Listen to this track by singer-songwriter and musical collaboration stylist Elvis Costello, and go-to New Orleans piano-man and songwriter Allen Toussaint. It’s “Freedom For the Stallion”, a gospel-tinged song re-interpreted here as a key track on their 2006 Joe Henry-produced collaborative album River In Reverse.
This album brought together the two artists, plus Elvis’ backing band The Imposters, guitarist Anthony “A.B” Brown, and the Crescent City Horns. The song is an older tune by Toussaint, recorded by acts that include Lee Dorsey, The Hues Corporation, and Three Dog Night. Even Bob Dylan had a shot at it.
This widespread coverage of the song may be because it’s such a succinct lament of the state of the world, a true protest song, with a genuine message that is all-too relevant as much today (if not more so) as it was when it was written.
The arrangement here ramps up the gospel feel on it, and Costello’s voice is plaintive and very connected to the material, a pleading prayer for justice in a world where the greedy and the heartless profit, while others suffer the effects. .
In 2006, the song was in a very specific context, although no less grave than it is today.
Allen Toussaint’s contribution to popular music is widespread, even if many casual music fans don’t know him by name. His work has been a driving force behind many records you know, either as songwriter, musician, arranger, or producer, for acts that range from The Meters, The Band, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, Glen Campbell, Patti LaBelle, Devo, Paul Weller and many, many others.
Whatever the artist or style associated with his musical signature, Toussaint himself is most closely associated with the City of New Orleans, which in 2005 was smashed to pieces by Hurricane Katrina. The disaster left many people in the poorest quarters of that city homeless and destitute.
At that time, Toussaint himself suffered the loss of property, waiting it out in the Astor Crown Plaza Hotel as the storm took his home. Others in the city weren’t as well sheltered. Many of them crowded into the Louisiana Superdome, a structure that was not designed to support a population of poor, homeless, hungry, and thirsty refugees numbered in their tens of thousands, and unable to leave their own ruined city.
Toussaint’s newest musical statement was therefore pretty timely, and Elvis Costello was a prime partner in giving it a special touch. Costello had been a long-time fan of Toussaint’s work at the time of this project. The two had even worked together before, with Toussaint appearing on record with him on Costello’s very New Orleans-flavoured tune “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” from 1989’s Spike .
But, River in Reverse would be a grander project, with the two working closely side by side with producer Joe Henry, choosing older songs to reinterpret, writing new ones, and generally pulling together a united vision for a record appropriate to the social and political themes of the time; poverty, homelessness, disaster, and the apparent lack of investment to solve these problems from governments and their agencies.
“Freedom For the Stallion” was a key track in helping to weave together the idea that something is indeed wrong with the world, when compassion seems far away, and callous self-interest is the order of the day. It’s not difficult to figure out where the motivation was coming from, given what many critics observed as the Bush administration’s lack of preparation or support of what was soon to become a full-blown refugee situation in New Orleans at the time. This is a state of affairs that hasn’t yet fully been resolved, even today six years later in terms of re-builds and infrastructure in areas along the Gulf Coast which represent some of the poorest regions of the United States.
To my ears, this song is the heart of the album, speaking in anger and sadness at the needless suffering that history has shown us. But, in context, the sadness and anger continues, knowing that men were still passing laws to destroy other men, and men were still building fences, of all kinds, to keep other men out.
And I say “were”, when I really should be saying “are”. The song, sadly, could have been written yesterday, and applied to any number of the examples of appalling human greed, staggering political obtuseness, and discouraging lack of empathy going on right now all over the world.
For more information about Allen Toussaint, check out the Allen Toussaint official site.
Also, be sure to investigate the relatively new Elvis Costello site, where at the time of this writing, the Elvis Costello Wheel of Song appears – in web form! Spin it to listen to short snippets of your favourite Costello tunes, randomly selected of course.
If you’re interested in the effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, investigate this inforgraphic about the damage to New Orleans and its people in the wake of Katrina.