You can fill many bookcases with New Orleans literature and authors, so consider the following list as just a jumping off point.
There are many examples of early fiction that give a good taste of old-time New Orleans life. George Washington Cable’s stories are revealing and colorful, as in Old Creole Days (1879). Perhaps the best writer to touch on the lives of the earliest Creoles is Kate Chopin, whose late-1800s works, including the revered The Awakening, are set in Louisiana.
Frances Parkinson Keyes lived on Chartres Street from 1945 to 1970. Her most famous works are Dinner at Antoine’s and Madame Castel’s Lodger, each with curious descriptions of life in the city at that time, along with excellent descriptions of food.
Ellen Gilchrist’s contemporary fiction, including the short-story collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, portrays life in wealthy uptown New Orleans. Sheila Bosworth’s wonderful tragicomedies perfectly sum up the city and its collection of characters—check out all-time favorites Almost Innocent or Slow Poison. Other possibilities are Nancy Lemann’s delightful Lives of the Saints and Michael Ondaatje’s controversial Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalized account of Buddy Bolden and the early New Orleans jazz era.
Newer favorites include Moira Crone’s sci-fi thriller The Not Yet, which sets the city in a future even stranger than the present; and Michael Zell’s challenging but satisfying thriller Errata. In the perennially popular, well-crafted series by James Lee Burke, misfit Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux keeps the bad guys running and the pages turning.
And then there is the cottage industry known as Anne Rice, who undeniably ignited the current era of pop vampire culture (bow to the master, True Blood, Twilight, and Vampire Diaries). Her now-classic Vampire Chronicles books expertly capture the city’s other-worldly, elegant essence.
Lyle Saxon’s Fabulous New Orleans is the most charming place to start learning about the city’s past. (Saxon was director of the writer’s program under the WPA.) From there, move on to his coauthored folk-tale collection, Gumbo Ya-Ya. Roark Bradford’s novel, Kingdom Coming, covers Voodoo in the Civil War era. Mark Twain visited the city often in his riverboat days, and his Life on the Mississippi has a good number of tales about New Orleans and its riverfront life. The WPA Guide to New Orleans also contains excellent social and historical background and provides a fascinating picture of the city in 1938. Beautiful Crescent, by Joan Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer, is a solid reference book on the history of New Orleans. Those who loved Gangs of New York will be pleased to learn Herbert Asbury gave the same highly entertaining, not terribly factual treatment to New Orleans in The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. New Orleans’s favorite patroness, the Baroness de Pontalba, gets the biography treatment in Christina Vella’s Intimate Enemies. In The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, Christine Wiltz reveals a bawdy bygone era, conveyed through the words of Norma Wallace. The brothel owner recorded her memoirs before her 1974 suicide.
Three newer, eminently readable histories are Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans, which focuses on the cultural influences of European, African, and Caribbean settlers; Lawrence Powell’s Accidental City, a definitive look back at the city’s scrappy evolution; and the elegantly entangled Unfathomable City, a coffee table atlas with essays by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker.
Of the many guides to Mardi Gras, Henri Schindler’s Mardi Gras New Orleans account is that of a historian and a long-term producer of balls and parades. Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History is a concise history of the celebration from ancient times to 2001, produced by Mardi Gras Guide publisher Arthur Hardy.
Lovers of the lurid will enjoy Madame LaLaurie, a well-researched biography of the notorious, high-society murderess. Sara Roahen’s charming Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table leaves readers hungering for more of her uproarious outsider’s insights, as the recent transplant to New Orleans discovers the culture through its distinctive food and drink.
Speaking of which, in The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, Rich Cohen recounts the rags-to-riches-to-revolution tale of local fruit magnate Sam Zemurray.
William Faulkner came to New Orleans, lived on Pirate’s Alley, and penned Soldiers’ Pay. Several other Faulkner novels and short stories are set in New Orleans. Tennessee Williams became a devoted New Orleans fan, living in the city on and off for many years. It inspired him to write A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the best-known New Orleans tales. He also set The Rose Tattoo in the city.
Other notable New Orleans writers include Walker Percy and Shirley Ann Grau. Percy’s novels, including The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, are classic portrayals of the idiosyncrasies of New Orleans and its residents. Grau’s most famous novel, The Keepers of the House, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. John Kennedy Toole also received a Pulitzer, but he wasn’t around to know about it, having committed suicide years before. At the time of his death, none of his works had even been published. Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a timeless New Orleans tragicomedy that’ll have you laughing out loud.
Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men, an exceedingly loose telling of the story of Huey P. Long, makes the list because it’s so good—and because it gives a portrait of the performance art known as Louisiana politics.
A further notable modern writer is Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993 for his collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, set primarily in New Orleans’s Vietnamese community.
It’s true that from great tragedy comes great art, and the following help shape an image of pre- and post-flood New Orleans. Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters is a love letter to and about the city and the number one choice for people trying to “get” New Orleans. His novel, City of Refuge, bisects Katrina through the experiences of two families. Rosemary James, of Faulkner House Books, edited My New Orleans, a collection of essays by locals ranging from writers to restaurateurs and raconteurs, attempting to pin down just what it is about this place that keeps them here, come hell or high water. Local historian Douglas Brinkley’s meticulous The Great Deluge may not end up the definitive postmortem examination of Katrina, but it will be hard to top. Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose collected his heartbreaking personal essays, written as he and his colleagues covered their flooded city, in 1 Dead in Attic, while Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sherri Fink recounts the complexities of the tragic Five Days at Memorial.
Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ gripping narrative nonfiction, recounts the tale of one man’s horror and a nation’s injustice (look up Zeitoun’s even more shocking post-publication story for a completely different perspective), while New Yorker columnist Dan Baum weaves together differing perspectives to illustrate how the multihued city unifies nine diverse narratives in Nine Lives.
Finally, fans of football and motivational memoirs may enjoy Home Team by Saints coach Sean Payton or Drew Brees’ Coming Back Stronger.
Books About Music
Ann Allen Savoy’s Cajun Music Vol. 1 is a combination songbook and oral history featuring previously un-transcribed Cajun music with lyrics in French (including a pronunciation guide) and English. A labor of many years, it’s a definitive work and invaluable resource.
For a look at specific time periods, people, and places in the history of New Orleans jazz, you have a number of choices. They include William Carter’s Preservation Hall; John Chilton’s Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz; Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development; the excellent A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz, by Samuel Charters; New Orleans Jazz: Images of America, by Edward Branley; and New Orleans Style, by Bill Russell. Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans is an excellent source of information about the very beginnings of jazz; while Up From the Cradle of Jazz tells its story post-WWII. Songs of My Fathers is Tom Sancton’s fine retelling of his boyhood at the feet of the great Preservation Hall musicians.
If you prefer primary sources, read Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, or Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong, a bio by way of his own artworks. We also suggest Sidney Bechet’s Treat It Gentle, and the story of Mac Rebennack’s (aka Dr. John) wild life as reflected in Under a Hoodoo Moon. Ben Sandmel’s exhaustively researched Ernie K-Doe: the R&B Emperor of New Orleans can’t help but be entertaining, given the subject.
Film & Television
With atmosphere and mystery to spare, all forms of water and roadways, new and old architecture, and attractive tax incentives, film and TV production is nonstop here in “Hollywood South.” The city isn’t a character in all of them, but it’s the heart of the highly authentic HBO series Tremé. If you come across the stellar, little-seen series Frank’s Place (1987–88), don’t miss it. True Blood is filmed mostly in Baton Rouge, but that’s okay, there were important scenes set in the gorgeous Marigny Opera House, among other New Orleans locations. There’s the popular NCIS New Orleans, which is filmed on location and tries to catch the city’s lightning-in-a-bottle aura. The creepy FX series American Horror Story: Coven filmed in some of the city’s oldest mansions, a notorious haunted house and a possible fountain of youth in City Park. The most affecting recent film work came from Beyoncé, in her thought- (and tweet-) provoking, long-form video Lemonade.
Consider these for some pre- or post-visit flavor: classics like Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); Betty Davis in Jezebel (1938); the kitschy but decent Elvis vehicle King Creole (1958); and counterculture Mardi Gras freak-out Easy Rider. Belizaire the Cajun (1986) tells of the violence between 19th-century Cajuns and English speakers; Tom Waits bums around the city, the countryside, and jail in the indie Down by Law (1986); and a young Brooke Shields navigates a Storyville childhood in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978). Then there’s the steamy but flawed (and locally derided) The Big Easy. Brad Pitt ages backwards in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and goes fang to fang with Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire (1994). Nic Cage just goes all Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). The Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) set its powerful magic realism in the Louisiana bayous. Lastly, for kids of any age, when Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953), they end up at Mardi Gras—an altogether different universe.
