08/27/2007 05:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"The Terror They Went Through": Vocalist John Boutte Shares His Katrina Experience

John Boutte is a critically acclaimed jazz vocalist and songwiter, born and raised in New Orleans. Our interview took place in Detroit on February 28th, 2007. Mr. Boutte described his first gig post-Katrina as "like church." I think just listening to him is "like church." Check him out at and at his MySpace page.

The full interview will be post on later this week.

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My name is John Boutte, from New Orleans, Louisiana. I was born November 3rd, 1958.
I'm the eighth child of ten. Six girls, four boys. By the same mother and father. A Catholic, Creole family from New Orleans. I was born in the seventh ward in New Orleans, which is about a half a mile outside of the French Quarter.

Family's been in New Orleans since the French were there. Probably since the Indians were there. On my father's side, Boutte, there were two brothers. They came from the north of France. One was an architect. The other was a slave-trader. In Boutte, Louisiana was the plantation where they used to bring the chattel before they sold the slaves in to New Orleans. My mother's family came out of Port au Prince. They were Creoles out of Haiti. They came to New Orleans during the Revolution.

The Hurricane Experience

I was in Brazil. I was on my way to Sao Paulo. I was concerned, and I was looking at the weather report in the Atlantic and what was going on. Oddly enough, I saw the wave that turned into Katrina come off the African coast. It was a powerful wave. I had an ominous feeling about it. When Katrina passed the city of New Orleans--because it didn't hit New Orleans, it hit sixty miles to the east--I was in Brazil and I couldn't get back home. I'm no holy man, but I was on my knees praying.

I can remember distinctly on the 28th calling my mother's home and speaking to my older sister. I told her, you better get out. My older sister said: I'm not going anywhere. You know, I've got a dog. I told her, I hate to be cold-blooded, but your dog is going to be dead in three months. He's old, not doing well. Do you want to die with your dog? Well, she didn't want to speak to me anymore.

She gave me my other sister, Lynette. I said, you've got to get out. She said, my shop, my shop. She's a cosmetologist. I told her, I said, look, you've got to be crazy. You're not going to be able to cut anybody's hair. You're going to be scaling fish. She didn't want to speak to me. Then my mother got on. My mom said, I ain't going nowhere. I said, I don't want to talk to you. She gave the phone to Lolet, my other sister, I said, Leta, if you don't do anything else, I love you, but I'll never speak to you again if you don't get mother out of New Orleans. And she did. Thank God.

My other two sisters, in their infinite wisdom, stayed. They got stuck on the I-10 for five days. Right where the cameras were showing them on CNN. They were right in that crowd. They had stayed in their house. Their house was elevated enough that they didn't get much water. Then they thought they would be able to get to higher ground. Somebody they knew passed in a boat, and they left the safety of their home and got stuck on the Interstate.

These are hardworking women. I just can't broke my heart. The trauma, the terror that they went through. My older sister said that she remembered, at night, these guys were walking on the Interstate. They called them "nomads." Lots of them were smoking crack. So they couldn't sleep. They were walking up and down, just doing some horrible stuff. It was just really rough for them.

One night, they saw there was a big explosion on the river. They did have a radio. My sister's like, oh my god, we made it this long. Now we're about to die from a gas explosion. They thought there was a chemical cloud coming. They're totally traumatized over this thing, you know? Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

Fortunately, I was able to call my home. I live in the French Quarter. My roommate answered the phone. In the French Quarter, they had phone service. I couldn't believe it. Everyday I checked with him. I found out what was going on. He waded through water, across dead bodies to check on my sisters and them. They said they were fine. They had food, they had water, they felt secure.

The third time he went, I said, look, I want you to go over there, and if you have to pull your gun out, and force them to come with you, get them out of that house. He went. They had already left. I didn't know where they were for a week. That really tore me apart.

Everyday I called home. I called my roommate and I said, hey, do you have water? Yes. Do you have food? Yes. Do you have ammunition? Yes. I said, I hope you don't have to shoot anyone. He said the same because it would have been a tragedy. If he shot somebody, where would they get any help? You know what I'm saying? He'd have to shoot him to kill him. That would be the humane thing to do. Otherwise he would have languished there and died. He described some horrible stuff. Gangs running through, and army. It wasn't America.

