Song for My Fathers is the story of a young white boy driven by a consuming passion to learn the music and ways of a group of aging black jazzmen in the twilight years of the segregation era. Contemporaries of Louis Armstrong, most of them had played in local obscurity until Preservation Hall launched a nationwide revival of interest in traditional jazz. They called themselves “the mens.” And they welcomed the young apprentice into their ranks.
The boy was introduced into this remarkable fellowship by his father, an eccentric Southern liberal and failed novelist whose powerful articles on race had made him one of the most effective polemicists of the early Civil Rights movement. Nurtured on his father’s belief in racial equality, the aspiring clarinetist embraced the old musicians with a boundless love and admiration. The narrative unfolds against the vivid backdrop of New Orleans in the 1950s and ‘60s. But that magical place is more than decor; it is perhaps the central player, for this story could not have taken place in any other city in the world.
About the Author
Tom Sancton graduated from Harvard in 1971 and attended Oxford as a
Rhodes scholar. He is a former senior editor for Time and a contributor to such
publications as Vanity Fair, Fortune, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal.
He coauthored the international best seller Death of a Princess: The
Investigation and authored the novel The Armageddon Project. A jazz performer
in his own right, Sancton has toured extensively in Europe and has recorded
more than a dozen albums, appearing alongside Woody Allen in the feature
film Wild Man Blues. In 2007, Sancton was named Andrew W. Mellon Professor in
the Humanities at Tulane University, where he continues to teach advanced
courses in creative writing.
Publishers Weekly: STARRED REVIEW
In this beguiling coming-of-age memoir, a former Time Paris bureau chief takes a heartfelt look at his unusual Crescent City childhood during the 1950’s and 60’s. At 13, the author, son of a liberal white journalist-turned-novelist and a Mississippi debutante, begins clarinet lessons, learning to play traditional New Orleans jazz from veteran black musicians who were the heart of Preservation Hall in the famous French Quarter and the soul of the local black community. Sancton loves the music, but at the same time lives the life of a middle-class white teen, expected to share the prejudices and enthusiasms of his peers. Caught between disparate social worlds and racial realities, he, “[l]ike Clark Kent…, had a double identity.” This enduring portrait of a particular side of New Orleans – which Sancton (Death of a Princess) notes “had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck” – vividly captures the author’s complicated relationships with his father, his hometown and the wonderful characters drawn to it. Sketches pay homage to clarinetist George Lewis, banjoist Creole George Guesnon, and others in prose that can emotionally mimic the sound of a horn and summon the taste of red beans and rice. (June)
“Finally a book about New Orleans music from a totally fresh perspective. Tom Sancton was fortunate to have had a very colorful upbringing in the cradle of jazz and we're fortunate that he wrote about it so rivetingly.”
“This is an important inside look into an underinvestigated period of New Orleans music. It tells a story with an insider’s heart, a reporter’s eye, and the pure feeling of a New Orleans musician. Enjoyable, informative and engaging.”
Library Journal, William G. Kenz
A memoir in the truest sense of the word, this is the story of a young white boy discovering life at its most meaningful and bittersweet...Brimming with the creatively ripe atmosphere of New Orleans pre-Katrina.
In his memoir Song for My Fathers, former TIME Paris bureau chief Tom Sancton recaptures the jazz-filled spirit of New Orleans in the 1950s and '60s, recounting his experiences and fellowship with "the mens," the black musicians of Preservation Hall. A white clarinetist caught between his father's belief in racial equality and the prejudices of his peers, Sancton finds a second family in these aging jazzmen and the world they created--a world, he writes, that "had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck."
New Orleans Times Picayune, Susan Larson
Song for My Fathers is a serenade to many things -- to "the mens," who gave Sancton a sense of artistry as well as a model for endurance; to his own unconventional father, who found in "the mens" a metaphor for, and a hope of, his own redemption; middle-class family life in 1960s New Orleans; and the hope for racial harmony, or the wisdom that comes through understanding.
This book has many strengths -- it is that rare chronicle of a young person growing up in New Orleans who is able to bridge the racial barrier, as well as an equally rare account of a young person's public school education here. French Quarter characters and musical legends spring to life in these pages -- George Lewis, George Guesnon, Percy and Willie Humphrey, Harold Dejan, Sweet Emma Barrett, Punch Miller, Chester Zardis, artist Noel Rockmore, Sandy and Allan Jaffee, Larry Borenstein, Bill Russell, Mike Stark, even a very young Quint Davis.
Song for My Fathers struts with the energy of youth, tempered a bit by the wisdom of middle age, and the bittersweet certainty that change is inevitable. Every page of this newly minted classic of life in New Orleans is filled with grace and gratitude, a debt paid in full to the men who showed Tom Sancton the way.
Edge, Esther Friedman
As the nation grieves the devastation Hurricane Katrina visited on the Gulf Coast, Song for My Fathers offers an often funny and sometimes heart-wrenching tribute to the battered city, a salutation to the wisdom, strength and humor of the music and musicians who give New Orleans its soul, and a guidebook to its heart. It is also a salutation to the power of music that melts down racial/class/economic barriers, and an important chronicle of the history of civil rights, as well as the city’s significance and contribution to our country.
