#404: Dr. John, "Dr. John's Gumbo" (1972)

Cicero argues that great rhetoric should do three things to its audience: move them, instruct them, and delight them. Sir Philip Sidney steals this schema so he can define the fundamental operations of great poetry. And now I am stealing it to talk a bit about Dr. John's Gumbo. I understand how perverse it sounds to use extant categories to talk about an album whose very title refuses any easy reduction to its constituent parts. By the same token, I understand the joys that go along with certain kinds of perversity, as well as the simple fact that reading a recipe for a dish is never the same thing as eating that dish. And so I divide my essay into three parts, in order to give three glimpses from slightly different angles of this marvelous stew served up by Dr. John and his band.

To move: "Let the good times roll"

It's worth stressing that on Dr. John's Gumbo (or in it, maybe) "moving" means more than just the private feeling of a sublime whoosh. One might "move" literally, by dancing or joining the party for which the music serves as metonym. The aforementioned whoosh is a collective whoosh, a whoosh of participation rather than isolation—not that sublimity connotes isolation, but often we talk of aesthetic experiences as though they are exclusively private, a perspective which would make it impossible to talk about an album boasting nineteen musicians and performers, and featuring almost exclusively songs Dr. John himself didn't write. The "good times" here move, they roll, we are invited to join them and thus we in turn move, as in a parade, or a dance, or history itself.

To instruct: "We're gonna mess around"

If asked to make a list of "didactic" pop artists from the 1970s, I probably wouldn't think to put Dr. John on it. I don't think anyone would. And yet Dr. John's Gumbo is a crash course in the musical history of New Orleans, a collection of the good doctor's favorite standards newly rendered in the studio by him and his band. Dr. John composed only one of the album's twelve songs. Does this make the title's possessive a cruel joke? Or is it a way of foregrounding what I've already called the collective imperative to participate in the music? Is this Dr. John's property, this gumbo, or is it something he has prepared to share with his audience? I'm inclined toward the latter, even as I can't quite give a full account of the complicated position Dr. John occupied (and occupies) with respect to black musicians and songwriters, in New Orleans and in the US more broadly. The "gumbo" is part of a larger party, and it gives back the results of its "messing around," it doesn't try to act as if it spontaneously appeared. Indeed, the liner notes to Dr. John's Gumbo, written by Dr. John, candidly detail the histories of the songs covered, as well as explaining in what ways Dr. John and his band decided to mess around with those songs. It's complicated, like I said, but we learn that this music didn't come from nowhere and it certainly didn't come from Dr. John alone. It, too, is historical; it, too, rolls, and through messing around Dr. John facilitates that roll. No one ever said pleasure was straightforward.

To delight: "Ha ha ha ha"

I deliberately chose a non-lyric to head up this section, the phonemes-that-don't-signify that form part of the call-and-response in the show-stopping "Huey Smith Medley." Dr. John's tribute to the great blues pianist is interesting mostly for reasons not having to do with the words (or the sounds made with mouths), but I use this to point out that the overall "delight" of the album is one that strategically avoids articulation or statement. If you were to comb through the lyrics, you would find numerous invocations and descriptions of joy and pleasure, of happiness and general well-feeling and being and feeling. But if this were all it took for an album to "delight," everything would delight, all pop would be the same pop. For Dr. John, the delight is that we can repeat stuff that's already been done, that repetition is not a death sentence but an enabling and liberating gesture. No wheels need be reinvented, no great sadness need occur about the death of the possibility of newness, when one can do a version of a song that's already there. That version, moreover, will never be exactly the same as the song it takes as its ur-text; "copying" or "covering" is simply an excuse to fail at doing something else that's already been done. The space of that failure is the pleasure of imitation and of tribute. We hear Dr. John's continuities with, and differences from, Huey Smith and Earl King and numerous other great artists everywhere on Gumbo. This, and the freedom to do it, the freedom of the impossibility of becoming someone else, underlies the delight in the album.


But these are not three separate things. No movement without instruction; no instruction without delight; no delight without movement; and so on. The three categories usefully isolate aspects of a total machine, a whole, even autonomous (but not autarkic!), work of art. Dr. John's Gumbo excites not because I can check the boxes off as I'm moved, instructed, and delighted, but because listening to the bundle of sensations and perceptions that comprise the album invites me to participate in the process. I can't dance and right now I'm in a Westport, CT, Barnes & Noble, so that's out of the question; but is not writing about something a part of the process? And, knowing that what I've written will not be the same as listening to Dr. John's Gumbo, have I not done something analogous to recording a cover version of another song? I guess the takeaway from this album, other than that I want to listen to it again, is that the onus of having to start from scratch is a false one, it doesn't exist in the first place, and all there really is to do is go back and do something again in the hopes that something wonderful may happen. In Dr. John's case, something definitely did.

—David W. Pritchard