Few cities have the kind of rich musical heritage that New Orleans does, its unique blend of Southern and creole culture producing sounds unlike those just one state over. From jazz to blues, soul to zydeco, New Orleans is one of a kind, and these 15 songs deserve a spot on any playlist of Big Easy essentials.
Traditional – “St. James Infirmary Blues”
Traced back to its origins in England in the 18th Century, “St. James Infirmary Blues” was inspired by centuries-old folk song “The Unfortunate Rake,” about a soldier who dies of venereal disease. But it became a standard of New Orleans jazz in the 1920s, once Louis Armstrong put his own signature spin on it. In the more commonly known 20th Century version of the song, the lyrics tell a narrative of a man looking down at the body of his dead lover, and later lays out the instructions for his own flashy funeral. And the sound of the song, pulling elements from Latin American tango, even sounds like a funeral dirge. It’s been performed and recorded countless times in the fashion of Armstrong’s own version, and with good reason: 85 years later, it’s still a stunner.
Professor Longhair – “Go To The Mardi Gras”
Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, is one of New Orleans’ most revered musicians, his boisterous R&B hybrid – melding elements of Caribbean and ragtime – influencing the likes of fellow Orleanians Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. That pure creole essence is filtered into the brief two minutes and 46 seconds of “Go To The Mardi Gras,” which is a vibrant French Quarter parade in compact form.
Dr. John – “Sweet Home New Orleans”
Sometimes known as “The Night Tripper,” Dr. John has become an emblem of the diverse musical gumbo that’s been simmering in New Orleans over the past century. Inspired by the likes of home-grown hero Professor Longhair, while mixing in his own blend of musical spices, Dr. John has a jazzy R&B sound all his own. “Sweet Home New Orleans,” which closes his 1998 album Anutha Zone, encapsulates all of his strengths, and for that matter, an entire century of musical history, from jazz to R&B, and even a hearty dose of Afro-Cuban music. It’s as soulful and vibrant a tribute to the city as you’re likely to hear.
Steve Earle – “This City”
The closing track on Steve Earle’s 2011 album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive was written and recorded for the HBO series Treme, which is set in a post-Katrina New Orleans. And it’s the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina that hang heavy over the ballad, as Earle sings, “This city won’t wash away/ This city won’t ever drown.” It’s laced with sadness, but the predominant feeling that comes through in the song is hope, made more beautiful by the horns, arranged by Allen Toussaint, which arrive like a rainbow through gray skies.
Lucinda Williams – “Crescent City”
Louisiana-born troubadour Lucinda Williams’ tribute to New Orleans on her 1988 self-titled album is a richly touching one, not to mention one that’s overflowing with references to the places and sounds of the “Crescent City.” Its arrangement is steeped in zydeco and Cajun tradition, featuring a heavy dose of fiddle and accordion, and name checks landmarks like Lake Pontchartrain. Williams even drops a pair of phrases in French – “tout le ton son temps” (“every now and then”) and “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”). Her pronunciation might be a little off, but the sentiment is inescapable.
The Animals, Bob Dylan, et al. – “House Of The Rising Sun”
A song with origins similar to those of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “House Of The Rising Sun” comes out of the English folk tradition, and has been recorded by innumerable artists. The UK’s The Animals made it a hit, however, and their version squarely places the infamous House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans. An eerie waltz that grows ever more intense and desperate as it progresses, the song is most likely about a prostitute, though some interpretations suggest the narrator is a prisoner or slave. Still, theories abound about the real-life location of the house, some of which include a dancehall in Carrolton, a French Quarter hotel, and a brothel run by madam Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose name translates to “the rising sun.”
Tom Waits – “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”
A string-laden ballad from 1976’s Small Change, “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” pre-dates Tom Waits’ transition toward the Weill- and Beefheart-inspired auteur we know today, and as such is a fairly straightforward ballad. But it’s a good one – a gentle, sentimental wish to be liquored up in a friendly, familiar place. Waits takes the listener on a tour of the city, across Claiborne Avenue and Burgundy Street, where he can “hear the band begin ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’” It’s enough to make you wish you were right there with him.