Returning to his hometown, New Orleans, Sancton places his hands on Preservation Hall's wrought-iron gates and peers in, recalling a city that "had mostly faded into history long before Katrina struck--a victim of time, progress, and the eternal passing of generations." TIME's ex-Paris bureau chief (and an accomplished clarinetist) honors his father, a white writer with progressive views, and "the mens," the black and Creole musicians who accepted the author into their ranks. When George Lewis plays a lick and tells a young Sancton, "Make that," he invites him also to imagine a world beyond racism. Sancton's prose seduces like a good second-line parade. B+
Gambit Weekly, Tom McDermott
The number of readable books about traditional jazz is surprisingly small, so Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White is a terrific find.
This book contains some of the best writing ever about the New Orleans Revival, the rediscovery of some of the city's earliest jazz men that began at the end of the 1930s and gained traction with Bunk Johnson's first recordings in 1942.
The narrative, basically a series of reminiscences, is neatly sandwiched between two jazz funerals: the 1954 burial of Papa Celestin, which the author attended at the age of 5, and that of clarinetist George Lewis, whose passing in 1969, the year the author left for Harvard, signifies the end of an era for Sancton.
Sancton's status as a successful Orleanian-in-exile (he lives just outside Paris) gives him the freedom to write without worrying about flattery or offense.
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette
Sancton loves the music, but at the same time lives the life of a middle-class white teen, expected to share the prejudices and enthusiasms of his peers. Sketches pay homage to clarinetist George Lewis, banjoist Creole George Guesnon and others in prose that can emotionally mimic the sound of a horn and summon the taste of red beans and rice.
Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time, has written a lyrical memoir that re-creates a time and place and tells a poignant story about a father who was as difficult as he was lovable.
San Antonio Express-News, Jim Beale Jr.
The book is a powerful snapshot of the resurgence of interest in trad jazz in the '60s, the rise of Preservation Hall, a bit of a look at the lives of legends such as Lewis, Guesnon, the Humphrey brothers, Sweet Emma Barrett, Danny Barker, Jim Robinson, Harold Dejan and many others. It offers a glimpse of a New Orleans that was long gone before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Sancton is an excellent writer, and his affectionate portrayal of “the mens” is absorbing. His accounts of his family, particularly his complex relationship with his father are also surprisingly compelling, sometimes even bordering on Southern Gothic. Written before Katrina, Sancton added a preface about his return to his parents’ storm ravaged home, adding an additional chapter of frustration to his family history.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
Sancton's poignant coming-of-age tale serves as both a loving paean to his father and an eloquent memoir of a moment in musical and social history.
Detroit Free Press
Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time, has written a lyrical memoir, Song for My Fathers, that re-creates a time and place and tells a poignant story about a father who was as difficult as he was lovable.
Austin Chronicle, Robert Gabriel
What kind of father encourages his white, preteen son to befriend elderly black men in barely desegregated New Orleans? As much a personal journey as a restoration of New Orleans music history, Song for My Fathers drenches itself in the sweat of a life spent riding the fence between patriarchal extremes.
New Orleans Magazine
[Sancton's] character portraits of musicians are worth the price of the ticket...[George] Lewis is the subject of two biographies, long out of print. He comes alive in these pages as a gentle spirit in whom the student found a surrogate father.
Sancton writes with clear-eyed honesty about the racial tensions present as segregation laws began crumbling in New Orleans during his teenage years. Yet his tone is anything but preachy; he doesn’t sentimentalize the struggle of musicians as they straddled the racial divide. He reports what he saw and remembered, treating the men (and pianist “Sweet Emma” Barrett) as artists, with all the complexities that the creative imagination carries.
Tom Sancton’s account of George Lewis’s wake and funeral registers the heartbeat of New Orleans jazz with rare beauty.
Preserving the heritage will require the talents of both the musicians and the writers. In Sancton and in Song for My Fathers, both can be found.
The Madison County Herald, JC Patterson
If you're a fan of traditional New Orleans jazz, take a trip back in time to the heyday of Preservation Hall, from a novice insider whose intimate memories serve as wallpaper to some of the sweetest sounds and eclectic personalities in Big Easy history. Song For My Fathers is music for the soul.
...an evocative and luminous memoir...
New Orleans Times-Picayune Best of 2006
The other work of nonfiction that captivated readers all over the city -- as well as the entering freshman class at Tulane University, for which it was required reading -- was A Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, by Tom Sancton, a beautifully written memoir of growing up in New Orleans in the '50s and learning to play the clarinet from "the mens" of Preservation Hall.
JazzBeat, Paige VanVorst
Sancton is an excellent writer and the book gripped me like few books I've encountered lately – there are excellent profiles of a number of my idols – Creole George Guesnon, Punch Miller, George Lewis, Jim Robinson and Chester Zardis, filling in numerous details I've never seen in print before, providing a clear narrative of the Preservation Hall scene in the 1960s.
Tom Sancton has written a masterpiece – one of the most readable narratives on New Orleans jazz to come along in years.
The Progressive Christian, John Winn
[In Song for My Fathers] Narvin Kimball, a wonderful left-handed traditional jazz banjoist and singer, at age 90 said to... Tom, "I want you to do something for me, young man. I want you to tell the people that you played with me when I was 90 years old, and I still have the beat. Tell them, please." He did. By doing so, he makes you want to tell your story, too.