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?