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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Pray that "The Saints Are Coming" for real this time

As Hurricane Ida causes destruction in Louisiana, this entry pays tribute to a people and a city who have risen from the ashes before.

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

Sixteen years to the day of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in the New Orleans area, Hurricane Ida hit the region with similar force. Massive rainfall has led to flooding and levee failure — at the time of writing, more than 200 are stranded after a levee in Lafitte overtopped.

I was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina hit, but I remember the newscasts and images depicting the devastation in Louisiana. On the bright side, that means I also remember the area’s recovery and rebirth in the months that followed. I recall watching the New Orleans Saints’ triumphant return to the Superdome on Monday Night Football, September 25, 2006 — a night defined by Steve Gleason’s blocked punt on just the fourth play from scrimmage.

What I didn’t remember from that night was the pregame musical festivities. Before the game, Green Day and U2 held a joint performance on the field, backed by a local brass section that included the likes of Trombone Shorty. Included in their set was a cover of Scottish punk rock band Skids’ 1978 song “The Saints Are Coming,” a track which fit the occasion for much more than its titular phrase. I include this live performance in my Senior Year Soundtrack in hopes that the New Orleans area can rise like they had done before, and take pride in themselves and their community for doing so.

The live rendition begins with the first verse of the New Orleans-set folk song “The House of the Rising Sun,” whose most well-known form is the Animals’ 1964 recording. Billie Joe Armstrong swaps out the house’s name for that of the Superdome, drawing a greater connection — and applause — from the 70,000-strong crowd. In back of Armstrong, the Edge’s unmistakable tone rings out, largely on an E5 drone that establishes the key. Bono then comes in with the first verse of “The Saints Are Coming,” the opening line of which so poignantly fits the tribulations of Louisiana in the past year-plus:

“I cried to my daddy on the telephone, how long now?”

I can’t think of any other line in any other song which captures the emotional toll of the hurricane and the destruction and displacement it left in its wake quite like that one. It’s such a simple question, but in the context of Katrina it’s one with unparalleled desperation behind it. How long will it be before we can come back home? How long before our lives return to normal? Thankfully for those in attendance and many more in the area, that night provided reassurance that things were starting to getting back to how they were before.

As the somber introduction continues, some of the brass ensemble echoes the ending of Bono’s second vocal line. Then, after the third line, Tré Cool starts feverishly drumming and begins to send the Superdome crowd into a frenzy they’ve waited more than a year to be a part of. The somber lyrics from the introduction are repeated, but with the seven-piece rock ensemble and the local brass section behind them, the lines come across as a reflection of a trial overcome.

Briefly skipping the chorus, Skids' second verse is even more fitting for the hurricane scene than the first: "A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief, how long now? / Until a weather change condemns belief, how long now?" The aquatic language only further captures the despair in the post-hurricane scenes, while the second line reminds me of how some radical religious leaders, including Pat Robertson and Louis Farrakhan, relayed their beliefs that the hurricane was a divine punishment for Americans' sinful ways of life. Thankfully, those voices were quickly and widely ridiculed and silenced.

As for the chorus, it begins with the song's title being sung twice. For that alone it was a perfect track for the pregame concert; indeed, shortly thereafter, the Saints came onto the field and dominated their rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. For that occasion, the first two lines were enough. However, the chorus' third line completely recontextualizes the titular rallying cry:

"I say no matter how I try, I realize there's no reply."

It was this line, more than any, which can be felt as the inspiration for the music video produced for U2 and Green Day's cover. The Bush administration's response to Katrina was widely criticized, and those on the ground in Louisiana questioned if they would get the help they needed, or if their president even cared about them. They wondered why the government's priorities were on a fighting a war halfway around the world, rather than putting their own people in their own territory first.

...wait, is this from 2005 or 2021? There's potential for a concerning parallel to the post-Katrina efforts as the Biden administration begins to respond to Ida while also handling the evacuation of Kabul. I have faith that the response will be better than it was 16 years ago, between infrastructural improvements in Louisiana and the less-than-idea example Dubya set, but I understand that others don't share those beliefs. Here's hoping that there is a sooner and better reply than what was seen last time — here's hoping that the saints do indeed come, and not just those in football uniforms.


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