Just east of the Big Lake, on the south side of City Park, a single mature oak stands apart from the shaded path that rims the expanse of the urban oasis. The tree blends into the young pecans and willows planted around it; only a black painted bench and a small plaque hint at the secret song of the “Singing Oak.” As a passerby approaches, a low hum fills the air, a sort of siren song beckoning them closer. The sound is so deep that it is more easily felt vibrating in your chest than it is heard. It is not until one enters the shade of the “Singing Oak” that they realize they have stumbled upon a true performance.
Black painted wind chimes, some larger than a man and others suitable for a French Quarter balcony, sing their welcome in perfect and purposeful harmony and invite one to sit down and not only enjoy the show, but to also join the choir and take part in the song.
The “Singing Oak” was designed by artist Jim Hart as part of the “Big Lake Project” to make better use of the section of the park that neighbors NOMA. Hart constructed the aluminum alloy chimes to “play as one.” Each chime is tuned in relation to the others based on the pentatonic scale, the same scale that defines West African gospel hymns and New Orleans jazz. Thus, the tune of the chimes echoes the traditions and the seduction of New Orleans music. In his essay, New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System, Matt Sakakeeny, a NOLA-based music anthropologist, analyzes the unique history of New Orleans music and how its diverse cast has distinguished its sound from all else (2). He argues that culture, and consequently music, are being continually revised through the “fluid interactions of diverse authors, rather than preserved through the collective memory of an isolated culture” (2). Sakakeeny’s model of modernity is one that is ever evolving and contingent on the present, rather than the past.
It is difficult to deny Sakakeeny’s theory in the park where ancient trees and modern art define the landscape and experience. The City Park website says as much plainly on their website, where visitors are invited to “drop by to discover the beauty of a live performance, 160 years in the making.” As one of the oldest public parks in the nation, it has undoubtedly hosted a wide range of characters, each who contributed to the circulatory system that has generated the city’s unique culture. West African slaves and the original Jazz cats alike have roamed these grounds and been inspired by and contributed to the culture of the park and its host city. They are the roots of the “Singing Oak.” They are the history that informs the experience of the art piece and the city as a whole.
The plaque at the base of the oak reads: “Let the wind bring you a melody, a smile, and a sense of peace with nature,” implying that it is meant to remove us from the city, the weight of our human pasts, the uncertainty of our futures and re-place us in nature. Yet, perhaps by mistake, the “Singing Oak” instead incorporates its crumbling concrete surrounding effortlessly into its song. Under its branches, one can hear the hopes, struggles, and intentions of people and days now passed. It provides a soundtrack for modernity, featuring all of those who came before us while simultaneously inviting us to contribute.
The Singing Oak is over 100 years old. It is a perfect representation of the other ancient oaks scattered throughout the city, shading our streets and busting up our pavement. There is something so undoubtedly nostalgic about these trademark trees; they evoke the past of this city, its music, and its inhabitants, all of those “authors of the ever-evolving modernity” discussed in Sakakeeny’s work. Under the shade of the Singing Oak this feeling is emphasized. These huge, precisely tuned metal tubes hang from the oak, true feats of modern engineering and artistry. Yet, their sound is ageless, a low hum punctuated by a whimsical chorus. The “Singing Oak’s “song is familiar in an almost frustrating and unplaceable way. Only the word ‘nostalgia’ can suffice to describe it. Not nostalgia in the sense of fascination of the past, but rather as an “occurrent emotion or affective experience”, in the words of Scott Howard, who is a postdoctoral fellow of Philosophy at Harvard University (1). That is to say that the tree acts on us in a palpable way, a fashion entirely different than the history that always seems to hang in the humid New Orleans air. The chimes connect us to the people that built this place and this culture, with all its uneven sidewalks, fantastic food, and hypnotic music. We are drawn in by the tree’s shade and song, only to be transported elsewhere.
With the cartoonish swan boats circling the lake and the park-goers moving along the paths like pawns, I was transported to one of the many board games I played as a child. But this time, there was no more opportunity to roll the dice or spin the wheel. Instead, I was left to watch the game play out. Maybe that is just my imagination and hyper-sentimentality getting the best of me, but I wish to suggest an alternative. Perhaps this is the scene intended for the Oak’s soundtrack. The sweeping, gnarled branches and the enormous chimes (as tall as 14 feet) are meant to make us feel small. From this humbled perspective we are able to look back and acknowledge and long for simpler, more naïve times. Times when we players in the game, not just caught in its current. Times when we were free to discover and create. However, such is the nature of nostalgia that those moments are irretrievable (1). Here, in the company of all of the “authors” of modernity, we can rest our tired adult bones and yearn for what is past. In consolation, the Singing Oak offers us a bench, some shade, and a song.
It is possible that other patrons of the Singing Oak have gone there and, in fact, felt a reunification with the natural world. Still, others might say that the tree is not about nature or nostalgia but something else entirely. And maybe this is the point. This grand old tree, in a historic park, in this clumsy, crumbling, wonderful city is for anyone and everyone that happens upon it. It plays a different song for each member of its audience – the natives, the transplants, the tourists. The tree is always singing. We need only to stop by and hear what we need.
2. Sakakeeny, Matt. “New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System.” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 2011, pp. 291–325. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacmusiresej.31.2.0291.