Though I remember this mostly from photographs, I think I first picked up a pair of church handbells in kindergarten, of tones, I think, in B flat and C. I remember I liked these bells because they weren’t the teeny tiny tinny ones, and they weren’t the super-heavy ones that the boys had to play, or the ones the girls had to hurl up with their whole bodies. They also got played a lot, so I never got bored standing there following the bars and wondering when I’d be able to chime in with my ring. I remember playing my small two-belled parts in some of my favorite Biblical hymns, sometimes even accompanying my mom’s 120-voice choir, sitting underneath the tiered seats, banging out those bells in a forte that was probably a little too strong.
In seventh grade, I begged my mom, a lifelong musician herself, to buy me a flute, and I joined the school band. I took lessons at a local music school. Unlike a lot of my peers at school, I loved practicing scales–the repetition of it, the predictable nature of it, the full-bodied, high-pitched trills that happened, magically, when I reached those high octaves and didn’t squeak.
I sang, too, ever since I knew how to put words together and string them into complete thoughts. I sang throughout school, in the car, in the shower, to my favorite CDS (and then my favorite .mp3s, and then my favorite Pandora streams). And I lived my teenage years through music, as many of us do, faithfully attending every single Incubus concert I could afford in the Southeast (truth be told, I probably went to a LOT more Incubus concerts than my meager hostess salary afforded me, but alas, I digress). I attended a million punk and ska concerts with my best friend Rachel, and we followed bands around like we did trendy shoes, buying them up, wearing them for a while, and then flitting on to the next big thing. And then we went to college, where Rachel would study music business at a tiny Christian school in Nashville, the land of country music and mandolins, and I would study Comparative Literature in Athens, Georgia, where more Southern rock bands call home than anywhere else in the country. (my nostalgia recalls many a Widespread Panic and Phish concert in those tree-lined Southern streets and in the historic walls of the Georgia Theater).
Something weird, happened, though, between those high school and college years. I put down instruments and I stopped singing.
Like many kids, it started around 10th grade, when, suddenly, it was no longer cool to tote a metal flute case down the hallway. I still wanted to play music, I desperately did, but I didn’t want the rest of the halls of my high school to know, because, unlike the rest of those band nerds, I was too cool for that (how many of us have said that before, am I right?). In an attempt to be both clandestine but still respectful to my instrument, I would stuff my flute case into my backpack, the tips of the oblong-sized case pressing up uncomfortably against the seams of the top and bottom of my already-packed backpack, and I would teeter down the hall, books in my arms instead. By the end of high school, I was second chair, meaning that I had solos in concerts, sat in the front row, and dressed up for the concerts.
And then, well, college came around and I tried to pick up the guitar instead. I was in Athens, after all; a place where the guitar is about as common a pastime as breathing. But my fingers also chapped, I could never pluck the strings fast enough, and I couldn’t catch up to friends of mine who’d been playing for years. There were banjos, mandolins, guitars, lutes, ukuleles….and lots of talented players behind their strings.
Sometime between then and now, I’d become an observer. Someone who watched, wistfully, from afar, who listened to music but didn’t participate in it. I’ve missed my music–I even see my acoustic guitar in the closet here, beside me, as I write this, and I think mournfully about all the songs that never got played.
Two weeks ago, I went to New Orleans with Ryan to attend a wedding, and these thoughts have lingered with me stronger than ever since I’ve been back. I knew New Orleans had a magnificent music scene (I wrote about it for Perceptive Travel, actually), and I knew, from popular culture, that musicians played in the streets in the historic French Quarter. But imagining and experiencing a thing often leaves an impossible abyss….there is nothing like walking through the sweat-filled humidity of those tropical New Orleans streets, watching the local musicians set up their equipment, lay out a bucket, a guitar case, or a basket for coins and dollar bills, and catching tourists take snapshots.
In the following photos where people are featured, I always asked before I took the picture, and I always left a gift for them as a small piece of gratitude.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand how much I actually missed playing music–as opposed to simply listening to it live–until I joined our friends’ second line to their wedding reception. From the Irish Cultural Museum to the art gallery where they had their Creole celebration set up, we marched through the streets behind a 3-piece brass band, enacting a very old West African tradition brought to Louisiana by slaves and merged with the military brass band parade traditions of the Europeans and white Americans, and I wove a white handkerchief in one hand and held my high heels in the other. As the 60 or so of us walked down those cobblestone streets, passing tourists, musicians, and other artists alike, I felt a reverence for this place and its inextricable link to music. Even know, I find it difficult to describe, this feeling of sound and place coalescing like that.
When we arrived at the gallery’s doors, and the musicians stood outside wiping sweat from their brows, I stopped the trumpet player and said thank you. He looked up, surprised, I think, that one of the wedding attendees had taken the second to personally recognize him, and I told him how lovely his artistry was. He smiled, knowingly at me, this once-upon-a-time musician, visiting his special Crescent City.
Yours in travel,
All photographs by me 🙂 A special thanks to the New Orleans CVB for helping me arrange accommodations for my stay in New Orleans.