“Won’t you come along with me
To the Mississippi,”
So begins the iconic verse of the iconic, “Basin Street Blues.”
“We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams
Steam down the river, down to New Orleans.”
Sometimes it’s hard to separate the dreamer from the dream. No one considers New Orleans “the land of dreams” more than natives of the Crescent City.
“The band’s there to meet us
Old friends to greet us
Where all the light and the dark folks meet
Heaven on earth, they call it Basin Street.”
The tune Basin Street Blues was written by the New Orleanian, African-American pianist Spencer Williams, but the lyrics were added more than a decade later. The words came from two trombonists, Glenn Miller, a conservative white swing band leader from Iowa, and Jack Teagarden, a hard-drinking Texan, always reputed to have some “Indian blood,” whose collaborations with Louis Armstrong exemplify a central truth of jazz – race can matter, but it doesn’t have to.
In a way, that’s the message of the lyrics, “Heaven on Earth.” Basin Street is the place in New Orleans where “the light and the dark folks meet.” Which exemplifies another complicated truth; Life can be heavenly, but it doesn’t have to be. In reality, inter-racial meetings on Basin Street back in the day tended to be about paid sex.
The 300 years of history presently occupied by the city of New Orleans, particularly its history of relations among lighter and darker folk, is full of heavenly virtue and hellish cruelty – sometimes ironically, sometimes harmoniously – linked to music and always haunted by the passageway to Heaven and Hell, Death. Perfectly understandable, isn’t it, that city mostly below sea level surrounded by a river prone to floods and an atmosphere rich in hurricanes that Death should be such a defining presence.
Jason Berry is an American investigative reporter based in New Orleans, an author and film director. His latest book is City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. It is published by University of North Carolina Press.
Jason attended Jesuit High School in New Orleans, graduating in 1966. He is known for pioneering investigative reporting on sexual abuse in the priesthood of the Catholic Church.
His book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children (1992) was the first major book on this issue. His 2004 book Vows of Silence deals with the sexual abuse of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, and the cover-up of that abuse. The author also adapted Vows of Silence into a film.
His latest book is Render Unto Rome The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. And City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300 will be published this fall.
Berry has been frequently interviewed in national media in the United States, has worked as a consultant for ABC News, and contributed to the National Public Radio and is a speaker on sexual abuse issues and popular culture.
He has also written books on popular music.
Berry won his first Catholic Press Association Award in 1986 for his original coverage in the National Catholic Reporter of the clergy sexual-abuse scandals in Louisiana. He was awarded his second in 1993 for the publication of Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Berry is a graduate of Georgetown University and a recipient of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship for his reportage of David Duke. He and his wife live in New Orleans.