and tracked down a You Tube clip of the Springsteen singing How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live that day at Jazzfest:

Neal had remembered all of the commentary, like he was working from a transcript on one of the scores of appeals that he wrote for locked up men and women here in Louisiana or up in Kentucky. I have spent some time wishing that I had been there, wishing that I had gone to the Fairgrounds that day, run into Neal, and watched the Boss with my old boss. But now I think that's its better to see it through his eyes, to have Neal's unclouded experience instead, an experience of a hard but well lived life, of working in the trenches on some of the most frightening cases of crime and injustice in America, of humble origins in Appalachia, of playing music that springs from this experience. His life was an American folk song, classic American blues. He was Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, a poor man who couldn't stand these times and live.

I tried to say some things at Neal's memorial, ending up talking about another song, Little Froggy:

Neal was part of the American musical and storytelling tradition that this song came from, a tradition called “high lonesome” by the folk musician John Cohen when he went down and recorded Roscoe Holcomb in Daisy, Kentucky in 1961, when Neal was eight. As I understand it, and I am sure that Neal could do a better job explaining, high lonesome is a blues that’s battered and sad but still innocent, like that of a hurt child. But the high lonesome singer or story teller, in fact, is wise on the blues and unsurprised at the pain of the world. He knows and possesses these blues. They don’t possess him.

In some ways, I think that this high lonesome tradition brings the different parts of Neal, the musician, the amazing lawyer together. Neal was a storyteller wherever he was, the Supreme Court, Winn Parish Courthouse, on stage with his harmonica. He used these skills to fight two of the darkest black eyes of American democracy, the death penalty and the woeful treatment of human beings following Hurricane Katrina, and he used these skills to play songs and tell stories that made our lives richer.

Like many of the songs that Neal liked, Little Froggy didn’t end happily, because as Neal knew, life is sweet, though hard:

Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook, Uh-huh,
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook.
A lily-white duck come and swallowed him up, Uh-huh.

A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf, Uh-huh,
A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf.
If you want anymore, you can sing it yourself, Uh-huh.


Almost four years after Katrina, more than two years after Neal's death, with things still a mess in this city, it's instructive to remember what these songs are telling us - life is sweet and hard, be ready for both, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.


  1. We saw Bruce last year in Orlando. He has amazing energy, I guess because he loves what he does--just like you.

  2. This is such a soulful piece of writing it brought tears to my eyes.

    My Grandpap used to sing "Little Froggy" to me when I was a small child of 4 or 5 years. I wish I could find a recording of it. Let me know if you ever run across one.

  3. Thanks for the posts Janice, Irene, and Charlotte.

    Aunt Irene, I wish I could have been there with you and Uncle Doug. You'll just have to come for Jazzfest some day. We can go back to Angelo Brocato's.

    And Charlotte, that's sweet that your grandpa used to sing that to you. My friend Richard sings it to his daughters now. I hope to sing it to my daughter someday. I suspect that Nikki has your email address and I asked her to forward the terrific Bob Dylan version we have to you.