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The Long Black Line ---------------

The Long Black Line ---------------

To Spencer Bohren Fans Everywhere:

Greetings from beleaguered, broken, but unbowed and still beautiful New Orleans. The past year has been trying and difficult in ways I could never have envisioned, and the drama is far from over. Progress is being made, though, however slowly, and good things will continue to emerge in the aftermath of last summer’s apocalyptic storm. Many musicians and artists are experiencing a powerful creative surge these days. A couple months ago, my Muse whispered verse after verse in my ear, filling my mind’s eye with pictures of pre and post-storm New Orleans, and hanging them all on the image of the high-water mark that poisonous floodwaters left all over our beloved city when the levees failed. I premiered the song, titled, ‘THE LONG BLACK LINE,’ for approximately a thousand people in the middle of my set at the storied New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last month, and an incredible thing happened…

Before the final notes of my lapsteel guitar drifted away, the entire audience had risen to its feet, openly weeping! The song’s multiple references to the issues and questions every New Orleanian presently faces obviously hit home in a big way with the people who chose to join me at the Lagniappe Stage that day. Since that afternoon, my mailbox has been filled with requests for the song, and I am pleased to be able to offer it, free of charge, to anyone who wants to hear it.

This recording of ‘THE LONG BLACK LINE’ is an advance copy, part of an album of the same name, that was recorded in Germany in April. For some, it will serve as a reminder of what we’ve been through. For those who do not live in New Orleans, and cannot possibly understand our trials, it will hopefully provide a glimpse of the tribulations our battered city still faces. In any event, this song belongs to the people of New Orleans, and I encourage all of you to download it, listen to it, and share it generously.

Thank you all for your support over the decades. Hope to see you at the gig someday soon.

Warm Regards,

Marilyn Bohren

How's The Chevy

How's The Chevy

“I heard about the hurricane… HOW’S THE CHEVY?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these words in the past few months. The next line is usually a slightly embarrassed, “Oh, and your kids… how’re your kids… and your wife?”

The Chevy in question is, of course, the Bohren Family’s legendary red & white ’55 Chevy Bel-Air. The one with all the chrome. The one that towed an Airstream trailer full of guitars and children all over the country through the ’80s and into the ’90s. The one that’s approaching 900,000 miles on the odometer. Yes, she’s a mythical beast, and to be truthful, she’s in trouble.

A couple of years ago our Chevy was involved in a hit and run accident, and I foolishly thought I could parlay the insurance money into a minimal restoration of the whole body.

I failed.

Along the way, however, I met a wonderful guy, a mechanic and auto body man named Tevis DeLaundro, who took the Chevy to his shop in New Orleans East, almost as a mission of mercy. I gave him the remaining insurance money for starters, and over time sold a few treasured instruments and amps to keep the project moving. The last time I saw the Chevy, she was runnin’ good and stopping well (which is significant for any fifties car). She had new upholstery on the seats and door panels, and all the chrome and windows had been removed. Tevis had the body as smooth as glass, primered, and ready for paint. That was August 25th.

On the morning of August 29th, Hurricane Katrina visited New Orleans and left in her wake a disaster of biblical proportions. New Orleans East was one of the hardest-hit areas, and we naturally assumed that the Chevy was lost. And make no mistake, the Chevy has indeed sustained considerable water damage. Tevis, however, once I finally managed to track him down, refused to let it go. His family’s house had ten feet of water in it for two weeks; his wife and kids are evacuated indefinitely to Jackson, Mississippi; most of his tools, equipment and office are ruined; his shop is seriously damaged, and still, he refused to let the Chevy go.

When I said, “My house is ruined and I have no money to spend on the Chevy,” he replied, “You already paid me.”

I said, “That was before the hurricane added all this water and mud into the equation.” He countered, “But I made a promise.”

I said, “I’m letting you off the hook.” He got frustrated and replied, “That car can be fixed!”

