From Spanish Silver to Congo Square
I had the opportunity to meet Ned Sublette (pronounce SUB-let, like what you do with your rent controlled New York apartment while you spend a year writing a book in Chestertown) at a concert/reading he gave in nearby Rock Hall, MD. In addition to being the author of two scholarly books of history and musicology and one memoir Ned is a classically trained guitarist and a songwriter, covered by Willie Nelson, among others. He told me a story of being a member of a group of guitar students visiting Spain, being ushered in to meet Segovia and being pawned off on the master's friend Jose Ramirez, which allowed him to get a good deal on the Ramirez guitar which he has been playing since 1969.
The World That Made New Orleans starts with the settlement of the Mississippi delta by France in hopes of competing with Spain for the treasures of the new world. It was a bit of a miscalculation on the part of the French, who went digging for gold in the alluvial mud of Louisiana.It seems that no one involved in the colony had any idea where to reasonably expect to find a gold mine. The book goes on to tell the story of French, then Spanish colonization of the area, the importation of slaves from very specific areas on the west coast of Africa and the development of a creole culture. Trade with Havana and with Saint-Domingue. (the French colony now known as Haiti) Trade with these colonies and the eventual emulation of the sugar cane industry from them shaped the early economy of New Orleans and southern Louisiana.
New Orleans also became the outlet for agricultural products from the fledgling United States territories west of the Allegheny mountains. The Ohio river flowing into the Mississippi was the only viable way for the people settling these areas to get their produce to market. This led inevitably to conflict with the Spanish owners of the port, who were engaging in global geopolitics at the expense of the American settlers.
Fortunately for us the result of this geopolitical maneuvering led to the cession of Louisiana back the France from Spain just at the moment when Thomas Jefferson send his friend James Madison to bargain for trade concessions. Madison ended up buying the whole Mississippi drainage for a few paltry million Spanish dollars, pennies per acre.
One theme in the book is the influence of the mixture of French, Spanish, Congolese, Cuban, Haitian and American influences on the music that eventually sprang up in New Orleans and became known as jazz. It is a complex and largely undocumented cultural stew about which one can only speculate, which Sublette does with abandon.
Published at Book Reviews by Rick Sincere.