Most recently, DiFranco suffered with the people of New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina. During her hiatus from the road she rented a residence on St. Claude Avenue and began recording an album with engineer and beau Mike Napolitano. They remained in the city in DiFranco's new digs near the French Quarter until the Sunday before the storm, when friend and south Louisiana guitarist C.C. Adcock convinced them to come to his home in Lafayette. The following Thursday the trio drove back into the city to rescue hard drives, including the one for DiFranco's record. They didn't see any relief workers and no one stopped them from entering.
"And there we were just driving right in to get our master tapes like, 'This is the United States of America?' Just abandoned people and it was a pretty harrowing feeling to drive in with a car," says DiFranco, who has recorded some of her albums here and often tours with New Orleans musicians. "It was a real eye opener. It's been a long time since I've felt nave about the extent of racism in the country and the extent of classism and corruption."
That's a pretty strong statement coming from the Little Folksinger considering that her long career has been partially dedicated to exposing the ills of America. The impetus for many of her lyrical constructions stems from some sort of national struggle. Earlier this year she released Live at Carnegie Hall 4.6.02, commemorating her first show in New York City after 9/11. The disc contains a performance of the poem "Self Evident," which muses about the state of the country before and after the Twin Tower attacks.
DiFranco was at her home base of Manhattan when the planes struck, but instead of seeing her presence during both disasters as a bad omen, she's turned it into a positive. "I feel almost blessed to have been in New York on 9/11 and to have been in New Orleans when Katrina hit only because with those that you love you want to be there in that time of struggle," says DiFranco. "It's only to bearing witness and hopefully to help in some way."
Shortly after the hurricane, DiFranco returned to her hometown in Buffalo, N.Y., where she received an email from the owner of her longtime sound company, John "Klondike" Koehler of Klondike Sound. Koehler has also been the audio director for Jazz Fest for 25 years. His correspondence contained information about Katrina's Piano Fund, a charity that Koehler co-founded to supply displaced musicians with instruments. DiFranco jumped onboard, offering financial support through the Web site of her independent label, Righteous Babe Records (www.righteousbaberecords.com). Fans of the label could opt to donate money to the Katrina Piano Fund while purchasing merchandise from the site. In the past seven months, Righteous Babe has raised $20,000 for the charity.
"She's really been a tremendous resource for us," says Koehler. "I'm absolutely delighted and proud that she's playing at Jazz Fest this year because the city owes her a tremendous amount of gratitude for her support of the city."
DiFranco also tips her hat to the Big Easy on her next studio album, Reprieve, due out this summer. She says that the album is a political record that speaks of the time and place it was born, which is New Orleans. Although the LP was written pre-Katrina, some of the songs on the disc contain eerie passages that DiFranco says fall short of personal prediction. The song "Millennium Theater," for example, ends with the line, "New Orleans is biding her time."
DiFranco currently resides in New Orleans and anticipates the city's rejuvenation process. As with her hands, she recommends taking time to heal. To her, Jazz Fest is one step towards New Orleans regaining its previous glory. "The folks around New Orleans are in desperate need of joy and release," says DiFranco. "I think something like the Jazz Fest filling the air with music is like medicine right now."
Julie Pinsonneault is the music editor for Syracuse New Times.