Tevis told me he had a vision. “I see that shiny red & white 1955 Bel Air driving out of the muddy ruins of New Orleans East,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes, and I couldn’t help but think of the mighty Phoenix rising from the ashes, or Pegasus unfolding his powerful wings. And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop him.

Now it’s going on three years since Hurricane Katrina brought her winds and the levees failed, flooding 80% of the city. Tevis is still living in Mississippi and comes to New Orleans only occasionally. The Chevy has had to take a back seat to our home repairs, and Tevis is occupied with sorting out the next chapter of his own life. We have a feeling that the restoration project is very likely out of our reach. In any event, there are many decisions to be considered. We promise to keep you posted on any new developments.

Stay tuned . . . And thanks for your support.

Spencer Bohren

Visiting New Orleans

Visiting New Orleans

Back and forth, St. Louis to New Orleans, and back again. It’s a whole day drive of 700 miles each way, but we skim along the highway, using the time to plan and scheme our personal recovery from Hurricane Katrina. In the month of October alone, I made three trips back to back: once alone, once with Tucker, and once with Spencer. Each time the highway seemed a little bit shorter. Perhaps it was due to increasing familiarity, or perhaps it was the incendiary display of autumn leaves Mother Nature was painting.

Our recent mail has asked for an update of our personal state of affairs. We are glad to oblige, but it is just as important to place our story in the context of the most astonishing natural disaster and its ramifications ever to hit America. Each trip back shows more healing and recovery for all of us; however, it is far and away from the city we have loved since our first trip there in 1975. Let me give you some “snapshots” from various parts of town. These are observations from October 25 through 28, bookended by a day of driving in each direction, first south and then north again up the Mississippi River.

Driving into town in the dark of night, I considered the various ways I could take Spencer, who had not been to New Orleans since our first visit pre-Rita in mid-September. With each of my three successive trips, the skyline of New Orleans showed more and more illumination, although it still was a shadow of its former glow. Metairie seems pretty normal from its I-10 view at night, so we got off at the very end of this suburb and took Veterans Boulevard east, over the 17th Street Canal, into pitch darkness where city street lights normally show the way. No one was on the streets. We opened our car windows to fully experience the eerie stillness, when we were assaulted by a smell of decay and a mountainous shadow on our left. Rising 40 feet high for several city blocks of green space loomed the skeletal remains of trees that had once graced our streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Block after block, mountain after mountain. One large heap had been turned to wood chips. Perched on another mountain were two vehicles, hard at work, processing the debris. Spencer was duly impressed.

As we drove towards City Park, darkness continued to envelope us, even though Hurricane Katrina had visited almost two months ago. We drove down Marconi on the side of City Park, and campfires came into view, surrounded by tents and trailers. Parked for blocks in the neutral ground were hauling trucks of every size, shape, and description. Parallel to the trucks are the campsites of the truckers, as they are mostly from outside of the area. Those drivers who are from New Orleans likely have damaged homes. I was reminded of the camps of Okies in The Grapes of Wrath and the WWI soldiers in their Hoovervilles. A subculture of New Orleans was brewing on the fringes of City Park.

That night we slept in our house, which was hospitable enough but devoid of such amenities as electricity or gas. Since Tucker and I had already stripped and curbed the kitchen a few days earlier, Spencer and I drove to the French Quarter in the morning for a quick breakfast before getting to work. The only thing out of place seemed to be the extreme cleanliness of the Quarter. With limited tourists and transients, the Quarter is not as overtaxed and feels fresher than usual. Many of the curbed refrigerators I had seen the week before had been picked up. In a move typical of the city, the fridges have become signboards around town, advertising plumbers, stating opinions about Tom Benson, cheering on Mayor Nagin, and requesting delivery to Washington, D.C. My favorite refrigerator signage scolded, “I sleep alone. Thanks curfew!” Another interesting group of signage is the big X spray painted on all homes that were checked by the National Guard as they searched for survivors following the storms. Each of the four spaces in the X carries notation in a specific spot: identification of the search team, date, people found, and pets found. Some of the cryptic messages are sad, indicating whether the occupants were alive. One of the pet blocks stated, “One chicken rescued.” Houses like ours that were obviously boarded up did not receive the Guard graffiti unless a search was requested.

