Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Dr John: Musical Hero of New Orleans Traditions

Very sad to hear this morning of the death of Dr John, whose music was a big part of my life, and meant even more after I visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Dr John (Mac Rebennack) (1941-2019) was a virtuoso pianist in the real New Orleans style, learnt from (among others) his first mentor, Professor Longhair. His flamboyant stage persona, which made every performance a grand theatrical event as well as a musical one, was drawn from deep Louisiana roots. There was a load of history behind Dr John.

He took his name from the original Doctor John of New Orleans (I quote from Voodoo in New Orleans (1946) by Robert Tallant): ‘There are few names so important in the history of American Voodoo as that of Doctor John…He claimed to be a Senegalese prince and the masses of grotesque scars that marked his face were believed to support this claim… His home contained a conglomeration of snakes, lizards, embalmed scorpions and animal and human skulls, the last stolen from graveyards…He specialised in healing and the selling of gris-gris and the telling of fortunes.’

Our Dr John the musician enjoyed using Voodoo props in his act and many of his tracks, especially the unforgettable ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ draw on Voodoo mythology and ritual for their poetry.

Another ingredient in his persona was the use of feathers and outlandish costumes derived from the New Orleans tradition of ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ when the more adventurous citizens dress up in huge feathered carnival outfits which are locally supposed to resemble Native American costume but are actually derived historically from the West African traditions of ceremonial and ritual dress – they are related to the feathered carnival costumes you’ll see at both the Rio (Brazil) and Notting Hill Carnivals.

Dr John’s genius was to take all this and mould it into a profoundly exciting musical drama that carried his city’s deepest cultural traditions into rock, blues and jazz in the psychedelic era and beyond.

When disaster struck New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, Dr John went on tour repeatedly to raise money for his fellow citizens and musicians.

He enriched our lives and we’re grateful. Now the spirits have him in their care. Maman Brigitte, Maman Erzulie, Baron Samedi, welcome him and treat him royally!

To read my account of visiting New Orleans after Katrina, please see my book Luna Park from Carcanet Press.