Summer Songs: Professor Longhair's Daughter
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now we continue our Summer Songs series. All summer long, we've been talking with Gwen Thompkins, the host of Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans, about current artists who are reinterpreting old classics. This week, she tells us about Pat Byrd. You may not know her name, but chances are you've heard of her father. He was known as Professor Longhair. Henry Roeland Byrd was the godfather of New Orleans R&B.
He died suddenly in 1980 just as his career was coming back with the album "Crawfish Fiesta." His daughter Pat lived in his home until eight years ago this week, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Pat Byrd has been effectively homeless and drifting ever since. Now a number of foundations in New Orleans have gotten together to refurbish that home for Pat Byrd. Here's WWNO's Gwen Thompkins telling us about a recent interview with her.
GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: So when I talked to her in the park one day, I asked her, you know, does she listen to her father's music? And she goes, oh, yes. I love "Crawfish Fiesta." And I said, and what song do you like the best? And she goes, "When My Baby Leaves." And I said, I don't know that song. And so then she sang it. And it turns out, I know the song and many others do as "Cry to Me," which is a wonderful song that was written by Bert Russell. And boy, she can really sing it. And so we want you to hear her sing it and her old man sing it, Professor Longhair.
MARTIN: All right. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY BABY LEAVES")
MARTIN: Were those cicadas?
THOMPKINS: Yes. Yes, yes. She inspired them.
MARTIN: 'Cause I was wondering, what is that? That sounds like cicadas. She inspired them to sing along.
THOMPKINS: Maybe they knew the song. We play it a lot down here, you know.
MARTIN: Did people know that she could sing like that?
THOMPKINS: No. Nobody knew she could sing like that. And she told me that, you know, she sings in the church choir periodically and all, and, you know, she sings at the bus stop, but that's about it.
THOMPKINS: And the thing is, you know, she is, you know, there's Lisa Marie Presley and there is Pat Byrd. I mean, you know, she is the daughter of a person who's considered the father of modern New Orleans R&B music.
THOMPKINS: You know, this is a song, if you listen to the lyrics, when you're all alone in an empty room, and there's nothing there but the scent of her perfume. When you feel like crying, don't it make you feel like crying. Here I am baby. Come to me. And this is sort of the idea that, you know, people experience very, very hard times in life, and if they're lucky, they have somebody out there who wants to enfold them in, you know, in their arms and make it seem better for a while.
And the truth of the matter is, you know, we talk so much about the American experience being, always being able to pass along to generations a better life. But sometimes, it's also true in America, that families can only pass along intangible gifts to their children, and sort of this idea that the gift of art and comfort is what has sustained Pat Byrd even through the roughest times of her life.
MARTIN: Gwen Thompkins. Thank you, Gwen. Really a heartbreaking and uplifting journey, all a span of a couple of minutes.
THOMPKINS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MARTIN: That's Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, an icon of New Orleans R&B music. You can hear his daughter Pat Byrd's conversation with Gwen Thompkins, the host of Music Inside Out at WWNO.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.