Music: The Lakes of Pontchartrain

An Irish mystery

I have a theory that soul music originally came from Scotland and Ireland,” the standout blues rocker Van Morrison once said. Watching Morrison at Jazz Fest two years ago, rolling in a groove on “Brown Eyed Girl,” I thought about the impact of southern R&B (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Bo Diddley and others) on the 1960s upstart British rockers like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and such less remembered musicians as Herman’s Hermits. Van Morrison grew up an only child in Ulster, Northern Ireland amidst the bloody sectarian strife between Protestants and Catholics. His father had a massive record collection. “If it weren’t for [listening to] guys like Ray [Charles] and Solomon [Burke], I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he once recalled as quoted in a Rolling Stone interview. “Those guys were the inspiration that got me going.”
One can take his statement on soul as it was embedded in Ireland and Scotland as a reflection on the hard slog of culture pushing upward against oppression. As American blacks in the early 20th century forged blues and jazz in a cultural ascendancy, long before segregation gave way, the popular music of Ireland had its own quaking trail of freedom rising. The best take on this may well be The Commitments, a 1991 film by Alan Parker, based on the book by novelist Roddy Doyle. The film follows an R&B cover band in the bleakest of Dublin poverty, brawling and scrapping their way to nightclub renown, singing soul hits from the States. Their goal: to share a one-night bill with Wilson Pickett.
The phenomenal success of U2 followed the popularity that Van Morrison (and the white soul singer Tom Jones from Wales) achieved before the surge of world music in the 1990s. When the Saints opened the 2006 season at the flood-resurrected Superdome, Bono, the lead singer of U2, sang lyrics both to “The Saints Are Coming,” a collaboration between his own band and Green Day. For all of the titular associations with the famous parade number of New Orleans, “The Saints Are Coming” – performed at an eerily slow tempo – is much more than a cover. It fit the moment of a city recovering from an epic disaster:

I cried to my daddy on the telephone
How long now?
Until the clouds unroll and you come home,
The line went.
But the shadows still remain since your descent,
Your descent

The saints are coming, the saints are coming
No matter how I try, I realize there’s no reply
The saints are coming, the saints are coming...

We’re living like birds in the magnolia trees
Child on the rooftop, mother on her knees
Her sign reads, “Please,
I am an American.”

The verse evoked images of people on rooftops after Hurricane Katrina. It was written for the national broadcast of the season opener – a stark reminder of then and now.

One of the beauties of music, as with literature, is how certain lines seed the imagination with images that yield a timeless reality – as the blossoms come in spring. “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” is just such a song. The reference to our famous body of water encompasses the outlying lakes, Maurepas and Borgne. “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” is an Irish-born “traditional Creole love song,” with lyrics apparently dating to the Civil War. The very slow tempo and pining male vocals recount the lost love of a traveling man. (For our purposes, Bringing It All Back Home: The Influence of Irish Music (HBCD0026), a two-disc set, is highly recommended.)

O’er railroad ties and crossings
I made my weary way,
Through swamps and elevations
My tired feet did stray
Until I resolved at sunset
Some higher ground to win.
’Twas there I met with a Creole girl
By the lake of Pontchartrain.

“Good evening, fair maiden
My money does me no good.
If it wasn’t for the alligators
I’d stay out in the wood.”

So they spend time together (“her long black hair in ringlets/upon my shoulder fell”) but his luck runs out on learning she has a “lover on the sea.” The mannered concern for honor that laces through the lyrics wouldn’t stand a chance today. Imagine Van Morrison busting in to stake a claim on those black ringlets or Lil Wayne honking in a Corvette in her driveway surrounded by rappers with guns. The version of platonic love performed by Hothouse Flowers on Bringing It All Back Home has an ethereal pathos and chords from the heart that leave a mystery:

Where did this gorgeous song really come from?

Jason Berry’s latest book, Render Unto Rome: The secret life of money in the Catholic Church, is available for purchase.

An alternate version of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”

’Twas on one bright March Morning, I bid New Orleans adieu
And I took the road to Jackson town, my fortune to renew
I cursed all foreign money, no credit could I gain
Which filled my heart with longin’ for the lakes of Pontchartrain

I stepped on board of a railroad car beneath the morning sun
And I rode the roads ’til evening and I laid me down again
All strangers here, no friends to me ’til a dark girl towards me came
And I fell in love with a Creole girl from the Lakes of Pontchartrain.
 

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