Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White

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Tulane Reading Project 2006

Former Time Paris Bureau Chief and bestselling author Tom Sancton returns to the New Orleans of his youth and the music that shaped and guided his life.

Song for my Fathers is the story of a young white boy driven by a consuming passion to learn the music and ways of a group of aging black jazzmen in the twilight years...

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Overview

Visit the book's website at www.otherpress.com/songformyfathers.

Tulane Reading Project 2006

Former Time Paris Bureau Chief and bestselling author Tom Sancton returns to the New Orleans of his youth and the music that shaped and guided his life.

Song for my Fathers is the story of a young white boy driven by a consuming passion to learn the music and ways of a group of aging black jazzmen in the twilight years of the segregation era. Contemporaries of Louis Armstrong, most of them had played in local obscurity until Preservation Hall launched a nationwide revival of interest in traditional jazz. They called themselves “the mens.” And they welcomed the young apprentice into their ranks.

The boy was introduced into this remarkable fellowship by his father, an eccentric Southern liberal and failed novelist whose powerful articles on race had made him one of the most effective polemicists of the early Civil Rights movement. Nurtured on his father’s belief in racial equality, the aspiring clarinetist embraced the old musicians with a boundless love and admiration. In a sense, they became his spiritual fathers and role models. Meanwhile his real father, who had first led the boy to the “mens” and shared his reverence for them, later recoiled in horror at the idea that his son might lose his way in the world of late-night jazz joints, French Quarter bar rooms, and a precarious life on the margins of society. The tension between the father’s determination to control the boy’s destiny and his son’s abiding passion for the music is a major theme of the book.

The narrative unfolds against the vivid backdrop of New Orleans in the 1950s and ‘60s. But that magical town is more than decor; it is perhaps the central player, for this story could not have taken place in any other city in the world. Written several years before Katrina crashed into New Orleans and changed its face forever, Song for My Fathers seems all the more moving in the wake of that cataclysm.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly: STARRED REVIEW

In this beguiling coming-of-age memoir, a former Time Paris bureau chief takes a heartfelt look at his unusual Crescent City childhood during the 1950’s and 60’s. At 13, the author, son of a liberal white journalist-turned-novelist and a Mississippi debutante, begins clarinet lessons, learning to play traditional New Orleans jazz from veteran black musicians who were the heart of Preservation Hall in the famous French Quarter and the soul of the local black community. Sancton loves the music, but at the same time lives the life of a middle-class white teen, expected to share the prejudices and enthusiasms of his peers. Caught between disparate social worlds and racial realities, he, “[l]ike Clark Kent…, had a double identity.” This enduring portrait of a particular side of New Orleans – which Sancton (Death of a Princess) notes “had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck” – vividly captures the author’s complicated relationships with his father, his hometown and the wonderful characters drawn to it. Sketches pay homage to clarinetist George Lewis, banjoist Creole George Guesnon, and others in prose that can emotionally mimic the sound of a horn and summon the taste of red beans and rice. (June)

Woody Allen:
“Finally a book about New Orleans music from a totally fresh perspective. Tom Sancton was fortunate to have had a very colorful upbringing in the cradle of jazz and we're fortunate that he wrote about it so rivetingly.”

Wynton Marsalis:
“This is an important inside look into an underinvestigated period of New Orleans music. It tells a story with an insider’s heart, a reporter’s eye, and the pure feeling of a New Orleans musician. Enjoyable, informative and engaging.”

Library Journal, William G. Kenz

A memoir in the truest sense of the word, this is the story of a young white boy discovering life at its most meaningful and bittersweet...Brimming with the creatively ripe atmosphere of New Orleans pre-Katrina.

Time Magazine

In his memoir Song for My Fathers, former TIME Paris bureau chief Tom Sancton recaptures the jazz-filled spirit of New Orleans in the 1950s and '60s, recounting his experiences and fellowship with "the mens," the black musicians of Preservation Hall. A white clarinetist caught between his father's belief in racial equality and the prejudices of his peers, Sancton finds a second family in these aging jazzmen and the world they created--a world, he writes, that "had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck."

