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Oil Spill Casualties: New Orleans' Musicians and Service Workers

5 years ago
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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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It matters little what BP is willing to pay. The convoluted Democrat bureaucracy will hinder any recompense.

June 16 2010 at 5:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I guess every person is going to be a fisherman now since obama is handing-out ther people's money. There was so much fraud during katrina but how many were put in jail? Five years later there are still people from New Orleans collecting money from katrina. Do the people of Louisiana have no pride, it sounds like they are more interested in a hand0out not a helping hand.

June 16 2010 at 3:45 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

MMS was also to blame for letting BP do this.

June 15 2010 at 7:17 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Wait a while. Once again, Obama makes a knee jerk decision. If his "moratorium" on oil drilling holds, there will be many, many, many more, unemployed, or financially dragged under water. This POTUS never sees the big picture, and how his actions might sometimes fix the broken wrist, but they also break the rest of the bones from collateral damage. He has limited experience and understanding of issues that transcend the boundaries of the streets of Chicago, and is proving himself incompetent in leading this country.

June 15 2010 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

It brings new meaning to the line in the Greatfull Dead song Trucking.. Busted down on Burbon Street

June 15 2010 at 1:26 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

We have to help each other out I love New Orleans and will fly out there and have a great time like I always do, the music, the parties, the History to see, the great people. I would also like to thank all you Americans that have supported Arizona business like mine thru the boycott. Visit our State too you'll have a great time.

June 15 2010 at 1:15 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply

Its a shame that so many individuals enjoyment of daily life, the loss of human life our oceans ecological system, and wildlife have been so unjustly compromised, due to BP's negligence in performing necessary routine safety inspections on their oil rig pumping stations.

I wonder if BP's overall financial gains, due to not spending the revenue for necessary equipment safety inspections can ever be justified.

Is there any limit, as to what a corporation, business, or individual can destroy in order to make money? I truly wonder.

June 15 2010 at 8:49 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to donovansdanes's comment

I would love to make BP the big bad wolf in this situation, but BP was allowed to doctor their inspection reports, bypass inspections altogether, and cut corners to save money (while they make billions). But, the truth is, we have layers and layers of government agencies, paid GENEROUSLY by the taxpayer to oversee every aspect of activity that takes place here. MMS did not do their job. They were not only negligent, they were complicit in letting equipment deteriorate to the point we are now faced with this catasrophe. Will heads roll there, other than replacing the woman who was in charge at the time? As with the SEC, people were accepting "gifts," surfing the net for porn on the taxpayers dime. Why is it nearly impossible to get rid of the lazy, lax, corrupt, irresponsible people, that the taxpayers expect will do a good job? Why are we not hearing of SEC and MMS employees being fired for this gross negligence? Time for a change in how government workers are protected far above and beyond anything that would be accepted in the private sector. There are honest, competent, responsible people ready to take over when these slugs are cut loose.

June 15 2010 at 5:05 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

I'm glad that Obama learned a lesson with the banks is adhering to the strict GOP way of not bailing out companies (BP) with government funds. I'm sure the gulf coast states appreciate smaller government and lower taxes. Other than the oil spill, how's it going? Reminds me of the adage "besides that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play! Sending big brother away is only ok when you don't need him.

June 15 2010 at 6:14 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to eyeforeye42's comment

Funny....The GOP way of not adhearing to bailouts? George W Bush provided the first bailout. Is he not apart of the GOP? Just wondering.

How quickly we forget!

June 15 2010 at 3:09 PM Report abuse -11 rate up rate down Reply

It looks like the Federal regulators overseeing the drilling are as up to speed as the Federal Regulators overseeing Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and Wall Street were. Dem solution: more taxes, more Federal Regulators (surfing at their comfy desks) and more Federal red tape.

I am not impressed.

June 16 2010 at 5:42 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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