Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White

Clarinetist turned NYC journalist plays a sad old tune of the South.

Well before Hurricane Katrina hit, the New Orleans of popular imagination was long gone. By the 1960s, when young clarinetist Tom Sancton began hanging around the musicians of Preservation Hall, New Orleans jazz was already a fossil under glass (as the club name conveyed), a nostalgia exercise for tourists. But to Sancton—hungering for someone to look up to besides his embittered, domineering father, and in love with a black and Creole sound forsaken by its original audience—the old musicians at the hall were more alive than anything in this world. Songs tells the story of Sancton's years on rickety benches learning from these masters, sitting in with them at the hall and in funeral parades, traveling to their homes for lessons, soaking up their stories. Whatever its veracity, his re-created dialogue is beautifully done, capturing the regal, ornery character of men like clarinetist George Lewis and banjo player George Guesnon. Jazz has long attracted brainy whites fetishizing the primal authenticity of unschooled black men. But Sancton, a Harvard-educated former bureau chief for Time magazine, conveys these players' dignity, depth, and profanity without any patronizing nonsense. It's easy to see why they embraced him. Sancton imbibed his love of "the mens" from his father, a mercurial journalist and civil rights crusader who kissed off a high-powered New York career to write the great American novel from his humid hometown. Unfortunately, his brilliance goes unrecognized by the literary establishment and he ends up an angry Southern Gothic figure, pounding away at his Underwood in the attic to no apparent end, gulping diet pills, bouncing around between jobs, and finding a kinship among the misunderstood, disrespected old black musicians. "I wanted to admire my father, wanted him to be a hero," Sancton writes, "but what I mostly saw in him was the confused drift of a depressed and defeated man." If Sancton Sr. is the most vividly realized character in the book, Sancton himself, unfortunately, is the least. Too much of his prose is pedestrian, as if this Vanity Fair contributor were ghostwriting someone else's life story. His mother "had an amazing gift for talking to anyone on their own wavelength." Drummer Joe Watkins "was a sweet man, gentle and good-natured, and had a smile that could light up the whole room." The rote quality is most pronounced, oddly enough, when Sancton writes about his own thoughts and feelings. His are some of the least impassioned descriptions of artistic passion I've read. His book would have been elevated, like any good solo, by a more distinct personal voice.

 
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