We could have immediately returned to our house after breakfast, but I felt that Spencer needed to see some neighborhoods to get a feeling for the context of our decisions. Tucker and I had done this the week before in an unforgettable tour of places that will be many years recovering, as well as some spots well on their way. Everywhere Spencer and I went, the floodwater has receded. What becomes apparent is the flood lines on the buildings, indicating just how high the water rose. Two feet, three feet, six feet, eight feet. The lines rise along the length of a block, pick up across the street, and then they rise even higher. Some houses have several parallel lines, indicating how the water drained some, hesitated, and then drained some more, before hesitating again. Places that have always seemed equal in elevation now show an apparent grade. We noticed how the neutral grounds are higher than the homes, how the homes rise or sink down into their lots, compared to the streets. Before a storm, people often park their cars in the neutral ground (median strip to those of you outside of New Orleans). On Carrollton Avenue blocks filled with cars parked on the neutral ground were totally inundated by the floodwaters. A gray/brown film coats everything that the waters touched, the color coming from the detritus of the lake, as well as whatever it swirled into on its way into the city: fluids from invaded garages, storm leavings from the hurricane, bits of the chemicals we keep under our sinks, the fluids from the cars, rust from yard tools stored under the piers of raised houses. It became a silt-like sludge that coated everything. We were fortunate to have only one centimeter of this material in our kitchen, Tucker’s room, back bath, and the patio. On some street corners, carpets of hardened sludge-mud cracks into stepping stones. Many homeowners remove it by the shovelful from the first-floor of their dwellings. These are the neighborhoods that brought us to tears. While the fallen trees have been removed and the streets are accessible to cars, the homes are quietly devastated. Unlike our neighborhood, which has a quiet hum of repair going on, the homes of middle class citizens a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain create a ghost town. Water lines are up to the eaves of the roofs, doors and windows are open to facilitate aeration, the whole scene is covered in that gray/brown coating. No one is there. Period. Block after block after block. These are the homes of working people like ourselves. Several of Tucker’s friends live in this area. It is quietly devastated and deserted. We wonder if those houses are salvageable. We did not venture into the lower ninth ward, where the houses were crushed by the water and moved off of their foundations. We really didn’t need to. Emotionally, it was impossible.

For the next two and a half days, we continued gutting our home down to the wall studs. In the process we found evidence of all kinds of animal life: mice, bugs, lizards. With each successive trip to the curb, the house breathed and sighed, its moldering halitosis lessening by the hour. An electrician and plumber came by to give us estimates for the repair, which has been deemed pretty complete because of the floodwaters reaching the workings beneath the piered section of the house. A work crew from down the street came by to look through our discarded belongings, willing and able to try to resurrect a couple of drowned appliances. Overall, though, our pile grew and grew in all three dimensions. Soon it overtook half of the yard next door, crept nearly to our front porch steps, and climbed to ten feet! At the same time, Mr. J across the street had sustained flooding AND extensive roof damage to his own home and his apartment building next door. He had hired a crew to gut both buildings. Their pile was a consistent ten feet high across both lots. Spencer had made friends with the workers there, and they began a friendly rivalry for the biggest heap. In the end, our friend Sam came by with a group of buddies. A couple of them took out Spencer’s workbench, with its water-curled cabinet doors, and they heaved that waterlogged and watersogged bench onto the top of our pile. Spencer crowned his mountain with a Mardi Gras staff made of an eight-foot ginger lily stalk wound with Mardi Gras beads. Mount Marilyn won!

