Singing His Fathers’ Songs
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Long before Hurricane Katrina’s howling winds and surging waters ravaged New Orleans, the winds of segregation tore through the fabled city, dividing it forever into the glittering and tourist-friendly French Quarter and the impoverished squalor of the Ninth Ward. Although Tom Sancton and his family lived on the white side of the tracks, they journeyed regularly into a black world where most whites weren’t welcome.
In the 1950s and 1960s, music bridged Sancton’s two worlds, as his eccentric journalist father conducted him into the realms of the Preservation Jazz Hall and the old black musicians—affectionately known as “the men”—who became his musical patriarchs. Nightly trips to the Quarter mesmerized the young Sancton as clarinetist George Lewis, pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, and Creole saxophonist Harold Dejan, among others, coaxed soaring melodies and sweet harmonies out of their instruments.
Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White (Other Press; $24.95), Sancton’s poignant coming-of-age tale serves as both a loving paean to his father and an eloquent memoir of a now-gone moment in musical and social history.
The elder Sancton comically appears as a cross between a character out of a Faulkner novel and the ambitious Eugene Gant of Wolfe’s Of Time and the River. Although by day he is a well-respected reporter for the New Orleans Times, by night he closes himself in his room and types away at the novel that he hopes will allow the family to move into the Garden District. “My father was different from all the other dads in the neighborhood. He didn’t drink. He worked all night. He slept all weekend. But most of all, he was a writer.”
A political radical, the elder Sancton cared little for the trappings of middle-class life and disdained and flouted the color line of the segregationist South, which brought him closer to many black musicians even as it alienated him from fellow journalists and members of the white community. Thanks to his father’s politics and his abiding love for jazz, Sancton is ushered into the wondrous world of the men and their music.
On a warm, humid night in 1962—at age thirteen—Sancton experiences the rapturous musical moment that changes him forever. He and his family enter a “single room with a splintery wooden floor . . . and smoky-looking paintings on the wall.” They sit on a bare bench right in front of the band, who were “happy and exuberant” in spite of the sweat pouring down their cheeks and soaking their shirts.
As the band soulfully plays a spiritual, they “radiate a spirit” Sancton had never encountered before. “There was a siren-song magic about their music that was luring me into uncharted territory.” George Lewis’s clarinet captivates young Sancton more than any of the instruments. “I don’t know if I had ever felt passion before—that pulse-churning excitement that makes you want to possess a thing, to fuse with it and have it fuse with you, that makes the thing seem greater and more wonderful than any other thing in the world. That’s what I felt for the sounds of George Lewis’s clarinet.”
When Sancton’s father introduces him to the clarinetist, Lewis tells the teenager to find an instrument because the young boy has music in him that needs to come out. Thus begins a long and loving apprenticeship in which Sancton soaks up Lewis’s music lessons and life lessons. “With George it was all playing from the heart. I got that almost by osmosis, by listening to him, watching him, being around him as much as I could.”
Eventually, Sancton plays well enough that the men invite him to join them onstage at the Preservation Hall. At first, young Tommy is terrified, but once onstage the music takes over, and he is playing happily among the people he most admires in the world. Not only that, young Tommy Sancton—a white teenager—practices at the houses of older black men, befriending them and their families, and plays in jazz funerals for deceased musicians. Music allows him to cross the color line without blinking in a South that condemned such practices.
Although Sancton’s conversion to jazz began with the soulful sounds of George Lewis’s clarinet and his subsequent music lessons, his admiration of the men and their lives and music taught him a much deeper lesson. “I think there was something fundamentally human about the old players. Their music spoke to the heart, and the heart is neither black nor white.”
Sancton’s lyrical song for his many fathers sings of a unity that music can bring to city still so divided by distrust and racial hatred.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at