All of the late, very great Les Blank’s documentaries on Louisiana are worthy, but start with Always for Pleasure (1978). Documentaries about the Katrina experience cover every angle, notably in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke; the remarkable, Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water; the superb prize-winning Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; and Harry Shearer’s exposé The Big Uneasy.
Oh, boy. Well, the selections listed should give you a good start, though we could fill pages more (and we’re barely even touching on the many fine pop, rock, or folky contributions). Also see the names listed in the Nightlife section, and for more advice or recommendations, consult the über-helpful know-it-alls at Louisiana Music Factory.
There are many collections and anthologies of New Orleans and Louisiana music available, including the 1990s Alligator Stomp series by Rhino Records. The most comprehensive, critically acclaimed Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans is a four-disc package released in 2004 by Shout! Factory and the one collection that touches all the bases of the diverse musical gumbo that is the Crescent City. For a more modest taste, order up the Tremé, Season 1 soundtrack, which covers a bit of the same fertile, funky ground, albeit just from recent years.
A classic New Orleans jazz collection starts with the originators: King Oliver, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Jellyroll Morton, say. Add some early Louis Armstrong, with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands.
Ken Burns’ Jazz box covers them and more from New Orleans and beyond, and the anthologies New Orleans (Atlantic Jazz), Recorded in New Orleans Volumes 1 and 2 (Good Time Jazz), and New Orleans Jazz (Arhoolie) are good choices. Preservation Hall’s Preservation covers the classics; Pete Fountain, Al Hirt (try Honey in the Horn), and Louis Prima (The Wildest) all swing things in a new direction.
Leaping forward, Wynton Marsalis, Terrance Blanchard, clarinetist Tim Laughlin and Harry Connick, Jr. build on those traditions, and trumpeters Irvin Mayfield and Nicolas Payton push them forward. Terrific old-time revivalists like the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Meschiya Lake (check out Lucky Devil), the Smoking Time Jazz Band, Debbie Davies, and Aurora Nealand are well worth the cost of a disc or a download. These days (well, always) pianist Jon Cleary is killing it, as heard on his Grammy-winning Go Go Juice.
The age-old tradition of brass-oriented street bands underwent a spectacular revival in the 1980s and 1990s with the revitalization of such long-term presences as the Olympia Brass Band and the arrival of newcomers like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (try their monster anthology This Is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band). They inspired a younger and funkier generation, including Grammy winners Rebirth Brass Band, New Birth, the Hot 8, the Stooges (in residence most Thursdays at the Historic Carver Theater), up-and-comers TBC, hybridists the Brass-a-Holics, the Soul Rebels, and Soul Brass, one of best of the crowd. It’s all better live, so get ye to the clubs or try The Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf, or the loose, bumping Rock with the Hot 8. Alternately, I Am a Brass-a-Holic is not live but is irresistibly bumping.
Rhythm, Blues & Soul
First things first: Get your Fats on with My Blue Heaven or any “Best of” compilation. Then get Dr. John’s Gumbo or Mos Scocious: The Dr. John Anthology. Round out your legends collection with Professor Longhair’s [‘]Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology and fellow key wizard James Booker’s Classified: Remixed. Go down funk road with the Meters’ classic Cissy Strut and The Wild Tchoupitoulas for Mardi Gras Indian funk. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk band is keeping the funk alive, while Galactic might be funk, might be jazz, could be rock or jam—but is never uninteresting. Start with Ruckus. Trombone Shorty rocks jazz, R&B, funk, and hip hop into his own thang, turning out monster hits like the recent Say That to This. We’re true to hometown heroes the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon and Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers, 1955–1985. Songbook shows why producer/writer Allen Toussaint is a true icon. Also get some soul crooners in, like Soul Queen Irma Thomas’ Time Is on My Side and Johnny Adams’ Heart & Soul. Worthwhile anthologies include The Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues Volumes 1 and 2; Sehorn’s Soul Farm; and The Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday Showdown.
Hip Hop & Bounce
New Orleans’s distinctive hip hop and rap scene produced numerous stars and a homegrown subgenre: booty-dropping, second-line-influenced, twerk-propagating bounce. It began with Big Freedia, who must be experienced live, but Just Be Free will do. Breakout dirty Southerner Juvenile’s 400 is a classic, while hip hop star Lil Wayne’s breakout flow on Tha Carter II still holds up massively. The risqué rhymes on Mystikal’s eponymous debut broke musical ground before legal troubles sidelined his career.
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