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Louisiana: Ingredients For Musical Melting Pot


For many years here at NPR, Gwen Thompkins was an editor and then went to East Africa as a correspondent. She's always had a great ear, so perhaps it's not surprising that her brand-new music radio show called "Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins" listens to music in a revealing way. The show is from Gwen's hometown, New Orleans, and every week she talks to people in Louisiana who have devoted their lives to music - songwriters, musicians, producers, you name it.

Gwen Thompkins joins us now from WWNO in New Orleans. Congratulations.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Thank you, Jacki. Hi.

LYDEN: Gwen, the show just launched this past month and already you've had a chance to interview some legends, like the soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas. She's been interviewed at NPR here a number of times but I don't think anyone else ever interviewed her in her pajamas, which I hear you did.


THOMPKINS: Yes, yes we did, sort of. You know, the beautiful thing about legends, particularly legends around New Orleans and around Louisiana, is that you can really just call them up on the phone and ask them if you can come over or you meet them at the grocery store...

LYDEN: Hey legend, can I come over?


THOMPKINS: Exactly, you know. Like I remember seeing Dr. John, you know, like in the Whole Foods, and I've met Irma Thomas you know, in the drycleaners and, you know, started talking to her. And so I called up her and her husband Emile Jackson and asked she might be interested in talking and he goes, you know, he's not like your typical representative of a legend, you know. You know, he's like, Irma's over at the bank. She'll be back in about an hour, you know, call then. So sure enough, I call her, we make the deal. My friend Lynette and I, we go over there to her house, we know on the door, she answers the door, she's in her pajamas, and she says was that interview today?


THOMPKINS: And we say yeah, but we can wait outside. And she says oh, it's too hot, come on in. So she, you know, she brings us in. She, you know, she like a firefighter. I mean she switched clothes like you wouldn't believe. I felt like I was watching "Bewitched" or something, you know.


THOMPKINS: And she did her hair and everything and she starts talking. I mean she's a real pro.

LYDEN: Oh, yeah.

THOMPKINS: And so, you know, she's a good talker and she went places where I didn't think she was going to go. You know, she mentioned a song she had written called "Hold Me While I Cry." And the story she tells around at song, which she wrote is pretty interesting. So let's listen to that.

IRMA THOMPKINS: I have one song that it's called "Hold Me While I Cry."

THOMPKINS: "Hold Me While I Cry."

THOMPKINS: Yeah. Well, I call it "The Menopause Song."


THOMPKINS: Why do you call it "The Menopause Song?"

THOMPKINS: Because that's what I was thinking about when I was, when the words came to me. For those women who are going through it, who have reached that stage in their life where they're having - they're in menopause. You have moments when you cry and you haven't the clue why you're crying or you just want somebody to just hold you for that moment. So "Hold Me While I Cry" came about from that.

THOMPKINS: That's beautiful.

THOMPKINS: Yeah. 'Cause they going to ask you, what you crying for? I don't know. I'm just crying. That's how I feel right now.



THOMPKINS: (Singing) Words ring empty and jokes run dry. Hold me while I cry.

LYDEN: That's just amazing. I mean got that...

THOMPKINS: Isn't that nice? It's a sweet, sweet song. And if you listen to it you can actually hear a little country-western tinge to it, can't you? You could actually hear like a Loretta Lynn or someone else singing a song like that.

LYDEN: Absolutely.


THOMPKINS: (Singing) Safe in your arms to the storms last by. Hold me while I cry.

LYDEN: You know...


LYDEN: I was listening with my husband the other night to your shows and it was pure pleasure to riff through them. And, you know, Louisiana music, I mean who doesn't? And you've got so much there, you know, from jazz, Cajun, R&B, bounce music. What you're learning when we listen to the show is that it's not so pure. You have a lot of musical styles to borrow from each other in New Orleans.