New Orleans Times Picayune, Susan Larson

Song for My Fathers is a serenade to many things -- to "the mens," who gave Sancton a sense of artistry as well as a model for endurance; to his own unconventional father, who found in "the mens" a metaphor for, and a hope of, his own redemption; middle-class family life in 1960s New Orleans; and the hope for racial harmony, or the wisdom that comes through understanding.

This book has many strengths -- it is that rare chronicle of a young person growing up in New Orleans who is able to bridge the racial barrier, as well as an equally rare account of a young person's public school education here. French Quarter characters and musical legends spring to life in these pages -- George Lewis, George Guesnon, Percy and Willie Humphrey, Harold Dejan, Sweet Emma Barrett, Punch Miller, Chester Zardis, artist Noel Rockmore, Sandy and Allan Jaffee, Larry Borenstein, Bill Russell, Mike Stark, even a very young Quint Davis.

Song for My Fathers struts with the energy of youth, tempered a bit by the wisdom of middle age, and the bittersweet certainty that change is inevitable. Every page of this newly minted classic of life in New Orleans is filled with grace and gratitude, a debt paid in full to the men who showed Tom Sancton the way.

Edge, Esther Friedman

As the nation grieves the devastation Hurricane Katrina visited on the Gulf Coast, Song for My Fathers offers an often funny and sometimes heart-wrenching tribute to the battered city, a salutation to the wisdom, strength and humor of the music and musicians who give New Orleans its soul, and a guidebook to its heart. It is also a salutation to the power of music that melts down racial/class/economic barriers, and an important chronicle of the history of civil rights, as well as the city’s significance and contribution to our country.

Entertainment Weekly

Returning to his hometown, New Orleans, Sancton places his hands on Preservation Hall's wrought-iron gates and peers in, recalling a city that "had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck--a victim of time, progress, and the eternal passing of generations." TIME's ex-Paris bureau chief (and an accomplished clarinetist) honors his father, a white writer with progressive views, and "the mens," the black and Creole musicians who accepted the author into their ranks. When George Lewis plays a lick and tells a young Sancton, "Make that," he invites him also to imagine a world beyond racism. Sancton's prose seduces like a good second-line parade. B+

Gambit Weekly, Tom McDermott

The number of readable books about traditional jazz is surprisingly small, so Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White is a terrific find.

This book contains some of the best writing ever about the New Orleans Revival, the rediscovery of some of the city's earliest jazz men that began at the end of the 1930s and gained traction with Bunk Johnson's first recordings in 1942.

The narrative, basically a series of reminiscences, is neatly sandwiched between two jazz funerals: the 1954 burial of Papa Celestin, which the author attended at the age of 5, and that of clarinetist George Lewis, whose passing in 1969, the year the author left for Harvard, signifies the end of an era for Sancton.

Sancton's status as a successful Orleanian-in-exile (he lives just outside Paris) gives him the freedom to write without worrying about flattery or offense.

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

Sancton loves the music, but at the same time lives the life of a middle-class white teen, expected to share the prejudices and enthusiasms of his peers. Sketches pay homage to clarinetist George Lewis, banjoist Creole George Guesnon and others in prose that can emotionally mimic the sound of a horn and summon the taste of red beans and rice.

USA Today

Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time, has written a lyrical memoir that re-creates a time and place and tells a poignant story about a father who was as difficult as he was lovable.

San Antonio Express-News, Jim Beale Jr.

The book is a powerful snapshot of the resurgence of interest in trad jazz in the '60s, the rise of Preservation Hall, a bit of a look at the lives of legends such as Lewis, Guesnon, the Humphrey brothers, Sweet Emma Barrett, Danny Barker, Jim Robinson, Harold Dejan and many others. It offers a glimpse of a New Orleans that was long gone before Hurricane Katrina hit.

J.B. Spins

Sancton is an excellent writer, and his affectionate portrayal of “the mens” is absorbing. His accounts of his family, particularly his complex relationship with his father are also surprisingly compelling, sometimes even bordering on Southern Gothic. Written before Katrina, Sancton added a preface about his return to his parents’ storm ravaged home, adding an additional chapter of frustration to his family history.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Sancton's poignant coming-of-age tale serves as both a loving paean to his father and an eloquent memoir of a moment in musical and social history.

