By Ben Colins
Music in “Shallow Water, Oh Mama,” the sixth episode of “Treme,” is so pervasive that it sometimes overtakes dialogue altogether. Lyrics replace direct emotion. Energy from performances visually beat off frustration. The parade in the episode’s final scene allows the characters some solace for once: Things can end smoothly and beautifully — just as long as there’s still a beat.
“I Was a Little Too Lonely” by Nat King Cole
The first song in “Shallow Water, Oh Mama” is probably also its most expository. Nat King Cole’s “I Was a Little Too Lonely” plays out of a battery-charged stereo in a still-unlit project home, as Albert Lambreaux tends to his Indian headdresses, whittling down the feathers so they fit in a garment’s whole. It is these sorts of deft and subtle touches that turn creator David Simon’s work from merely great television into appropriately-heralded masterpieces. The scene sets up the A-plot to this week’s “Treme,” with all of its nuances and without a single word of character dialogue.
Albert has a girlfriend now. His daughter sometimes drops by to help him with the construction work he heads in the Sixth Ward’s most flood-damaged areas. But Albert still actively misses his son, Delmond, who has been touring the country playing contemporary jazz all throughout New York. Albert’s raison d’etre is clearly keeping the city’s infamous Indian tradition alive as one of its most revered chiefs, and his son has the opportunity to extend that tradition, even if he’d rather not. “You would never write/ You would never call/ While I had the blues/ You were having a ball,” Cole sings. “You promised me you’d come back/ I promised to wait/ But I was a little too lonely/ And you were a little to late.” Simon shows the loneliness and despair in just a few seconds, and like the best jazz tunes holds the payoff until later.
“Mardi Gras Mambo,” written by Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch
Delmond begrudgingly plays this to a delightfully Cajun-gluttonous crowd. He’s at a gig in Phoenix. He wants to play a challenge, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” as an encore. He views tradition as a step back for jazz, and it clashes head-on when he sees his father. His dad wants him to march with him next week, but Delmond is once again touring. Albert’s sadness transcends a physical longing for his son. He wants his son back, but it goes even deeper than that. He wants the one who appreciated New Orleans, not the one that was ashamed of it.
Later, when Albert and his friends are practicing, Delmond sneaks around the back of the practice space and peers in to watch through two slats of wood in the dark. The energy of the song, “Shallow Water, Oh Mama,” has him smiling and bouncing his head to the tradition again, finally.
“Shallow Water, Oh Mama” by Clarke Peters (as Albert Lambreaux) et. al. (originally by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias)
Albert is engaged in a months-long bureaucratic standoff with local authorities. Lambreaux wants the projects given back to their previous tenants. Some homes, we find out later in the episode, weren’t even flood-damaged, needlessly leaving thousands without a place to live. The authorities admire what Chief Albert has brought to the city’s time-honored Indian tradition at funerals and celebrations. A politician says he’ll try to pull some strings. By episode’s end, a go-between for the city government arrives at a Monday night group practice. They’re playing “Shallow Water, Oh Mama” without the luxury of any instruments other than a tambourine. It is mere yell upon yell. The original arrangement by Bo Dollis is a grand, sweeping brass parade, accompanied by a persistent booming bass drum and parsed, timed auxiliary percussion. But of course, with most of the band members living in homes that aren’t their own, they will make do with what they have to keep the tradition alive.
The shots of the practices are almost blind with darkness, except for one sliver of light pouring out of a stray window or an open door. Upon hearing the courier’s message, this seems especially deliberate. The government aid says he’s come with good news: One FEMA trailer for Lambreaux. An episode before, Lambreaux had asked for permission to use the mostly-safe project houses until Mardi Gras in order to keep the tradition strong. A week later, he has an offer for a trailer to house the 10-or-so people in this dank practice room. He said he couldn’t offer any more, and that turning over the projects is “a federal thing.” There will be promises, but they will be shallow. There will be light, but only just a little, and probably not enough.
“Basin Street Blues” by Michiel Huisman (as Sonny) and Lucia Micarelli (Annie) (made most famous by Louis Armstrong)
As Sonny stumbles through this song, a caricatured drunk, reinventing lyrics, slouched standing over his piano, he breathes the alcoholic, dangerous air the song intends. “Won’t you coming along with me down the Mississippi? … Come along with me down to New Orleans,” he sings, and then is heckled. Annie, as usual, is humble and technically sound on her accompanying violin. Sonny sounds like Oscar the Grouch to a T. “Heaven on Earth — they call it Basin Street.” This is what Louis Armstrong sings, and what Sonny would sing, too, if he wasn’t spouting nonsense. It’s fitting, too. Sonny is avoiding singing about the song’s true meaning, about Basin Street in its infamy, a prime 1930s speakeasy haven where corruption and drugs reigned. He’s also avoiding even singing about his downward spiral, his alcoholism and newfound cocaine problem.
He’s called out on the lyrics by a heckler and finally called out on his lifestyle by Annie later. She had been asked to another swanky gig, but Sonny doesn’t want her to take it. Annie implies jealousy, and says she is sick of busking just to get by. He immediately hits Annie and she bolts. He swears it’ll never happen again. Annie appears to stay. But she has no choice, truly. They live together. She followed her heart down the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and it has left her with an abusive boyfriend, swindled by the least sexy part of a New Orleans jazz lifestyle.