Songs from the Big Easy, Recorded by Top Musicians Across Generations
“We created rock and roll. We created swing,” says Terence Higgins, the veteran drummer of Louisiana’s legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band, in the new documentary Take Me to the River: New Orleans. (Beginning April 22, it will play at select theaters around the country.) Directed by Martin Shore, it captures accomplished musicians—all from within a 100-mile radius of the city—as they record an album of the same title. The film follows Shore’s 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, created using a similar concept and centered on artists from Memphis, Tennessee; this time, the focus is on the Big Easy, and on unpacking the city’s rich musical heritage, legacy, and global influence.
New Orleans and Memphis are the respective southern and northern capitals of the lower Mississippi River region, which arguably has no equal when it comes to producing timeless, imaginative songs. In Louisiana, musical traditions from Cuba, South America, Africa, Europe, Canada, and the United States blended together over generations, forming ever-changing, sui generis sounds. Americans, the film suggests, are the conservators of this distinct sonic heritage, which can’t be taken for granted—particularly in the aftermath of New Orleans’s turbulent recent history, including the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a disappearing coastline due to the climate crisis.
Watching the film is akin to being a fly on the wall of the recording studio during the making of the Take Me to the River: New Orleans album, whose tracks pair legendary musicians with up-and-coming groups and artists including Jon Batiste, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Ani DiFranco, Donald Harrison, The Meters, Christian Scott, and the Rebirth Brass Band. Throughout each recording session, interviews with musicians tell the story of how New Orleans music came to be. The collaboration required for each track seems to come naturally for them, and the general ease with which it’s carried out indicates that such teamwork—across nationalities, generations, and genders—has long been a defining part of New Orleans sounds.
If the two-hour documentary leaves you wanting more, additional footage can be found on Take Me to the River’s YouTube channel. There, behind-the-scenes footage, film clips, and a live performance series regularly populate the page. In one recent video, an excerpt from the New Orleans film, R&B, and jazz recording artist Ledisi, along with guitarist, musician and producer Eric Krasno and The Meters’s bassist and singer George Porter Jr., record the song “Knockin’.” “NOLA folk, there’s something in our water down here,” Ledisi says. “How we move on a rhythm, how we dance on a phrase, or how we wait for a bass to come in, or a drum hit: everybody’s in tune with each other. To me, I call it a wiggle—and there’s one wiggle that we all do that’s just from here.”