While many of us have forgotten about Hurricane Katrina and the lives it displaced, ruined and ended, bluesman James Blood Ulmer hasn’t. Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions is a musical journey through hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, focusing on the devastated Ninth Ward in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and and the Bush administrations pathetic response to one of our countries worst natural disasters. But why release an album now, years after the event? As producer Vernon Reid says, “For me, it seems more important to record this music now than right after Katrina. With the media no longer focused on it, this is when the tragedy starts slipping to the back of our collective memories, but we can’t forget what happened down there. This is one small way to prevent it from fading to black.”
As many did in the days following Katrina, Ulmer watched the events unfold before his eyes in real time on CNN. While many watched with no real outlet for anger and disappointment, Ulmer funneled his emotions into a series of songs which addressed the disaster before him: “Survivors of the Hurricane,” “Katrina,” “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” “There is Power in the Blues,” and “Old Slave Master.” Each song takes a critical look at the events and the failure of the government to respond. The opening track, “Survivors of the Hurricane,” lays out the events plainly for all to hear:“Five days fighting for life, search for dry land no matter what the price, shootin’ and lootin’ was not a game, flood waters brought pain.” He then adds a jab at the Bush administration: “Here comes Johnny come lately with the Army and their National Guard, now that the storm was over, they call themselves heroes for doing their jobs.” “Katrina” implores those looking for answers to “Talk to the president”, allowing no excuses for the “rich and able” who left the poor behind in the wake of the flood.
The album was actually recorded at Piety studios, located in the Ninth Ward, and the release is rounded out by six older songs that producer Reid felt could have been written about Katrina. Songs by legends John Lee Hooker, Junior Kimbrough, Willie Dixon, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bessie Smith bring another layer to the story Ulmer is telling, touching on the politics of race, poverty, crime, and the government’s role in all of it. Smith’s slow mournful “Blackwater Blues” is especially poignant with its line, “Look there’s a thousand poor people, they didn’t have no place to go.” It’s a shame that 80 years after this song was first written, it still rings true.
The album closes out with Ulmer’s own “Old Slave Master,” which asks the question, “What took you so long? What are you going to do now?” It is a question that, unfortunately, two years later, still has not been answered. People have returned to New Orleans, the Saints made the NFC Championship game last season, people are trying to get on with their lives, but there have never heard answers for the lack of response by our president and his administration. Ulmer wants some answers now, just as we all should. Reid sums it up: “Blood wrote these songs…they are politically incorrect, they’re sad and haunting, they’re pissed off, and on an existential level, they address the complicated concept that is America.”
Bad Blood in the City is a reminder of the power of music and the importance it can hold in addressing issues in our lives. It is a great record that points out so many of the injustices in front of our eyes that we are, at times, afraid to look at. It asks the questions we have all thought about after the tragedy in New Orleans. It is full of anger, rage, and one man’s disappointment in his government. It looks for answers that may never come, but it never stops asking them, and neither should we.