THOMPKINS: That's exactly right, Jacki. And we've all come to believe that Louisiana music is sort of headwaters of music in the sense that it began as a pure stream and over time, you know, people have borrowed from it, you know, and taken it around the world. But the truth of the matter is people from Louisiana have gotten the ideas and influences from the rest of the world just - and they've gotten as much from the world as they have pumped into the world, you know, musically.

LYDEN: I will second that. Yeah.

THOMPKINS: And so it's always been a give and take kind of situation. And so, you know, I'll give you an example. Giovanna Joseph is just a little-known treasure down here in Louisiana. She created her own opera called Opera Creole. And what they do is they, you know, they sing all the usual suspects, you know, Bizet and Verdi, Puccini and all that but they also feature a lot of operatic compositions written by free people of color in the 19th century. And these are folks who either lived in Louisiana or had some tie here. Many of them lived in France and in other parts of Europe, and Opera Creole features a lot of their work.

So when we sat down with Giovanna Joseph at her kitchen table, you know, we're asking her about her influences and what her childhood was like and what she was listening to in her house growing up. And she said in my house we grew up listening to Mario Lanza, you know, Jacki - Mario (Singing) be my love, you know, Lanza.



LYDEN: Right.


THOMPKINS: And James Brown, which is an amazing combination. And she said to us, like, you know, one of my favorite songs right now is a, I got it from YouTube. It's a video on YouTube of James Brown performing "It's A Man's World" with none other than Luciano Pavarotti.

And so in your house you're listening to classical, you're listening to operetta...


THOMPKINS: ...and you're listening to James Brown.

JOSEPH: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, everybody. Yeah. And one of my favorite videos is James Brown and Pavarotti together singing "It's A Man's World."


JOSEPH: Awesome.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) ...man makes lira, pesos, dollars, rupees to buy on every good woman. Every man, aaahhh. This is a man's world...

LUCIANO PAVAROTTI: (Sung in foreign language)

BROWN: (Singing) But it wouldn't be mean nothing...

PAVAROTTI: (Sung in foreign language)

LYDEN: Wow, Gwen, that is a mash up like no other I've ever heard...


LYDEN: ...operatic testosterone.


PAVAROTTI: (Sung in foreign language)

BROWN: (Singing) This is a man's world. Hey.


LYDEN: Now you also are devoting two hours to the legendary Allen Toussaint, the songwriter, producer and arranger who has written so many top hits, "Mother-in-Law," "Working in the Coal Mine," "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley." He is just unbelievable. He's done a lot of Elvis Costello and he told you that sometimes there's chords that he doesn't like to play.

THOMPKINS: That's very true. I mean this is a guy who, you know, is fearless in many ways. I mean he's written all the songs that you say he's written and more, obviously. He's the architect of, you know, the modern New Orleans sound, and yet, he is a guy who is extremely gentlemanly and modest and spends most of his time by himself, you know, playing his beautiful grand piano alone in his studio, you know. And so I asked him, you know, so do you talk better with your piano than you do face-to-face? And he goes oh, yes. I speak much better with the piano.


ALLEN TOUSSAINT: Yes, that's some of that.

THOMPKINS: What does that say to you, that chord?


TOUSSAINT: That says sophisticated jazz. Yes.


TOUSSAINT: So you better know what you're doing. It's like counting your own pool stick, you know?


LYDEN: What great opportunity to sit with these people and get something out of them no one else is doing. Good luck with the show. What a pleasure it is.

THOMPKINS: Thank you so much, Jacki. And keep listening.

LYDEN: Oh, absolutely. Couldn't keep me away.


LYDEN: Gwen Thompkins is a writer and host of the WWNO show "Music Inside Out" and she spoke with us from New Orleans. And you can hear more of her radio show at what else? WWNO.org.

Let's go out on Allen Toussaint playing "Solitude." And Gwen, thanks again.

THOMPKINS: Thank you.


LYDEN: And that's our program for today. I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.