In New Orleans, locals had always talked about “the big one,” but when it came, it caught musician Mo Leverett by surprise.
“I’d forgotten about it and taken my kid to a babysitter’s class,” he recalls. “When I dropped her off they said, ‘look, we’re gonna cut the class short and cancel tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘You don’t know about the storm?’ I said, ‘what storm?’ They said, ‘Katrina.’ I said, ‘Katrina? Katrina was a little Category One.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s a Category Five now.’”
Leverett lived and worked in the city’s Ninth Ward, one of its lowest-lying—and most impoverished—districts, where he led a ministry that operated a school for at-risk children, hosted a health clinic and participated in small-business- and community-development efforts. Now, 15 years of work—begun by Leverett but now carried on by a staff of 50—lay
directly in Katrina’s path. In a few days, the Desire neighborhood—only feet from the Industrial Canal, site of one of the major levee breaks—would be almost completely underwater.
Fighting an initial urge to stay so he could be on the frontline of relief efforts, Leverett and his family departed ahead of the storm, along with others from the community. “I looked at my children and stared at them for a period of time, and I realized, just do the safe thing for them because they can’t make the decision for themselves.”
Just weeks after the storm, Leverett’s latest, Blades Of Love, was released—a pre-planned event, but one fortuitously timed. It’s a gritty slice of hard-won hope, with Leverett’s growling, Macon, Ga.-bred voice and acoustic guitar augmented by horns, piano and upbeat grooves that provide touches of his adopted Crescent City home.
Leverett now shakes his head at the seeming prescience of lyrics like “Trouble always finds you / Tribulations rise / But love is what designed you / For undiscovered skies.”
“Frankly, I wrote all of this stuff before Katrina but I found so much of it relates to Katrina,” he says. “I talked about flood, I talked about storm, I talked about wind, I talked about loss, and listening to it even myself now, I’m moved. To think not so much about how well I did … but the themes themselves of ‘things aren’t what they seem,’ and ‘troubled times are your best friend,’ and ‘you should welcome these types of events into your life.’
“After you’ve endured it, that’s the last thing you’re thinking, but I know that one really doesn’t grow in an environment where he gets what he wants. We only grow when we lose and we suffer and we sacrifice and are hurt or wounded. If there was a theme, it would be something along those lines.”
Justice and Mercy
Despite his status as a Christian minister, and probably owing to his long presence in a neighborhood once called the “worst place to live in America,” Leverett doesn’t spend much time trafficking in churchified language, particularly on his latest. His songs—delivered in an earthy drawl similar to Alabama native Pierce Pettis—strongly resemble his heroes Bruce Cockburn and Mark Heard.
“After my first CD [in 1992] was picked up by a Christian label, one bookstore owner wrote the label and said, ‘we love his music, it’s beautiful melodically, but why is he ashamed of Jesus?’ … I am not ashamed of my faith or anything, but frankly, I don’t like using music as a sermonette, which most Christian music [has] become.
“I think that it’s fairly unmistakable when you read it—this is a spiritual guy, and you might expect that I’m a Christian, but like on the project If You Know What I Mean, I write a song called ‘Little White Lies’ and it’s about the history of racism, and writing it from the perspective of a black guy, well, I think Christians ought to be talking about that. I write about the things I care about and I care to talk about.”
Like Cockburn, the thing Leverett cares most about is the poor, the dispossessed and those at the mercy of the world’s power brokers. He stops short of rocket launchers, but justice nonetheless is an insistent concern. In his music, it’s what draws him to look for humanity in even the most unlikely places.
On “Schizophrenia,” Leverett draws upon his experience to put himself in the skin of a street person. “Paranoia / Coming for ya / Will destroy ya / We talk to myself / We sleep in my clothes / We’re taking our steps / Careful and slow.”
“I’ve come to realize that none of us are that far off from being crazy,” Leverett says. “And there are certainly times when I feel closer than others, where I’m struggling for my sanity in the midst of trying to change the culture or the social construct under which people are living. I mean, it’ll drive you nuts and leave you talking to yourself.”
A Beachhead of Hope
Desire Street Ministries was at the top of its game prior to Katrina’s devastation. In one of the toughest neighborhoods, it had established a beachhead of hope, with simultaneous efforts underway in economic development, education (via tutoring and its own private school), housing and even healthcare, partnering with CURE, a local association of churches, to maintain a pediatric clinic. It had also developed many of its own leaders from within the neighborhood.
In Katrina’s wake, almost all the local work was put on hold. Staff homes (including Leverett’s) were flooded and ruined. Desire Street Academy, the school, was intact but won’t be usable for some time, and it has since moved to Destin, Fla., as a boarding school for the present time. The future is unclear, but Leverett says it’s bound to inspire more songwriting.
“I’ve been moved to write and I’ve not had the opportunity to do it. … I’m working on a few things right now. I got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. They’re wanting to produce [my song “Louisiana”] with Aaron Neville and maybe some others and make it the state anthem. So they wanted me to write a bridge, and I wrote the bridge, so we’re gonna go into recording soon.
“I’ve always said that that song was written for Aaron Neville to sing. I’ve said that to a lot of people, and now it may just happen. We’ll see.”
For more information on Desire Street Ministries or to contribute, please visit www.desirestreet.org. Mo Leverett’s music is available online at www.justiceroad.com, and all proceeds benefit the Desire Street charity.