New Home Sweet Home


Al “Carnival Time” Johnson bought his house on Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1969. It wasn’t in the best shape, but he could afford it, and he figured, “When I meet Mrs. Right, we’d buy the house of our dreams.” Johnson spent the next 36 or so years working on the house—changing the look of the front, building an addition—until the force of water from the breach in the Industrial Canal, just three blocks away, knocked the house off its piers and moved it about 40 feet. 

A year later, Johnson began writing “The Lower Ninth Ward Blues,” which is, in many respects, a tribute to his lost home:

I lived 2349 Tennessee Street
I remember the big oak tree
I lived 2349 Tennessee Street
I loved it and it loved me
I’m telling you now like I told you before
That home I love it’s not there anymore
I’m calling it, I’m naming it the Lower Ninth Ward Blues

Johnson attempted to salvage things from his former home several times, and on one occasion last August, volunteers from the Arabi Wrecking Krewe accompanied him. “We looked for six hours and we came up with about four sweatshirts, two T-shirts, some laminated newspaper articles, a few 45s, some posters that were miraculously compressed together and stayed dry, and that’s it,” says Sheik Richardson, one of the Arabi Wrecking Krewe’s founders.  Afterwards, Johnson stood on the steps which once led to his front door and declared, “I guess it’s the last time I’ll see my house.” 

Later that night, while trying to sleep, the image haunted Richardson. He called Jordan Hirsch, the director of Sweet Home New Orleans. “I said, I’ve got this crazy idea. I want to take Al’s house apart and put it back together on top of the old foundation, piece by piece.”  Richardson guessed the project would cost about $100,000. “I was hell bent on putting it right there on Tennessee Street.”

Johnson spoke to Common Ground and City Hall and asked them not to demolish his house, but he never got anything in writing.  A few weeks later, without warning, the house was bulldozed. “There was no orange tag on his house saying, ‘This house is not fit for habitation,’” Richardson says. “We don’t know what happened. We do know that the houses next to his and across from his were not touched.”

We were all surprised,” says Johnson, “but after Katrina, you learn to accept and adjust to what’s going on.”

Johnson is 67 years old, and only recently has he begun earning royalties for the song which made him famous. “The only thing he had was that home in that Lower Ninth Ward,” says Jon Kardon of the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, “What was going to get him by was owning that home.”

Johnson is typical of musicians of his age, according to Kardon. “They’re legacy musicians who aren’t working so much,” says Kardon. “They have the most difficult time rebounding from this.”

Johnson explored his options.  “I took heed that FEMA was throwing people out, and I put in an application with Musicians’ Village. That’s when the Arabi Wrecking Krewe said they wanted to help me.”

For months, there has been a link on the Arabi Wrecking Krewe’s Web site where people could contribute to “The Al Johnson Fund.” Through donations made to the fund, the Krewe was able to present a $10,000 dollar check to Johnson on Mardi Gras day at the Mother-In-Law Lounge, representing their commitment to building him a house. “It was out of our love for Al and what he represents for this city,” says Kardon.  “He is so emblematic of everything that is New Orleans.”

A three-bedroom house at Musicians’ Village costs $75,000. There is a minimum income requirement for purchasing a home, based on the median income in Greater New Orleans. On his own, Johnson would have barely met this requirement. “What we’ll do is buy an annuity and set up a trust for Al so that it’s directly making the house payment,” says Kardon. “If we’re wildly successful we can help with the insurance.” A fundraiser in Boston is scheduled for March 25, and another one will be held at Tipitina’s around Jazz Fest. In addition, the Krewe will provide Johnson the three volunteers Habitat allows homeowners to help work off their sweat equity.

“He wanted to be part of a community with other musicians,” says Kardon. “This worked except that he fell out of the model. They may have figured out a way to get him in regardless, but we came to them and asked, how can we make this happen?”

Sheik Richardson put it like this: “We think symbolically, if we rebuild Al’s house, we might make up for his being ripped off for a lifetime with his song.”


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 © Eve Abrams 2010