In Song for My Fathers, Time magazine's former Paris bureau chief Tom Sancton writes about his youth and musical apprenticeship to "the mens," older black players of traditional New Orleans jazz.
Are you still playing the clarinet?
Yes. I left Time magazine in July 2001 and stayed in France. Since then I've been doing freelance journalism and playing traditional New Orleans jazz with mostly French musicians. I find now that I've got a good balance between my two passions, music and writing, by writing in a more creative way than what one would for a news magazine.
You capture in words the emotional highs and lows of playing music. Is it a book about music?
I can hear music and respond to it like a lot of people, but in the book, music is almost a metaphor for how people come together across gaps. It was very unusual for someone my age at the end of the Jim Crow era in the South from the middle class to have this kind of relationship with black men, who had very little in common with me.
What was your father's influence on Song?
My book was really his idea. For years he's encouraged me to write up my experience because he's always believed that it was very unique, and that I, a local white boy, was in a position to write a story that could be compelling.
How long have you been working on this book?
I started back in 1999 and worked at it off and on. The version you see now is probably the fourth or fifth rewrite. I wish I'd kept a diary as a kid, but what 13-year-old kid does that?
How did you capture the oral culture so accurately?
I had some notes, some recordings and some reconstructed conversations from memory. I could hear some of their voices in my mind's ear. The way "the mens" spoke was the way they played music. It was earthy, poetic and expressive in a nonconventional way.
You write that in New Orleans "even death has room for humor and sassiness." You've visited post-Katrina—is that still true?
Death is part of the culture. You respond with humor, sometimes with exuberance. People are showing a lot of courage and a lot of resilience, but the situation continues to be very difficult. But when you talk to people, along with anxiety and concern, you sense the New Orleans personality is alive and well. The short answer is, yes, that reflex has survived Katrina.