The Music Behind Treme
The first season of HBO’s Treme begins in December 2005, or as the caption on the screen reads, “Three Months After.” There is, of course, no need to ask after what. The opening sequence, set to John Boutte’s “Broke Down The Door/The Treme Song,” (released in 2008, on his Good Neighbor album) is a cascade of images of revelry and ruin: second line parades, the swirling storm in the Gulf, floodwaters in the streets, Trombone Shorty blowing his horn, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste high-stepping with his second line club.
Blake Leyh is the music supervisor for Treme, coming to it from show creator David Simon’s The Wire. He’s a composer and film scorer of some note. For Treme, probably the most music-driven show currently on television, he’s written nothing, and doesn’t plan to.
“As a composer, I talk to people and they say, ‘So you’re writing the score for Treme?’” he says. “And I say, ‘No, there is no score.’”
According to Leyh, people assume that it must be frustrating for him not to compose original music for the show. He says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“A show like Treme is such an incredible dream job opportunity,” he says. “Just the work itself—usually, if you write a film score, you sit in a room by yourself. The idea that that is somehow more creative or more noble than wrangling 300 pieces of New Orleans music and trying to figure out how to fit them to tell a story—well, it’s just not like that,” he says.
Leyh works with the writers in a way that is somewhat nontraditional in television. He uses the songs they suggest as parts of the storyline, or gives them advice on how the real musicians they’re writing about might behave, since he works closely with bands on the many live performances that appear in the show. He has a certain amount of New Orleans cred himself, having traveled there for the first time in the ‘90s to visit his mother and sister, who were deep in the brass band scene.
“It feels slightly ridiculous to repeat these things as credentials, but my sister painted ‘Uncle’ Lionel’s drum, and painted a design on Donna’s bar,” he says, referring to the venerable Treme Brass Band drummer and the popular tavern on the border of the French Quarter and Treme.
“Sometimes it strikes me as bizarre that that counts as a credential of authenticity in New Orleans. But it does.”
Music saturates the show. Each episode is titled after a classic New Orleans song. Second to Katrina, it’s largely the thread that links the lives and storylines of musicians and nonmusician characters alike. As in any TV show or film, music sets the mood, but in Treme, the songs themselves help tell the story of New Orleans. A pair of buskers teases unknowing tourists by charging extra for a request of the chestnut “When the Saints Go Marching In”—Lucia Micarelli’s violinist character Annie tells them that the song usually requires an extra tip, referencing the sign in Preservation Hall that reads “Traditional Requests, $5, ‘The Saints,’ $10.” On a road trip, 5th Ward Weebie’s post-storm bounce anthem, “F*** Katrina,” blares from the car speakers, as it did in real life from many vehicles in December ‘05. A large portion of each episode is spent with characters actively performing music, listening to music, broadcasting it on the radio, and talking about gigs or the lack of them.
Series creator David Simon had begun toying with the concept for Treme years ago, even before Katrina hit. He knew from the beginning that music and musicians would drive the show. He was entranced by the way music was a part of the city’s heart and its daily grind, as natural an occurrence as going to the grocery store or mowing the lawn.
“Have you ever walked down the street in New Orleans, and seen a kid practicing his horn in the street, because his mom said take that outside?” Simon asked. “That’s a commonality in New Orleans you don’t see anywhere else; a nine-year-old kid walking down the street with a trombone, playing the scales.”
For a show set in the throes of the earliest post-flood disaster, a time when many New Orleans residents hadn’t even been back to take a first look at their damaged homes and businesses, it might seem frivolous for so much time and attention to be spent on music and musicians.
In the real New Orleans of winter 2005, though, that was an undeniable part of what was happening. Generator-powered shows went off at unflooded venues like the French Quarter’s One Eyed Jacks and Uptown’s Circle Bar, Maple Leaf and Le Bon Temps Roule, as early as that September. Also in September, the newly formed New Orleans Musicians’ Hurricane Relief Fund began distributing emergency cash grants to displaced performers. (Late in season one, the character Antoine Batiste, played by Wendell Pierce, plays his trombone on a gig subsidized by the pre-storm charity the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.) By early October ‘05, the volunteer-powered radio station WWOZ was back on the air—or at least streaming on the Internet, on borrowed bandwidth from New Jersey’s WFMU—and by December, it was broadcasting out of the studio we see in the first episode of Treme, in the French Market Corporation headquarters in the French Quarter.
During the short HBO documentary Making Treme, actor Clarke Peters, who plays Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, comments: “It’s one thing for people to get their homes rebuilt, but another to reclaim their culture.”
Those two things aren’t necessarily separate. In New Orleans’ cultural tourism-driven economy, if nobody plays, almost nobody gets paid. One thing Treme does very well is to represent that workaday world of the business of music—its daily grind and hustle for gigs. In episode one, in one of the very first scenes, we see a triumphant, spirit-swelling second line parade march defiantly—with the Rebirth Brass Band blaring and thumping—through streets that are still streaked with toxic sludge and scattered with debris. But even before that, we see the leader of the second line’s social aid and pleasure club haggle with the band over their fee.