Illustration by ALEX FINE
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published back in 2009. We are re-running it today to mark the 10th anniversary of The Great Flood Of New Orleans. Enjoy.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Nick Spitzer is a folkorist, ethnographer, professor of American Studies at Tulane University and host of the altogether wonderful American Routes, a heady Creole gumbo of blues, folk, soul, rock and Cajun stylings, which can be heard locally on WHYY from 6-8 PM on Sundays. Each week Nick scours the highways and the byways, the juke joints and roadhouses, the coffeehouses and corner bars, of these United States to map the crazy quilt patchwork of regional flavors, customs and musics to, in effect, create an audio flowchart that tells us where we were and how we got here. Think of him as a doctor pressing a stethoscope to the nation’s breadbasket to measure the heart beat of the American dream boogie, and every week he asks you to take a listen and give a second opinion. Spitzer currently resides in New Orleans, but he has local connections: he studied anthropology at Penn in the late 60s and DJed at WMMR in the wild and wooly dawn of FM in the early 70s. We talked about all of this, as well as the evolution of the show, his career arc as an Amerian roots explorer and life in the Big Easy post-Katrina. (His full bio can be viewed HERE)
PHAWKER: What brought you to Penn back in the late 60s?
NICK SPITZER: My father wanted me to go to Columbia until he saw it burning down in 1968. Penn wasn’t burning yet–though it did soon after–and my mother wanted me to go to Yale, but I thought that was too close and I was fed up with WASPY Connecticut and dour Yalies. I applied to Penn because I was interested in economics. I came to Philly and I was just very impressed with the campus, the scene, Philadelphia. My parents wanted me to be in the Wharton school, but by the time I arrived I was no longer doing everything they thought I ought to be doing. After I spent half a year at the Wharton school I was looking to transfer into anthropology, which was a rather big change in terms of what they all thought I’d be doing. It was good because Penn has a really great Anthropology department and had a lot of programs related to American studies and folklore–things that were important to me… to be they don’t really do them now.
After I had been at Penn for a semester I discovered WXPN, which at the time was a student-run radio station, and I think had a tremendous legacy as that. The record collection at WXPN became as important to me as the world culture archives in the anthropology department. I also became a pretty dedicated local culture person. I mean I didn’t just stay on campus: I went to the Italian market–which wasn’t too cool if you had long hair–and South Street, which as Orlon’s song goes was where “All the hippies meet.” It was still a struggling African-American street scene where you could hear people singing on the sidewalks, go to Harry’s Occult Shop, hear some music in the little jazz clubs. I just got more involved in Philly in general. By the time I graduated I had done fieldwork around Philly—you know they don’t give you a job as an anthropologist with a BA in anthropology—but I had worked at XPN and my girlfriend at the time, Carol Miller, was on MMR and I knew Michael Tearson pretty well because he had been on MMR and a student at Penn. I went down to MMR to give my tape, and after splitting Philly somewhat dejectedly—like oh god, I’ve been living in Philly my whole new-consciousness life, what am I gonna do, the draft board is coming after me—and the MMR station program director called me up and said we want you to come down here and host the morning show as an audition. So I came down and did it and I also was their production director for a while, and that got me involved in Philly several more years after college. (I also managed to not get drafted…but that’s another story) So Penn, XPN and MMR had kind of cemented my relationship to the city. I’ve come back a lot for everything from Penn reunions to academic conferences to radio events. So I stay in touch and I really like Philly—it’s one of my favorite cities.
PHAWKER: As a folklorist or an ethnographer is there something whenever you come back to Philly you sort of do as a sort of ritual, like a restaurant you go to, a neighborhood you visit?
NICK SPITZER: I go down to the steak places. Pat’s is what I always started with back then so I still go back to Pat’s. I really dig just going around South Philly and seeing all the mom and pop restaurants and shops; and I’ve always loved the window décor in south Philly, all the home altars and the family displays. I like going to the Penn campus. There’s something fascinating about what students are like today and what students were like then… I try not to be a crusty old alumnus, but XPN is not what it was when I was there; it’s much more of a commercial format with few students really involved except as worker bees. Still, I have a lot of friends around Philly from those days. Heath Allen plays piano and composes, a friend from college. Last time I was there I went down to Bob and Barbara’s. They had a really great old-school organ trio [the late Nate Wiley & The Crowd Pleasers], which reminded me of some the little black jazz clubs in the 70s. Clubs I used to go to, like the Aqua Lounge and Grendel’s Lair and the Bijou. I used to go to a club called Just Jazz downtown; I saw Earl Hines there, and McCoy Tyner played The Aqua Lounge, and all the old Coltrane band people. I look for these things. I’ve got a lot of friends who take me places. I have to say when I was just in Philly the last time, I was at this event at Penn that the urban studies people put together and sat with Mayor Nutter at dinner. I found out he used to be a disco DJ when he was in college, so we had a good time talking abut discoing and DJ-ing. I always find something; Philly is a city of deep and wide vernacular culture, and I think it is a city that a lot of Americans still forget exists. They think of it historically as far as the Continental Congress and Ben Franklin and all colonial era landscape, but they forget this is a major East Coast city filled with fascinating neighborhoods… and the Third World is there, but so is sort of the Old World and old Philly. It’s much more intimate to me than New York and much more warm and friendly than Washington. I really like Philly. I also like Baltimore, but I know Philly better, so when I come back I’m always exploring and learning what’s happening now and it’s a pleasure.