Any story of New Orleans is not complete without mention of food and music. In her current state, New Orleans does not offer either on that all-night basis for which she is known. We were fortunate one night, though, to try Angeli’s on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Angeli’s is a sandwich stop and bar where we have eaten on Mardi Gras’ past. A crowd spilled from the doorway this particular night, sharing hurricane stories and enjoying the mellow air. We sat at the bar, with Casablanca showing on the wall opposite, no volume. A small group played standards from the 1930s to 1950s: a trumpet player sitting front and center a la Preservation Hall, a guitarist, violinist, and bassist. Each was quite a character, as evidenced by the musical improvisation. With the quiet jazz, the selection of blue collar and faded hippie clientele, the volume-less movie showing on the wall, and subdued lighting, an ambiance unlike any I have experienced pervaded Angeli’s at that moment on that night. People ate informally, flirted, and discussed the resurrection of their blocks. The bartender honked a few notes on a harmonica he took from his pocket and then teasingly commented on how they never invited him to play. At one point, a most unlikely character joined the musicians to sing “Sunny Side of the Street.” With his welder’s hat and his pants belted below his belly, we weren’t sure what to expect, but this fellow sank into the song, gesturing with his arms and ending on one knee as if he was on a Broadway stage. The house erupted in applause. This night touched me deeply, pulling me back through time, to what I imagine the French Quarter and Brasai’s Paris felt like seventy years ago.

Ah! New Orleans. Make no mistake, progress is being made. Many of us have gutted our houses on faith that the flood insurance will provide enough capital to rebuild. There really is no choice when the alternative is allowing the building to continue moldering and mildewing. Many people have not returned for the same reason it was so difficult to leave: lack of cash and transportation. Others have lost jobs or personal businesses. Many have children who have no school to go to yet. Tucker’s school is one of only a handful that will begin classes in January. They have had to become a charter school to avoid the pitfalls of a broken public school system. The city lacks revenue because of drops in spending and the attendant taxes. We are all learning more about the infrastructure of a city than the layman expects to know. Our gardens remain polluted, with bits of greenery starting to show through. Electric and gas service, while improving, are still spotty. Everyone has a story. Unprecedented random acts of kindness power the recovery as neighbors share warm showers, clean beds, and rides. For the tourists strolling Bourbon Street, hurricane drinks in hand, New Orleans is just like it always has been. That is because most tourists don’t venture past the Quarter, where tent cities abound, streetlights remain haphazard, garbage pickup is finally coming once a week, and charities still provide lunches, immunizations, and counseling.

The task is monumental. Repairing our home is a daunting job. But we have a secret weapon: the love and good wishes of all of you, our friends. It is what urges us forward. And in fact, the positive energy sent to New Orleans, where so many people have enjoyed themselves and discovered new parts of themselves, is sustaining us in our recovery. Please keep us in your thoughts.

Marilyn Bohren
October 2005

Escape from NOLA

Escape from NOLA

Dear Ones,

With her counterclockwise swirling motion, Hurricane Katrina has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. New Orleaneans are blown across the landscape of America, radiating out from the center of the storm, and leaving a void that is currently filled with the Gulf-swollen Lake Pontchartrain. The city’s population has been replaced by the leavings of a frantic society: fallen trees, roof shingles splayed by high winds, household items too cumbersome to carry, the litter of discarded looting, gun shells, garbage, sewage, sorrows too innumerable to list. It’s a sorry situation, yet as a member of the displaced persons of a once-magical city, I remain deeply moved by the yearnings of all I meet, as they earnestly ask what they can do to help us.

Spencer, Tucker, and I had been keeping an eye on Hurricane Katrina’s progress through the Gulf of Mexico, as she bore down on us in New Orleans. We prepared for possible options: water, and canned food in case we stayed; full gas tank, car food, inventories of possessions we could not live without in case we left. There was boarding and taping up windows, yard cleanup, and laundry for either event. By Saturday night we were still weighing the options, but we felt we could go either way. Sunday morning we knew we had to leave. By 10:30 a.m. we were in our PT Cruiser, driving down Highway 90 toward Mississippi, having spun a blessing around our little shotgun house to keep it safe and dry.

