Dana Abbott is More Than “Halfway Home”
Singer and songwriter Dana Abbott is recalling the day that Lake Pontchartrain devoured the 17th street canal in New Orleans. Even though Hurricane Katrina had moved well north of the City, the waters kept rising and Pontchartrain became a malignant entity as she swept through a two-block breach in the main levee, taking lives, homes and hopes along with her. Abbott wonders if there is too much “Katrina fatigue” and hesitates on elaborating any more about how the rising waters forever changed her own life. But her husband, John Beyer, encourages her to keep speaking. It is a story that needs to be told. America had a collective wake for New Orleans in the immediate aftermath, but still, two years later, recovery is slow, and no one is phoning the city and its residents to see how they’re doing.
We are sitting at a table in the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen—a stone’s throw from the French Market and a few blocks from the heartbeat of New Orleans—The French Quarter. The doors and windows are open to the street on a mid-November balmy afternoon. It’s Saturday, so there are more tourists than regulars. The hum of paddle fans is drowned out by the annoying voice of an overweight middle-aged woman decked out in Bermuda shorts, cell phone earpiece, sun visor and sunglasses. She’s talking to the kids back home about what a terrific time she is having. Score one for New Orleans. Subtract one from ambience.
Katrina was the great leveler for the music business in New Orleans. Famous and not-so-famous and completely unknown musicians, singers and songwriters were wiped out. Completely wiped out by the flood. Musicians not only lost the physical structures of the home that sheltered them, they lost their instruments, songbooks, notes, CD collections, studio tapes and masters—you name it. Cyril Neville told us that he lost 25 years of reel-to-reel tapes that represented a lifetime of recording. The sludge of chemical soup, salt-water and sewage made restoration impossible. He is keeping them anyway.
Abbott was living on Bellaire Drive, about ten blocks from the 17th Street Canal when all hell broke loose. The water eventually reached the ceiling of the apartment below, but not before Abbott and Beyer were able to evacuate. Ironically, they left 1500 music CD’s behind and the collection survived, unscathed by looters and water.
“Yeah, we were looted,” Abbott says.
‘They took all of our movie DVDs, except for the BBC collection,” she laughs. “I don’t know how they managed not to track in any mud.”
Precious instruments, the tools of her trade, did not fare as well. A guitar was filled with dead bugs and warped by the humidity by the time they were able to get back into the apartment—a month after the flood.
Memories of Katrina are stored in the vault of memory and memory is an individual thing. What is etched in personal perceptions is a manifestation of time and life interrupted—snapshots of what life was like before fate, government malfeasance and the perfect synchronicity of a major hurricane intervened.
It is now two years later, and Abbott recalls playing at Southport Hall the night before she and her husband evacuated to his mother’s place in Georgia. She was the opening act and was sitting at Parlay’s Bar after the show was over in time to catch a 2 AM weather report that seemed ominous. By 8 AM it was clear they should evacuate and so they were long gone before the Sunday night mandatory evacuation was issued for New Orleans.
A formaldehyde spewing FEMA trailer was home for the next six months and soul-searching replaced song-writing as the difficult decision about whether to stick it out in New Orleans against all odds consumed conversation, dreams, and just about every waking moment. Abbott worked a stint at Catholic Charities to help keep body and soul together while slowly coming to the realization that New Orleans was home now, and there was no way she could or would want to leave.
“The city has always been and is still a musician’s boot camp,” Abbott smiled.
How does she describe her unique voice and songs?
“A combination of blues, folk, rock and blue-eyed soul,” she says with zero hesitation.
No minor statements from a 25 year-old who left Vermont after high school to pursue a dream and has not regretted that decision or anything else that life has pitched at her. The Road Home took her through Chicago and finally to New Orleans, where the roots took and the future looks bright for a talented newcomer.
Halfway Home is the title of Abbott’s EP, which was produced by Malcolm Burn, who has also produced Emmylou Harris’s acclaimed Red Dirt Girl.