Detroit Free Press

Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time, has written a lyrical memoir, Song for My Fathers, that re-creates a time and place and tells a poignant story about a father who was as difficult as he was lovable.

Austin Chronicle, Robert Gabriel

What kind of father encourages his white, preteen son to befriend elderly black men in barely desegregated New Orleans? As much a personal journey as a restoration of New Orleans music history, Song for My Fathers drenches itself in the sweat of a life spent riding the fence between patriarchal extremes.

New Orleans Magazine

[Sancton's] character portraits of musicians are worth the price of the ticket...[George] Lewis is the subject of two biographies, long out of print. He comes alive in these pages as a gentle spirit in whom the student found a surrogate father.

Sancton writes with clear-eyed honesty about the racial tensions present as segregation laws began crumbling in New Orleans during his teenage years. Yet his tone is anything but preachy; he doesn’t sentimentalize the struggle of musicians as they straddled the racial divide. He reports what he saw and remembered, treating the men (and pianist “Sweet Emma” Barrett) as artists, with all the complexities that the creative imagination carries.

Tom Sancton’s account of George Lewis’s wake and funeral registers the heartbeat of New Orleans jazz with rare beauty.

Preserving the heritage will require the talents of both the musicians and the writers. In Sancton and in Song for My Fathers, both can be found.

The Madison County Herald, JC Patterson
If you're a fan of traditional New Orleans jazz, take a trip back in time to the heyday of Preservation Hall, from a novice insider whose intimate memories serve as wallpaper to some of the sweetest sounds and eclectic personalities in Big Easy history. Song For My Fathers is music for the soul.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

...an evocative and luminous memoir...

New Orleans Times-Picayune Best of 2006

The other work of nonfiction that captivated readers all over the city -- as well as the entering freshman class at Tulane University, for which it was required reading -- was A Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, by Tom Sancton, a beautifully written memoir of growing up in New Orleans in the '50s and learning to play the clarinet from "the mens" of Preservation Hall.

JazzBeat, Paige VanVorst

Sancton is an excellent writer and the book gripped me like few books I've encountered lately – there are excellent profiles of a number of my idols – Creole George Guesnon, Punch Miller, George Lewis, Jim Robinson and Chester Zardis, filling in numerous details I've never seen in print before, providing a clear narrative of the Preservation Hall scene in the 1960s.

Tom Sancton has written a masterpiece – one of the most readable narratives on New Orleans jazz to come along in years.

The Progressive Christian, John Winn

[In Song for My Fathers] Narvin Kimball, a wonderful left-handed traditional jazz banjoist and singer, at age 90 said to... Tom, "I want you to do something for me, young man. I want you to tell the people that you played with me when I was 90 years old, and I still have the beat. Tell them, please." He did. By doing so, he makes you want to tell your story, too.

