John Boutté on Art Imitating Life

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By Lolis Eric Elie

It seems half the time I go out to hear live music these days, the bands will play “The Treme Song.” The song doesn’t have a lot of lyrics. Still, many of the singers doing these impromptu versions haven’t even bothered to learn the few lyrics there are. John Boutté is the author and performer of this song. His voice is the one heard at the top of every show. Even before ‘Treme’ aired, John Boutté had earned a reputation as one of the very finest singers in a town filled with good singers. ‘Treme’ has helped bring this talent to a wider audience. I caught up with him for a few minutes recently to talk about his life and music in general, and “Milton,” the song we refer to in this week’s episode.

You didn’t start singing seriously until after your time in the Army in South Korea. What was it about being in Korea that had such an impact on you?

John Boutté: I enlisted to serve and help pay for my college education, because I was offered a scholarship at Xavier University in New Orleans: four years of ROTC, four years of active duty and two years in the reserve. My grandfather, father and I were in the Army. My brothers Anthony and Emanuel were in the Navy, and little brother served in the Air Force. It was a rite of passage for the guys and a field that held some opportunity for black men. Finding a job in Louisiana can be a challenge for African-American men. I saw it as an open door to maybe a better life.

Technically I think Korea is a DMZ, demilitarized zone. But it was the closest we were to fighting at the time. I don’t think you could make that point to the Korean people though, or any soldier who was on 24-hour alert like we were. I was honorably discharged from active duty as a first lieutenant after serving as a commander. I spent a total of 10 years with the Army. I served at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea. That was my last active duty.

I think any soldier assigned to a hardship tour in a demilitarized zone comes back changed. The intensity of being that close to a potential life-threatening experience will change your perspective. Because I was a commander and had great responsibilities to uphold, it fortified my ability to focus, and my own self-confidence to perform when faced with great adversity. You could say it prepared me to deal with the loss and hardship we all endured after Hurricane Katrina. It was also the first time I was separated from my family and city for more than a year.

Which singers influenced you?

John Boutté: Donny Hathaway, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Big Joe Turner, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Little Willie John and a host of New Orleanians from my sister Lillian to Johnny Adams. I also listened to countless unknown performers in churches and clubs across the country. I can’t ever forget Louis Armstrong and all the classic jazz folk.

Tell me about your sisters. Last season you sang the song you wrote with Paul Sanchez in honor of them. Who are they? Which of them sing?

John Boutté: Lolet, Lynette, Lillian, Lorna, Leda and Lenora are my six sisters. I have three brothers also, Anthony, Emanuel and Peter. The singers in the family are Lillian, Lorna and myself.

We featured “Milton” in this week’s episode. In the scene, you say it hasn’t been released. Tell us about the song.

John Boutté: Milton was written by Loren Pickford in the early 1990s. It was a requiem for Milton Nascimento, the great Brazilian singer and poet. Loren thought that he was very close to death and was moved to write a song about him. I recorded it, but then left it off the “Foot of Canal Street” CD because I didn’t think it was appropriate–Milton was, and still is, alive. I had some issues with a certain record company that brought me to the decision to re-release my CD. Instead of dealing with lawyers trying to chase after my old CD, I thought if I added a bonus track and change the cover, it would make the CD they were selling obsolete. I also considered that if someone wrote a beautiful song honoring my life, I would like to hear it while I could.

How did you come to write the ‘Treme’ theme song?

John Boutté: Art imitating life I guess. I was at home in the Treme on St. Claude Street and a funeral procession happened to be passing my house. I stepped outside, observed as they passed by, sat at the piano, wrote the lyrics, and put a New Orleans clave beat to a very simple blues chord. Go figure. I forgot about it until I went to record.

Has your association with ‘Treme’ changed your career at all?

John Boutté: Absolutely! It has changed many people’s lives here in NOLA. The exposure has been exceptional and totally increased the amount of people listening to the music. I have been touched by ‘Treme’ so to speak.

Do you do much touring now?

John Boutté: Touring is fun, if it’s done right. But I find staying in New Orleans and having an audience come to my shows less stressful and a much better business model.

What’s next?

John Boutté: Making music, helping my family, friends and community continue to recover from the greatest challenge we have faced in my life.