Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Oelkers’ Barrel House & Sounds of New Orleans


We all swing high, swing low,
Ev'rybody rockin' to and fro
It ain't fast or slow, but oh, that glory halleluyah.
Swing that thing
Make the river bottom ring and sing
Hush ma mouth, that's the South Rampart Street Parade!

This is a post about music — the music of New Orleans — and saloons.  John Henry Oelkers would have been familiar with the sounds emanating from his drinking establishment on South Rampart Street, but he likely was unaware that those sounds would captivate audiences in America and, indeed, all over the world for a very long time.

Although New Orleans was known for its tolerance, Oelkers ran the kind of saloon that was anathema to many in the city.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune in a page one story on Thursday, September 27, 1883, informed its readers that: John H. Oelkers, the keeper of a negro barrel house …is a young German, who sells whisky to negroes at his barrel house.”  Put plainly Oelkers’ place served African Americans when many other saloons would not and at a time when such trade in parts of the South could result in fines and even jail time. 

Oelkers was born in Germany in 1850.  He arrived in the United States in 1869 at the age of 19, likely without any preconceived notions about people of color.  When he settled in New Orleans is uncertain, but 1879 he was listed in city directories as a saloonkeeper, with his first location at 16 Annunciation Street.  Within two years he had moved his establishment to South Rampart Street.

That famous avenue gets its name from the wall that was built on the north side of the thoroughfare in the early years of New Orleans as a means of fortify the then French colonial city.  Rampart Street on either side of Canal Street over time became the center of an important African American commercial and entertainment district.  Oeklers’ initial location there was at 239 South Rampart (1879-1895), later moving to 730 South Rampart (1896-1914).
As indicated by the Times-Picayune story, Oelkers was running a barrel house.  That was the name given to a particular type of New Orleans drinking establishment.  As  shown above, the wooden structure often was shed-like with a low ceiling and walls lined with barrels of whiskey and beer. Typically a piano stood on a raised platform in a corner of the room and much of the floor was open for dancing or other activities.  Often at the back of a barrel house were rooms where prostitutes to plied their trade.  

At his establishment Oelkers sold liquor by the drink to in-house clientele and by the bottle and jug to take-away customers.   Both pint and mini-jug containers exist that memorialize his barrel house.

Oelkers would not have stood high in New Orleans society, even as permissive as was the city’s reputation.  The barrel house was considered a low rung on the drinking ladder and his saloon, serving as it did the black populace, would have placed him at the bottom.  The stigma seems not to have mattered to Louise Theresa Robie, a native of New Orleans, who married him in 1893 when she was 31 and he was 43.
The 1900 Census found John and Louise Theresa living in Ward Three of New Orleans with their six children.  Their eldest was a son, John D., 19 years old.  Then came Pearl B., 12; Lucille M., 5; Nina T., 4, and Robie J., 2.  Also living with them was John’s’ 74-year-old father.   Their home at 4001 Magnolia Street, still standing and shown above, was a modest one.

Even if Oeklers’ business was not building mansions for his family, it was contributing to the music scene.  The vigorous and unpolished sounds coming from such saloons was making its mark on New Orleans.  Pounded out on a piano the music was characterized by an accented two-beat rhythm and became known as “barrelhouse” jazz.  In his famous poem “The Congo,” the American poet Vachel Lindsay caught the beat:

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable, 
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table, 
Pounded on the table, 
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, 
Hard as they were able, 
Boom, boom, BOOM, 
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, 
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

Through the “miracle” of recordings the music that began in barrel houses like Oeklers’ soon was being heard not just in New Orleans but across America.  Ma Rainey (1882-1936), shown here, was one of the first generation of blues singers to be heard on record.  Billed as “Mother of the Blues,” Rainey caught the barrel house wave, writing and recording “Barrel House Blues:”

Got the barrel house blues, feeling awfully dry, 
Got the barrel house blues, feeling awfully dry, 
I can't drink moonshine 'cause I'm afraid I'd die.

As the barrelhouse sound began to be appreciated nationwide, Oelkers took his eldest son, John D., into his business.  The son, like his father, demonstrated a real affinity for running the drinking establishment with its black clientele.  When the elder Oelkers reached the age of 63 after 34 years running a saloon, he felt comfortable turning the business over to the young man.  In 1913, accordingly, ownership passed to John D. Oelkers who continued for several years to run the barrel house under his own name.  
The elder Oelkers died in 1924 at the age of 74 and was buried in one of the above  ground crypts in New Orleans’ Metairie Cemetery.  His wife, Louise Theresa, followed him there five years later.  Meanwhile, South Rampart street had been widened and became part of the New Orleans central business district.  Many barrel houses were torn down and some hallowed music halls like the “Eagle” shown here were allowed to deteriorate. 

Although the barrel houses disappeared, the music that emerged from them remained vibrant and alive, even spreading worldwide in its appeal as contemporary audiences continued to value its rhythm and vigor.  Among musicians providing the sound were “Barrelhouse Chuck” Goering, an American Chicago blue pianist, keyboard player, singer and songwriter, who died in December of last year.  Another has been the internationally traveling and recording Barrelhouse Jazz Band, an outfit that calls Frankfort, Germany, its home.

Nothing will do, of course, but to end this vignette about John Oeklers and his barrel house by paying homage one more time to Rampart Street and New Orleans:

On Rampart Street in New Orleans,
Somebody's callin' for me,
I can hear that gang of mine
Singin' sweet harmony.
How my heart does beat
To get to Rampart Street!
New Orleans, New Orleans, I'm comin' home to you,
New Orleans, New Orleans, ain't nothin' else to do.
I'm gonna tell you true -
I'm not bluffin' - there ain't nothin'
I love like I love you!

1 comment:

  1. To Robie Oelkers: Delighted to hear from you and most appreciate your kind comments. Somehow your remarks made to my posts are showing up on my email but not on the blog as they are supposed to. Your great grandfather was most admirable as someone who assisted blacks at a time of great racism in America. I think his being an immigrant from Germany meant that he came to New Orleans without prejudice. Glad you liked the piece.