One of my best friends, who I grew up with, by chance called me. Actually called the house. He was able to get my roommate. My roommate gave me his number. I was able to catch him on his cell phone. My roommate couldn't get my sisters and them, but he happened to pull out my best friend's parents who are both in their 80s. He walked them back to the safety of our apartment. He cared for them for about four, five days, till they could get them out on a bus. To Houston, or wherever they went.

[Singing the song] Why took on a whole new meaning. Annie Lennox's song Why. Also the song that I wrote, At the Foot of Canal Street. I wrote that about six years ago with a friend of mine, Paul Sanchez. Which predicts the flooding of New Orleans, and I never really thought of it like that.

I could hardly finish the lyrics to that. I'd get choked up, you know. I mean, still now, man, it's like 19 months. There are times where I can't talk about it. Just thinking--the images that come back. I start thinking about how poorly we were treated. I feel like I wanna cry. I cry. I've been crying forever. Still do. I still do. Thinking about all this stuff. All the people we lost. The lifestyle we lost. The injustice of it. I feel very hurt.

I got on a plane [to come home]. We had stayed about a week. From the hotel, you could hear a pin drop. Everybody in the band was from New Orleans musicians. Everybody realized we had no home to go to, yet we have to leave.

When we got to the airport, there must have been 20 cameras. I realized how serious it was. Global--every major network was there. It was very strange because I couldn't speak. They were putting a camera in my face. I don't speak Portuguese, so I put up my Miracle Mary necklace and I just asked them to pray for us. That was it. I cried like a baby. What can I say? Everybody did.

The day before, some lady came and gave me this beautiful silk bracelet. She said it was a good luck charm in [her] family. Evidently it worked, because you know, everybody--they didn't come out physically unscathed, because, I mean, mentally they were really traumatized.

For me, it was like watching a car wreck on the interstate. With your family in that car and you can't get to the other side to help them.

How is that trauma ever going to be healed? I don't think it ever will. Some will stay with me until I go to my grave. You see the response that our government did. To see the politicians all posing, all of them totally incompetent. The reaction totally--can I say this? It was a clusterfuck. That's what it was. To think that they couldn't get to American people quicker with a better response. Yet they're all on TV, making like a promo or something about how great things are going? That was total bullshit. I'm still angry about it. I'm mad, I'm pissed, and guess what? Nothing's changed. And I don't mean about my attitude about it. I mean the response. Nothing's changed. So far, only 280 families have gotten money in Louisiana. Can you believe that?

What they did was they ran all the poor people out of New Orleans. Just happens to be that the poor people are the black people, huh? God Bless America. Bush's reaction. Blanco's reaction. Nagin's reaction. Brown. The only glimmer of hope was when General Honore showed up. I said, thank God. When he pulled up, the first thing I saw him do on TV was tell soldiers to stand their goddamned weapons down. They had their weapons pointed at these people like they were killing. It was bad enough that all the major networks were calling us fricking refugees. Tax-paying citizens, refugees.

Upon Return to the United States

I went to Miami. Then I went to Orlando with my baby sister, who's a producer with NBC. My sister from New York asked me to go to Orlando to comfort my baby sister. So I went there. Then I moved on to just south of Naples. I hooked up with my roommate and we went to Asheville.

I spent about 4 weeks in Asheville with some dear friends. Thank God, man. These people were so incredible. They were just selling their house. They had an upstairs and a downstairs. They gave us the downstairs.

Those first early days in Asheville? Strange. Drunk. Depending on the kindness of strangers, you know what I'm saying? I mean, I've always been independent. To have people looking after [me] you know?

It really didn't strike me on the plane. When we were coming from Brazil, the stewardess asked us, are you from New Orleans? Yeah. She gave us handkerchiefs. I kind of like looked at her, like, what do I need this for, you know. She should have given me a two years' supply because after I got home to America and I saw what was really going on, I cried almost every goddamned day. I still have those handkerchiefs. I still cry.

I guess I was in denial. You know? It can't be that bad. But believe me. We got back to New Orleans on about the 16th of October. When we were coming back from Asheville the first time, we were coming through Mississippi, and I saw those pine trees broken like toothpicks. Across the Lake itself, there was not a wave in the lake. You know. It was hot hot hot. We had one bird that 24 mile section. Just looking for something to eat or whatever. Nothing out there. The stillness was like, I don't know, like I was about to go to a wake or a funeral. Then when I saw the city...

