NEW ORLEANS -- At first glance, Louisiana's oil-fouled coast may seem worlds away from the small, neighborhood blues bars of New Orleans' African-American community. But as toxic tendrils of crude reach ever farther inland, the connections become increasingly apparent. For nearly half a century, Tommy Singleton, 67, has been expertly singing blues, soul and R&B in little joints around New Orleans. While Singleton sounds every bit as good as many big-name artists, he has yet to enjoy a big-name career.
Accordingly, Singleton must supplement his income with what musicians call a "day gig." For the past dozen years, that day gig was at P&J Oysters, where Singleton drove a truck and worked in the processing room, preparing the mollusks for market. "I would go to towns like Grand Isle, Pointe a la Hache, Port Sulphur, and pick up the oysters at the dock. Then I'd bring them to the French Quarter and we'd wash, sort and pack them."
But the continued existence of P&J, which has been in business since 1876, is now threatened by the BP spill. Oil has tainted many of Louisiana's best oyster beds, and at present there's little product left for the company to sell. With grim prospects and limited income as the leak keeps gushing, P&J has been forced to lay off many employees, Singleton included.
"It's terrible," Singleton said between sets at Margaritaville, a French Quarter tourist joint owned by the singer Jimmy Buffett of "Wasting Away In Margaritaville" fame. "It's going to make things very difficult for a lot of people who really depend on this for a living. About 20 people were laid off. Hopefully it's temporary. I believe that when they clean up certain areas of the gulf, then people can go back and fish for oysters. But it could take a lot of PR work to convince people to buy them again."
"And there aren't a lot of singing gigs right now, either," Singleton said. "For a while I was doing Sunday evenings at the Young of Heart lounge, in Pigeon Town, but that ended." (While it lasted, the weekly set at this tiny, ebullient club was the hottest ticket in town.) "And there aren't any live sets lately at Guitar Joe's House of Blues, uptown, like there used to be. So right now, this is it."
Singleton and his cohorts -- including veteran guitarist Irving Banister -- are grassroots cultural preservationists, a vanishing breed who maintain the classic soul-music legacy of Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Little Milton, along with material that's unique to New Orleans. Banister has played and recorded with such local R&B heroes as Professor Longhair and Sugar Boy Crawford, among others. Singleton has led his own group, appeared with the iconic likes of Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, and toured with the Living Dead Review. This tribute band impersonated such late, great R&B celebrities as Otis Redding, and emphasized the point by sporting a coffin on stage.
But such career credentials mean little at Margaritaville, where Singleton, Banister and associates are presented without fanfare as just another bar band that plays cover songs. The realities of this gig become obvious during repeated introductions of an invisible band member named Philip -- as in "fill up the tip jar." If the oil spill cuts deeply into New Orleans tourism, as many fear, that jar may catch fewer and fewer tips all the time.
Some 100 miles to the east, in Pascagoula, Miss., musician and artist Libby Rae Watson is experiencing the spill more directly. Watson, who lives just blocks from the gulf, is one of many residents to report a strong scent of oil in the air. She also notes a community filled with anxiety. "We all know how to get ready for a hurricane," Watson said, "and rebuild after one, but this oil thing is from left field. People are frustrated because they don't know what to do. They are mad, sad and feel completely helpless. Preparation seems futile and repair seems hopeless.
"I don't think most people understand the potential magnitude of this yet," Watson said. "It's still hard to wrap your head around. All of this occurred because the best technology wasn't used, in order to cut cost and speed up production. It cost 11 men their lives and it's costing us our gulf."
Some oil has already tarnished Horn Island, part of the National Park Service's Gulf Islands National Seashore. An oil ribbon around 30 yards long and 5 yards wide washed ashore on Saturday. Response workers were already on site but could not begin cleanup until the incident was reported, and considerable bureaucratic delay ensued before work could actually begin.
This undeveloped barrier island, which inspired the renowned Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, is considered a sacred, meditative place where Gulf Coast residents can commune with nature. On the symbolic level, its defilement compares to the photos of oil-drenched pelicans that have so incensed Louisianans.
"This spill could make our world uninhabitable," said Watson, a frequent visitor to Horn Island. "For the first time ever, we've talked about the possibility that we may have to move away."
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