The New Yorker
When Sancton’s father, a former editor at The New Republic, returned to the South to write novels, he instilled in his son a passion for jazz, taking him along to listen in—even on school nights—at Allan and Sandy Jaffe’s Preservation Hall, in New Orleans. In time, Sancton started playing jazz himself. (A clarinettist, he included among his mentors George Lewis and Punch Miller.) This jazz memoir’s straightforward style has the virtue of allowing the musicians to speak for themselves. The book is a mirror for their private tribulations, and also for public ones: as a teen-ager at a Tulane frat party, Sancton watched, ashamed, as an all-black local band was told to play “Dixie.” A moving introduction explains that this memoir was written before Hurricane Katrina; much of what Sancton lovingly depicts has now vanished in space as well as time.
Publishers Weekly
In this beguiling coming-of-age memoir, a former Time Paris bureau chief takes a heartfelt look at his unusual Crescent City childhood during the 1950s and '60s. At 13, the author, son of a liberal white journalist-turned-novelist and a Mississippi debutante, begins clarinet lessons, learning to play traditional New Orleans jazz from veteran black musicians who were the heart of Preservation Hall in the famous French Quarter and the soul of the local black community. Sancton loves the music, but at the same time lives the life of a middle-class white teen, expected to share the prejudices and enthusiasms of his peers. Caught between disparate social worlds and racial realities, he, "[l]ike Clark Kent..., had a double identity." This enduring portrait of a particular side of New Orleans-which Sancton (Death of a Princess) notes "had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck"-vividly captures the author's complicated relationships with his father, his hometown and the wonderful characters drawn to it. Sketches pay homage to clarinetist George Lewis, banjoist Creole George Guesnon and others in prose that can emotionally mimic the sound of a horn and summon the taste of red beans and rice. Photos. Author tour. (June) Look for an upcoming Q&A with Tom Sancton.-Ed. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A memoir in the truest sense of the word, this is the story of a young white boy discovering life at its most meaningful and bittersweet. Sancton, Time magazine's Paris bureau chief, grew up in 1950s and 1960s New Orleans and portrays his father in both a positive and a negative light. One of the greatest things the elder Sancton did for his son was introduce him to the many black "fathers" of the local jazz community, e.g., George Lewis, Punch Miller, and Harold Dejan. The author grew to love jazz, eventually becoming an accomplished musician and a part of the fathers' lives. These "men" (as Sancton calls the older musicians) alone would have made the story rich, but there is also coverage of Sancton's father's past as a writer, his frustration over not quite making the impact he wished, and his cultivation of a son toward the life he wanted. Brimming with the creatively ripe atmosphere of New Orleans pre-Katrina, this is highly recommended for all libraries.-William G. Kenz, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Moorhead Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A former bureau chief for Time and a certified jazz freak from adolescence onward tells his sweet coming-of-age story in pre-Katrina New Orleans when "the mens" (as the black jazz masters called one another) played the music that won his heart. Sancton, co-author of a clear-eyed account of the death of Princess Di (Death of Princess, 1998, not reviewed), returns with a memoir about his fathers-his biological one (who once edited the New Republic and wrote two novels) and his musical ones, the legendary black musicians of New Orleans, most notably clarinetist George Lewis, the first to tell the author, "You got music inside you." Sancton believed what he heard and was soon taking lessons at the feet of the masters, playing in street-funeral processions, sitting in at Preservation Hall, often finding himself the lone white face in the band. He played with these men, fished with them, ate with them, visited their simple (and sometimes collapsing) dwellings as if they were religious shrines. The author's parents were remarkable: They took him to Preservation Hall regularly, befriended many of the musicians, proudly sat in the audience while their son honed his craft. Sancton kept his love mostly hidden from his all-white schoolmates (one girlfriend chided him for spending time with black people) and even played '60s rock in a high-school group. Sancton's great public service is to usher these unique artists-almost all of whom are now dead-back onto the stage for one more encore. They become more than mere names. We learn what angered and amused them, what they liked to eat, how they interacted with one another and, in some cases, how they died. Almost all of them kept playing until theysimply no longer could. Music for the "mens" was life itself. A clear, simple melody played, surprisingly, with very little improvisation or ornamentation, but with enormous respect and affection.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590512432
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 6/5/2006
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Sancton

Tom Sancton makes his debut as a writer of political thrillers with The Armageddon Project. For 22 years he worked at Time magazine, most recently as the Paris Bureau Chief. He coauthored the 1998 international bestseller Death of a Princess: The Investigation, which examined the circumstances surrounding Princess Diana’s death. His acclaimed memoir, Song for My Fathers (Other Press, 2006), recounts his early life among legendary jazz men in his native New Orleans. He currently lives in Paris.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2009

    An Excellent Read for those Interested in Traditional Jazz/New Orleans

    As one who is very interested in traditional jazz, this book fascinated me. Having been to Preservation Hall on each of our visits to this amazing city, I loved reading about how the hall first began and could just imagine those early days. I was inspired by the "mens" as those jazz greats called themselves, and enjoyed hearing the author's stories of time spent with them and lessons learned. What a unique experience this author has had!

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