Tootie was a complicated song to tackle from it’s inception. It is about Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas.
There is no word more important in dealing with the Indian culture of New Orleans than the word “RESPECT.” You respect the chief, the tribe, the traditions. Everything else flows from there. All things beautiful, frightful, poetic, tragic, noble and down right fun, starts with the word “respect.”
This song is from a wonderful scene in Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. It’s Mardi Gras morning and Tootie is still working on his suit as many Indians do up until the last minute. His wife, Joyce, is trying to hurry him because he is due to appear at Gallier Hall to toast the King Of Rex along with Mayor Morial. It is the first time an Indian Chief has been asked to take part in an official toast with the King Of Carnival and everyone is excited… except for Tootie who will not be rushed. Colman found an arresting first line to begin with, Joyce singing “Tootie, put down that needle!” and we wanted it to be a duet between Tootie and Joyce but everything about this song, the writing, casting the singers, recording it, was done with much thought about how to interpret but not violate the very traditions we were trying to honor.
We wrote the song sticking as strictly to Dan’s words as we could, particularly the Indian chants which I figured he had been careful to notate and didn’t want to mess with his interpretations. The trick was to write one part singable for a woman and a different part singable for a man. It meant some key shifts and form in a style of music that while based in form is improvisational by nature and by need so these concepts came with some things to consider. This had to be a pop song, based in the Indian traditions but a pop song nonetheless. It could not allow for improvisation because it had to move the story along but had to feel like improvisation.
We came up with an acoustic demo that satisfied us but it sounded better in my head than it did on the demo. I was having trouble singing the melody while playing the African 3-beat needed to get the proper feel for Tootie to sound like a Mardi Gras Indian song.
It has long been a dream of mine to make an album that included as many Boutté family singers as I could. They are heavenly together on stage, the singing is angelic and I wanted that heaven wrapped around my songs at some point in my writing career. I have been warned by the non-singing members of the family, including their mother Gloria, that to attempt such a thing could be hazardous to my health. The Boutté family are indeed heavenly together on stage and are equally fiery off stage, mostly with each other. Lifelong sibling rivalries that come complete with an elegant way of expressing themselves which can turn saltier than the language of the longshoremen I grew up around in a heartbeat. I had seen them at home fussing in the kitchen and I had seen them fill peoples hearts with joy at the beauty of their singing. I figured it was well worth the effort and I was not wrong.
Lolet was the first Boutté I met, even before John and I became friends. She used to be the imposing figure at the front desk in the Offbeat offices. Later, when John and I became friends, she reminded me of it and barked at me, “Baby you didn’t need to be scared of me!” laughing but she’s still imposing to me. Last year Lolet and Teedy came home for Jazz Fest. She had lived in Houston since the flood but is home now, and I ran into them while visiting John at the house he had renovated after the flood. The house had belonged to Mamou, their aunt, and had been in the family for years. I am always pleased to meet a Boutté and very respectful because their introductions are formal before they feel comfortable enough around the new person to tell them to “Shut the fuck up”. When introduced to Lolet, I said, “It’s very nice to meet you”. She raised a Boutté eyebrow at me and I wondered what I had said wrong. She said, “Baby, you know me!”, I said I didn’t think we had met. She proceeded to recount the many times we had met including having sat and visited on that very porch before Katrina. Lolet used to live in Mamou’s house before the flood. I was struck dumb by the shock of realizing that I had put so much effort into forgetting everything since the flood, that I had forgotten my life before the flood. It was a stunning moment. As I said, she hadn’t even moved back yet and was very sweet and forgiving about my not remembering. She understood.