The roads opened before us, with very little congestion. As we were led onto I 59, we became one of four lanes of traffic leaving the area as both sides of the highway sped in a single direction north. As the traffic slowed, we exited onto secondary roads and eventually found ourselves in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on the Natchez Trace to the northeast of Jackson. The spot was secure, although the storm was making its way towards us. In the morning we traveled west through Mississippi and into Arkansas, before it became clear that we needed to stop this frenetic flight. Occasionally we tuned into a radio show that updated us on the progress of the storm, which was thankfully sidestepping the center of New Orleans but devastating our neighbors on the coast. We paused in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a delightful town of bathing and spa renown from the 1920’s and 1930’s. And there we spent two nights, walking up the mountain trails, taking to the waters, and playing Pirate’s Cove for distraction. And talking, talking, dreaming, weighing our current options, and talking some more. During this time the lake levees gave way in New Orleans, and we tuned in, with horror, to the inattention our national government paid to the plight of the people who live lives so different from our own and who so populate New Orleans. These are the people who rely on minimum wage jobs to support their families and don’t have personal transportation or the people who are medically compromised. Many had fled to the Superdome, but even more had tried to tough it out through the storm in their homes. Unlike us, they did not have the option to pack up their car with a few precious, indispensable items and drive to another state. And how these people suffered over the next few days! We realized our home may be filling with water, but we found our hearts pulled even more to the condition of these people.

As we regrouped in Hot Springs, we decided to turn towards the next gig in St. Louis and found refuge with our friends, the Vlastos family. They welcomed us warmly, fed us and entertained us with four children’s antics, and allowed us – encouraged us – to talk about the high drama of our lives. When we checked our email, there were 80 loving, concerned messages from friends and relations around the world, all hoping we were well and offering help in many forms. It was heartwarming to feel such concern from all of you. The messages have doubled and continue to rise, as Django also fields calls from people who want to be in touch. Over the next couple of days we were offered a lovely house in St. Louis to use until the crisis in New Orleans passes, and Tucker has been taken in by a high school just a couple of blocks away. When we were visiting our new home just yesterday, several neighbors came by to offer more help, and we realized that we are their connection to the tragedy in New Orleans. They want to help at any level they can, and we personify the people who have lost all earthly possessions and must begin anew. And while we do not know for sure the damage we have personally sustained (although I’m sure it is substantial) and we are fortunate to have each other alive and well, we are quite aware that the next year will bring unanticipated challenges and unprecedented decisions. Throughout this ordeal, we realize that we must identify how people can help. This is what we came up with.

1. Donate to your American Red Cross, (800) 435.7669, or the Archdiocese of New Orleans, through Catholic Charities, (703) 549.1390, or any other of a number of charities who have their people on the ground, daily making a difference. If you prefer to be more specific, we can help distribute your contributions to musicians we know and friends in need via email. [ visit contact page ]

2. If you have an extra house or apartment, please consider offering it to a displaced family from New Orleans or the Gulf Coast. has a network established, and the previously mentioned charities can very likely help. Once again, we may be able to connect you with our friends and neighbors in need via my website. If you happen to be a friend or neighbor in need, please touch base with us. Maybe we can help.

3. Please remember Hurricane Katrina next time you vote. A nation as great as ours deserves sharp, sensitive leaders attuned to the needs of EVERY American, and every American deserves the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits a well-run democracy can provide.

4. Our first priority is to stabilize the calendar so we can continue to make a living. More than ever, if you can offer gig opportunities – concerts, art shows, blues lectures in university or school settings, and/or concert tours – please get in touch. Hurricane Katrina has drastically altered my schedule, and I need to get some work generated NOW.

5. Please check back with us and others you know when we are finally allowed to return home to New Orleans, for we will certainly need your energy and support as we attempt to restore our homes and lives.

You know that the Bohrens have a knack for travel and living on the road. We were feeling the rhythm of the road by the time we got to Arkansas, and it was like meeting an old friend. Out here we can manage. Faced with the reconstruction of a city whose physical needs have been ignored through ignorant coastal mismanagement and the redirecting of funds that could have made the aging levee system safer, we will have a much more difficult time embracing the return home.

May peace and love fill all of our hearts.

Marilyn Bohren
St. Louis