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Congo Square: The sacred spot where modern music was born in the heart of New Orleans


In his seminal novel, On the Road, the jazz aficionado Jack Kerouac writes: “Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety—leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world.”

Indeed, the streets of New Orleans have given the world so much jazz, but jazz is merely the first influential serving from the melting pot of modern music, and that giant sonic cauldron sits right in the heart of sweltering New Orleans. For even Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top leaves a trail stretched out behind him, just as he illuminated the way ahead.

Aside from his Jazz, Louis Armstrong was synonymous with one other thing: his secret-of-the-universe smile. It is indeed a grin that seems to embody the hearty ways of the bustling city that spawned him. And as far as the secret of the universe goes, Armstrong would tell you that he happened upon it at an early age; exactly six years old, in fact.

He was one of the lucky New Orleans few who witness the cloud shifting ways of the mythologised father of jazz: Buddy Bolden. Now, the records of Bolden are so tattered, and the hand to mouth tales have become so tortuous that he stands as more of a patron saint of jazz, some sort of half pioneering virtuoso/half virtually pretend protagonist, that the truth can scarcely be trusted—as is often the case when it comes to the twisted tales of the Delta South. 

As a young boy, Armstrong was raised in extreme poverty. He didn’t have shoes on his feet, let alone toys to play with. However, on the same roads where he polished shoes for change, he heard the balm to life blasting around street corners coming from the heavenly horn of the mythical Buddy Bolden as he blew the hottest breezy horn-lines into the sultry Orleans air with the flippant force of a lion’s purr. Naturally, Armstrong wouldn’t be the only one stirred up by this Promethean wind – I guess that goes without saying, seeing as though Bolden is dubbed the inventor of jazz – but in Louis’ case, it seems fateful that he caught the benison of this musical breeze head-on.

In the unfurling stream of modern music, Armstrong would later go on to influence and inspire millions of musicians in his own right, one of which was Sam Cooke. In his definitive civil rights anthem, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Cooke unleashes the opening line: “I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since.” The river in question is the Mississippi, which makes it perhaps the most profoundly varied vignettes in music history.

It can be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where modern music benevolently flowed out from into the world, but likewise, it was one of the most violently racially divided regions in modern history, setting a fluid current of fear in motion amongst the black denizens. Aside from those two notable brushstrokes in the melodic motif, there are myriad more pertaining to the tides of change, the unburdened flow of the soul and so on until the infinities of personal corroborations are all but dried up.

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The Mississippi River was also the way that slaves were shipped south to get to the plantations of the delta. This was the despairing seeding ground where modern music crawled out of the mire and misery of one of humanity’s great atrocities and etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history. As Nina Simone once said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow.”

Whether or not Cooke coaxed the many multitudes that can be gleaned from the song into existence by design is unknowable, but what can be derived for definite is the beauty and importance that came in the undertow of the soaring melody and emboldened words. Music is a boon, and the hard streets of New Orleans have forever been alive with it, after all, they basically invented it. 

In short, when those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. This encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation. Buried within that subversive undercurrent was the monolithic force of Vodou, a religion that drifted in from West Africa and the Caribbean on the slave ships. All the blues notions of devil’s at the crossroads, hoodoo’s and hexes are deeply linked to the ways of the old world and the Caribbean.

Catholicism was forced upon the slaves arriving from overseas, but rather than drown out the Vodou tunes; it merely formed a fusion. The drums and rhythms may well have been abandoned out of necessity, but Gospel songs became a fusion where Vodou and hymns met. The same sense of profound exultation was present, and the drums were vocalised in the chants and incantations of singalong songs of soul salvation. 

(Credit: Pixabay)

Nowhere was this mishmash of cultures, sounds and spirit more profound than in Congo Square. Situated in the heart of what is now befittingly called Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the French Quarter, this fabled spot is where African slaves would gather when they were permitted Sunday’s off. This foregathering was enforced by 1817 when the city mayor of New Orleans specifically selected the square as the only “gathering ground” permitted.

Imagine, if you will, how such a joyous cacophony in the heart of the bubbling chic New Orleans, could cause the eruption of modern music to burst into song. Jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll came roaring from the swirled mixing bowl of the square, surrounded by crooked tupelo trees, serpentine dust roads and the giant clay ball moon that seems to be a few miles closer to the delta than the rest of the world, presiding in the hot sultry evening air, all leering in to catch the sweet sound of celebration despite dower circumstance.

Two things happened in this square that seeded the future of music. The first is beautifully elucidated by the writer James Baldwin. He wrote: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

This sense of the vitality of music could not be understated. If forthcoming genres like punk promoted the idea that music was more about emotion than being a master, then they were simply borrowing a notion roared loudly from Congo Square centuries ago. Music, if only for a brief moment on a Sunday, genuinely was triumphing over cruelly enforced hardship. This remains the case with modern music to this day. 

The second step was simple: you might have a blues guitarist on one bench, someone singing hymns on another and a drummer on the next one. Great swinging jams might erupt as music from all corners coalesced into one. This vibe remains present to this day. Travel down to the square on any given afternoon and you find buskers of all varieties frequenting the historic space. This effervescing vibe is the one that Bob Dylan pined for when he willed his euphoric ‘evening’s empire’ not to ‘vanish into dust’. Bars, clubs and street names may have changed since, but there is an atmosphere in the city that will no doubt prove eternal.

Neighbouring Congo Square, in the old crooked French Quarter, the quirky world that Armstrong, Kerouac, Dylan and everyone else relished remains bustling with jazz and blues aplenty. Snug Harbour, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, Erin Rose and Elizabeth’s all offer up the timeless appeal of dizzy nights with cool sweat in your hair and never a dull sight for the eyes to see. Likewise, the cafés by day, like Monty’s on the Square, offer a breezy spot of tranquilly to take it all in through weary peepers, with the peace of the Garden District always awaiting a trip. 

There are many subjective arguments in modern music, but New Orleans proves to be insistent that it really was born in the ethereal Congo Square.