My first image was the water line. This black line, like someone took a big marker and wrote across the whole city with a paintbrush. A line. A nasty city dirty muddy shit that they just wrote on everybody's house everywhere. That's it. Cars upside down. Trees. Shit where it wasn't supposed to be. Things where they weren't supposed to be. It was just horrible. Everything was brown. There was not a speck of green in the city. Everything was brown. The whole city was brown. It was like a bad UPS commercial.

It was almost like Calcutta, because of the flies and the bugs and the filth and the stench. There was no place to go get anything to eat. The Red Cross was there, giving out water and food rations. The military--these young boys were carrying M-16s riding around the city. The flies. Flies everywhere. Crows. All the scavengers. Some of the animals that made it through, that were emaciated. It was like a third, or a fifth world country. And everyday all these assholes are on the TV promising what they were going to do, posing, and not doing shit. And they're still not doing shit.

I was afraid to leave the city again. I was afraid that if I'd ever leave I wouldn't be able to get back again. I went straight back to work. Somehow we worked it out. We were the first musicians back on the scene.

It Was Like Church

When we had a gig, it was like church. That was the kind of reaction. People love what we do. They come like a little kid who was afraid to get away from their mom. They always begged me not to [leave New Orleans for outside gigs]. But I got to go because I got to make money. Some things didn't change. That's the financial situation of musicians in New Orleans.

The first gig I did was at Café Brazil on Frenchmen. A club that I first started doing music at. This was in October. It was incredible. It was absolutely incredible. The electricity was still on and off. We were doing it almost acoustically. In this little club. And it was packed. People were amazed that somebody was doing music. It was packed. They were singing along. And musicians--the ones that I knew who were there--I just invited up on stage. We started doing a weekly thing there. Not for any money. I think somebody videoed some of that stuff. I've got some video of that somewhere around. Right after the storm. Very, very very intense.

It was like church. I got everybody--you know, it's hard to get people to participate, sometimes, to sing along, whatever. When I'd open up, the first thing I'd do is, I'd make everybody stand up and I'd say, now I want you all to do me a favor, I want everybody to scream as loud as you can. Whatever you wanted to do, just scream. It's very therapeutic. People would just get up and aaaaaahhhhhhhh! It was like this enormous roar. Get up and do it again. They'd scream again.

We'd start doing some of the old gospel tunes. New Orleans gospel tunes. It was incredible. Just a Little While to Stay Here, Down By the Riverside, Over the Gloryland, You Never Walk Alone.

What was the crowd like? The crowd was funky. Everybody was dirty, man. Nobody was dressed up. You never dressed up a lot in New Orleans anyway, but people were dirty. Nobody was like in suits, coats, ties. Nothing like that. It was kind of like a lack of a place to wash your behind. It was real funky, but it was real. It was really real. The people who have stayed throughout, they were special. They were people who had bonded together. Like never before. They really appreciated the fact that we were back and doing the music.

Life Now

It's difficult. It used to be the Big Easy. It's difficult. I can wake up at 5:00am and go to sleep at 4:00am and still have stuff to do. You know.? Never-ending. Never-ending, man. Everything takes time.

The bars came up, some of the restaurants came back. The musicians came back. You know, but the city is inundated with carpetbaggers. It's worse than after the Civil War.

They're trying to pit people against the Mexican workers. But you know, guess what? They were speaking Spanish in New Orleans before they were speaking English. So when people would give me shit about the Mexicans, they were here before you. You know? Thank God--most are here trying to do something to help us get back on our feet.

Helicopters. Helicopters. Fuck. Every time I turn around, there's a helicopter, you know. It would scare me. It was like we were under siege. There's still helicopters. A lot of them are congressmen, and the senators. They need to get their asses out of the fricking helicopters. They need to go to work and legislate some shit to help the people instead of flying around wasting gas looking down and seeing what the fuck happened. You know what I'm saying? From up above, the ivory tower.

Some of the coffee houses came back. That was pretty cool because it gave people a place to sit in town and kind of talk. Kind of work through this thing.

Lessons from Katrina

We should count every moment that we have precious. Take nothing for granted. Also, [Katrina] taught me that we cannot rely on the government at all. You can rely on the American people. Which is a big difference these days. The volunteers that came down, and are still coming down, have meant so much. The people in charge who are supposed to be doing this shit haven't done anything. It just taught don't take anything for granted.

There's a great divide in this country between the haves and have nots. It's going to be a long time before that gap is ever closed up. Never in my lifetime. I don't know man, it's hard. My aunt used to say: from when you are born, till they put you in the earth, things might be bad, but they can always get worse. But I don't know how much worse.