When The Visual and Verbal Arts Are In Perfect Harmony
(Not) Talking About Politics

Sunday Night Journal — November 12, 2006

Funky Town

It’s hard to define the word “funky.” I think it originally meant “bad-smelling,” and sometimes it still does (“These leftover greens are getting kind of funky—I’m throwing them out”). But now it’s also a term of approbation, connoting among other things a sort of sloppy authenticity, along with color, flair, and insouciance toward the staid and dignified. It brings to mind certain associated adjectives: greasy, dirty, smoky, spicy; flavorful; the opposite of bland. A good exemplar in food is red beans and rice; in music, “I Got You” (if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize the sound—it’s the famous James Brown song that starts off “I feeeel good,” and if you’ve listened to the radio at all over the last forty years you should be able to hear that horn line now).

And if you want to pin the word on a city, New Orleans has first and undisputed claim. The term may be black—African-American, to use the clumsier and politer term—in origin, but now, like so many black contributions to our culture, it belongs to everybody, although it’s still particularly associated with and most used by and about black people. Likewise, the existence of an old and continuing black culture in New Orleans is a major component of its funkiness.

So is the juxtaposition of so many different and vivid things, good and bad. Songwriter Grayson Capps nails the place perfectly as “that rotten old town that everyone loves.” Don’t kid yourself: New Orleans is a mess. It was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and it’s a mess now. It has a long history of corruption and shiftlessness, from the city government to the bars of the French Quarter. But it can still get under your skin. The appeal has something to do with the color and flavor of the place, and also with starkness of its contrasts: rich and poor, sleazy and holy, clean and dirty.

We’ve just come back from an overnight trip there. We went to Mass Sunday morning in one of the more beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, the Jesuit Church of the Assumption, its architecture described as “Hispano-Moresque,” a style of which I had never heard, but which I presume is something out of post-Moslem Spain. Not too far away there were probably still a few of Saturday night’s drunks bumbling around, and others just starting out, Sunday morning or not. Sin abounded, I have no doubt. And yet grace was there in plenitude.

A friend of mine who doesn’t much like New Orleans has remarked on there being something dark about it, and of course he’s right, but that’s not the whole story. The darkness is serious and pretty much out in the open, but it coexists with a lot of Christian light and a whole lot of basic human warmth.

Sometimes in this mega-techno-capitalist world, “funky” just seems like another word for “human.” That’s part of the reason why America needs this city. It’s also, come to think of it, why white America needs black America. But that’s a topic for another day.

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