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New Orleans: Singing the Broom Strummer blues

By Mike Ahlers, CNN
updated 7:05 AM EDT, Thu July 5, 2012
The sounds of New Orleans continue, but the Broom Strummer got away.
The sounds of New Orleans continue, but the Broom Strummer got away.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Mike Ahlers recalls a photo opportunity that got away
  • A character he met in New Orleans in the mid-'70s made a lasting impression
  • The "Broom Strummer" marked the end of an era for this author

Editor's note: On a trip to New Orleans earlier this year, CNN producer Mike Ahlers kept his cameras handy. But the trip sparked memories of a day when he left them behind.

New Orleans (CNN) -- When I first met the wiry-looking fellow, I had no idea he was a musical genius. Nor did I know his instrument of choice. Nor that I was about to witness the last breaths of a generation.

I had strolled into New Orleans simply looking for some good photos. That is all. Just some good photos and some good times.

It was Mardi Gras, of course, and it was 1975. By strict calendar standards, the 1960s were long over, but few generations pay heed to the calendar, nor did my new friend, who called himself "the Broom Strummer of Bourbon Street."

The Broom Strummer was probably 10 years my senior, and he was instantly likeable. He walked with a slight tilt, told remarkable stories about his childhood and accomplishments, and had something slung over his shoulder. I didn't pay much attention to it. But when we walked onto Bourbon Street, others took note.

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"Hey Broom Strummer! Broom Strummer!" revelers shouted. "Play me some broom!"

He appeared annoyed, but it was an act. He removed a leather guitar case shaped like a broom from his back. He placed it on the street, unclasped the lid, and ceremoniously pulled out a standard kitchen broom.

I expected him to start noisily "sweeping" the street -- perhaps to the beat of a familiar song.

"I knew a man, Bojangles, and he danced for you...

"Thwappity, thwap.

"In worn out shoes...

"Thwappity, thwap, thwap."

But instead, he clutched the broom as if it was a rare Les Paul. He raised his right hand aloft like a rock god. And he unleashed his fury.

"DAH DAH DAH DAH, dah dah dah dah!" he screamed. "DAH DAH DAH DAH, dah dah dah dah!"

Yes, the Broom Strummer had aced the opening licks to "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Bourbon Street was transformed. From seemingly nowhere, a hundred Keith Richardses materialized, strumming a thousand air guitars,

"DAH DAH DAH DAH, dah dah dah dah!"

A thousand Mick Jaggers started prancing.

"But it's all-right now, 'n fact it's a gas!"

And the Broom Strummer led his tribe down Bourbon Street, singing and strumming a rock anthem.

"It's alllll right! Jumpin' Jack Flash, It's a Gas, Gas, Gaaaaaaaas!"

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Every photographer, like every fisherman, has a story about the one that got away. My "missed it" moment involved the Broom Strummer.

I had spent the previous two days lugging around too damn many cameras, shooting the Canal Street parades and French Quarter insanity. On both days, I weighed the benefits of continuing to shoot the event, or ditching the cameras and joining the party.

On day three, the party won.

That was the day I bumped into the Broom Strummer.

Even in the Big Easy, which has the highest character-per-square-mile ratio that God allows, the Broom Strummer was a standout. He clearly lived on the fringes of normal society, but clearly sought its endorsement -- it's official government endorsement. He said he had invented "mismatched boots" (which could have explained his lopsided walk) and said he held a patent -- an official government patent! -- for them.

He said he had written a song with very dirty lyrics, and had gotten a copyright -- an official government copyright! -- for it. That, he enthused, meant those dirty lyrics were enshrined forever at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. -- right under the unsuspecting eyes of Congress!

I hadn't the heart to tell him the government would copyright nearly anything.

For the better part of the day, we walked around the Quarter, the Broom Strummer strumming for his appreciative fans, honoring their requests, but looking at them cross-eyed when they asked him to play the little brush clipped to his belt. You can't play a brush, he'd say, disdainfully.

Toward evening, we retired from the Bourbon Street mayhem to the calm of Jackson Square. There, away from the relentless demands of fame, the Broom Strummer hooked up with some old friends -- Dave Banjo-Legs and a few other troubadours.

Banjo-Legs and the others were softly plucking at their instruments when a burly cop strode over. In height and heft, he was straight out of Hollywood. And in lieu of stripes, he wore his attitude on his sleeves.

Now, the role of the police officer at the height of Mardi Gras has been little explored -- but it should be. Sworn to uphold the law, they are nonetheless expected to restrain their instincts when dealing with the organized disorderly conduct known as Fat Tuesday.

So who can blame an officer who, amid the Mardi Gras madness, happily discovers a law that can be enforced?

The officer's countenance stiffened as he approached the small group of musicians, as if he had stumbled upon a meeting of mass murderers.

"Hey," he barked, with unimpeachable authority.

"No...music...in the...park!"

The guitars fell silent. The banjo, too.

Satisfied, the cop turned and started to walk away.

It was of little account, I know. But even then, I had a feeling that I was seeing an era slip away. The writing was on the wall. Already, the cool and cruel winds of disco were blowing across the land. Soon, Bourbon Street would be filled with polyester suits, blow-dried hair and Donna Summer hits. And encounters like these, between cops and felonious musicians, would be a thing of the past.

Maybe the cop felt that way, too. Because he stopped. He stood there, facing away, as if he had left some business unfinished.

He turned around and pointed his beefy finger at the band.

And he sealed the deal.

"That goes for BROOMS, TOO!" he said.

That moment was made in photo heaven -- a gift from the photo gods.

It was official. The '60s were finally over. Kaput. Done.

All wrapped up in a perfect Kodak moment.

And me, without my camera.

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