Lolet had told me about Teedy having been an Indian and how she would be great to sing Joyce Montana. I wanted Teedy on the record (and Boutté women are tough to say no to) so, while I might have chosen a different song for Teedy, I sent along the acoustic demo of Tootie. Only in New Orleans does someone named Teedy sing a tune about someone named Tootie, Life here is a beautiful song if you are listening. I don’t like sending acoustic demos as a rule because it makes the singer have to think too much. The song is complete in my head so an acoustic guitar demo is alright for me to learn it or even teach the basic chords to a band. For a singer to appreciate a song, especially if you are asking them to sing it, you should give a more complete demo so they can begin to trust you, the process and ultimately, the song. With the internet it is simple enough to go online, find out what key your singer likes and write the arrangement in that key. Time was such a factor with this project because it was a grant and there was a time limit on the money being used and work being shown for it. Teedy, who I had worked with in the studio on a record years ago and knew a little, wrote back to say that she wasn’t feeling the demo. I was disappointed but not too surprised since I knew my feel was off. Very hard to hear the Indian song inside the old white rocker playing acoustic guitar over a pop song. Like Buddy Holly sending an acoustic demo of Iko Iko to the Dixie Cups. I really wanted Teedy, in part because by this time the other Bouttés had all told me what Lo had, that she would crush this number. I wanted to make a proper demo of the song to get across how it sounded in my head so I called Peter Boutté, Vance Vaucresson and Ruben Watts,
Peter Boutté, John’s younger brother, is a visual artist, a painter, but is also a poet and singer. He and a cousin to the Boutté family, Ruben Watts, have an informal musical/poetry act they have been working on – Peter chanting his poetry over Ruben’s percussion. It is something I’ve wanted to record since I first heard John’s cousin, Vance Vaucresson, spontaneously break into a chant/song while we were taking a break from rehearsing for John’s Jazz Fest set in 2006. I gave them the demo of Tootie and explained what I was looking for and they got it immediately. Ruben even suggested we keep the instrumentation as bare as possible saying that Tootie only liked bass and percussion. I had to take them through the song a few times to get them to stick to form and not break off into improv as the form normally calls for. Peter sang a very high falsetto on the Joyce part for Teedy to learn and Vance sang the part of Tootie which would be sung by Glen David Andrews. The demo was just what I wanted for Toottie and I sent it along. Teedy understood what Colman and I had been trying to get across and agreed to sing Joyce. Glen David was busy, his career has been really taking off as he focuses his intense energy on moving forward with his life. He said he wouldn’t have much time to learn the song but he trusted me and loved Teedy. He said he’d be there.
The song requires timing between the two main singers and the background singers. Vance and Peter were to sing the part of the Spyboy and the Wildman chanting in the song. It had to be cut live to get the energy, timing, and community of an Indian song. It had to respect the tradition while not trying to be the tradition. I think the fact that we were not trying to lay claim to this being an authentic Indian song made it easier for everyone to move forward as the assembled talent knew far better than I about respecting the traditions we were attempting to interpret in song.
Mark Bingham, owner of Piety, had become increasingly interested in the project and was offering suggestions on singers and players. I took most of his suggestion and everyone I used made Nine Lives a better record. I asked him if he would play bass on this track. Mark has recorded every type of New Orleans music there is in his years here and has recorded Indian songs many times. He happily agreed which made me happy because he had been such an asset to the record that I wanted him on as a player. Partly because he would know how to keep it simple and groovy while still understanding that it is ultimately a pop song and not an Indian song and partly because having friends on your record it is a way to keep friends close so I invited lots of friends on this record and Mark had become one.
Wes Fontenot, the engineer, also has a lot of experience on this kind of session and knew to have the mics ready in the room. He was waiting and knew to stay out of the way. Glen arrived last along with his cousin, Revert “Peanut” Andrews, who I had invited to play trombone on the track. I invited Peanut because i dig the tone of his trombone but also because I knew that having his cousin there would help calm Glen who is immensely, massively talented as a singer but still gets nervous in the studio like most folks. It is not a natural way to make music until you get around it a bit. He came into the studio anxious, stalking like a panther looking for a way to break out. Then he saw Teedy and the sweet, mischievous side of him came out as they hugged, teased, told stories, welcomed each other home. The work was done in the demo. Peter, Vance and Ruben knew exactly how to play the song, Teedy had learned it perfectly and is a real pro in the studio so she was ready to knock it out. Glen was running from one gig and headed to another, anxious about being late, anxious about being the studio, near grumpy but trying to be nice because he likes me. It was the perfect attitude for Tootie who was known to have been prickly at times. Teedy was calming him with jokes, as Joyce was in the song. The “Indians” Peter, Ruben and Vance, all had known Glen since he was a kid and were playfully teasing and helping him. Vance sang the melody along with him until Glen was ready to grab that song by the throat and throw it to the floor. It did not take long. The first take was so absent of Glen that Colman nervously walked over to ask if it was going to work. By the second take, Glen had begun to get his voice and mind around what the song was doing and he waved off Vance’s helpful guide vocal. Take three saw Glen growling defiantly with the spirit of Tootie in his performance, Teedy had been giving it all for every take but instantly saw that Glen was on and amped up her own performance knowing we had a keeper. The fellas had been rock solid for me since the demo and nailed the take. Glen hugged everyone and ran out of the studio, late for a gig but also feeling caged, as he often does, by the studio, the crowded room, by life, by time. I don’t think he even realized what a brilliant performance he had just laid down.
New Orleans is full of musical traditions that I revere. I have come to grasp them more fully as I have gotten older and in these last few years when hanging on to the past has become more essential. I wanted to capture tis scene as a pop song to make the story and a bit of this surreal, beautiful culture accessible to folks around the country. Colman and I laid out a solid song but the track was given life by the artists who played it. They grew up in the 6th and 7th Wards. These traditions are in their very DNA, as much a part of their upbringing as “Once upon a time there was a princess…” is to children in most other cities in the country. Tootie, Mardi Gras Indians, tradition, RESPECT.
~ Paul Sanchez- April 25, 2011