- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The healing, energizing, unifying qualities of music are sometimes forgotten. Two of the national performers playing in the Washington area have experienced those healing powers firsthand.

For Michael Doucet — playing at Wolf Trap Sunday with his Louisiana Cajun band BeauSoleil — the experience came in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, whose floodwaters came within seven miles of his family’s home in Lafayette, La., in the center of the state, and inundated some of his friends’ homes.

When the first storm hit in late August, Mr. Doucet and BeauSoleil were on tour. They immediately rearranged their schedule and commitments to include benefit concerts for the victims — specifically musicians — and they were very moved by the reactions.

“Even on the tours, people were really concerned about it,” Mr. Doucet recalls. “You could really see people’s hearts opening up to it. We’d take half the salary and give half to the people here. It’s just things you have to do, because it could have happened to us.”

To Mr. Doucet, community and resiliency are important parts of Cajun culture. This extends to the music, along with a sense of inclusion.

“We play the music we grew up with and the music that was around us,” says Mr. Doucet. “We play the roots of this music, all the influences. Because it’s all Louisiana. We play blues. We play zydeco. We play jazz. We play swing. Derivative classical. We play French music, what we call French music.”

It is also important to Mr. Doucet that true traditional music continues to grow.

“It’s been left to the individual artist to interpret the music and his interpretation of the society at the time of his or her life,” Mr. Doucet says.

“And that’s what so amazing. It’s like a floating painting, because the painting continues to change.”

• • •

For blues harmonica (mouth harp) player James Cotton, the power of music is an almost everyday experience.

Ten years ago, Mr. Cotton was diagnosed with throat cancer and had major surgery and radiation treatments. His once powerful voice has been left a raspy whisper, but that hasn’t stopped Mr. Cotton, who performs at Blues Alley tonight through Saturday.

With his trademark harmonica style, which gained him the nickname “Superharp,” Mr. Cotton still plays about 75 live shows a year and continues to record albums.

“It’s my life,” he says. “If I can’t have fun with this, I can’t have fun with nothing. I’m through. I have nothing else to do.”

Mr. Cotton’s life is the stuff of blues legend. It’s been 60 years since he played for tips outside Arkansas juke joints at the age of 10. By that time, he had lost both his parents and had been befriended by Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), the fabled blues harp player and host of the blues radio show “King Biscuit Time.”

At 15, Mr. Cotton was on his own. He performed on the streets of Memphis, Tenn., until he heard that blues star Howlin’ Wolf was in town. The charismatic musician invited the teenager to join him for some live shows and recording sessions. The brief association gave Mr. Cotton what he needed to land work with other performers and his own daily local 15-minute radio show.

Mr. Cotton’s reputation eventually attracted the legendary Muddy Waters, who was in Memphis in need of a new harmonica player. A short audition led to a 12-year long stint with the Muddy Waters Band for Mr. Cotton.

In 1966, Mr. Cotton moved up in front of the James Cotton Blues Band. He was a major blues star with rock connections throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, opening shows for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin and garnering multiple Grammy and W.C. Handy nominations.

Since his Grammy-winning “Deep in the Blues” album in 1996, Mr. Cotton has been assigning vocal duties to guest artists.

Despite his health problems, his playing has lost none of its easy virtuosity. Mr. Cotton remains a direct and inspiring connection to the blues and its legends.

To Mr. Cotton, it’s all so simple.

“I miss them,” he says with a chuckle of all those who went before him.

“It happened to them. It’s gonna happen to me one of these days. They’s gone on. They did, I guess, what they could do here. They lived ‘cause what they was doing. It’s the same I’m trying to do. Do what I’m doing, and do it good. Then after you can’t do it no more, it’s all over.”

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