The only power most musicians had to help after the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 was to write memorials – such as “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton, credited as the father of Delta blues. Nowadays, musical stars have far greater resources to do their part in aiding those left in misery on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.

The deepest roots of American popular music stem from New Orleans and Mississippi, the land where the blues were born – which begat jazz and rock’n’roll in turn. The sounds that flowed upriver fed this nation’s culture like lifeblood. To this day, everyone who profits from rock, jazz or hip-hop owes a spiritual debt to the legacy of these places and their people.

The world’s most successful performers – and their agents, promoters and record companies – should do what Patton and his colleagues couldn’t do much of in their own time: raise money for relief efforts through charity concerts and benefit recordings. Musicians of all stripes everywhere are planning events, with announcements to come in the days and weeks ahead. One band, though, should lead the way: the Rolling Stones.

No one has embodied rock’n’roll like the Rolling Stones. Virtually every note the Stones have played in their 43-year career echoes creations from the American South. They grew rich selling the country back its own music – and bless them for it.

Thusly, Muddy Waters himself expressed appreciation for the role the Stones played in reviving his career. When America cared little for such old bluesmen as Waters and Howling Wolf, the Stones used their burgeoning clout to get these Mississippi-born legends on TV and radio in the U.K. They brought Waters on tour with them in the U.S., and the group’s covers of his songs earned him a young new audience. The band has done similar turns for other blues and roots artists all down the line.

The Rolling Stones are crossing the U.S. on their latest mega-profitable concert tour, promoting a strong new album. It may be the last hurrah for their rock’n’roll circus at the stadium level, but the trek will surely end up as one of the top three most lucrative pop music tours ever – and they already have the top two on the list. Richer than Midas at this point, the Stones aren’t doing this for money as much as for, to quote a quip by guitarist Keith Richards, “the glory.” The band – and its promoter, Michael Cohl – are in a position to donate portions of the huge proceeds from these concerts to aid victims of Katrina.

Through tickets-for-charity.com on this tour, the Stones have regularly donated tickets – including a batch for the Sept. 15 Giants Stadium concert – that fans can purchase on behalf of certain charities (although these don’t include disaster relief organizations yet). As of late Thursday, there was no announcement of any special Stones event to aid those suffering from the hurricane. The group will certainly do something, but the unique status of the Stones, their special link to the Mississippi region and the vast scale of the devastation demand the biggest, boldest, most generous response.

One of the first big musical acts to announce a benefit show was the Dave Matthews Band, which added another night to its sold-out run next week at Colorado’s Red Rocks Stadium to raise relief funds. In addition to participating in a NBC benefit telethon Friday night, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis – a New Orleans native – will stage a “Higher Ground” relief concert Sept. 17 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Blue Note will record the event for a charity album. BET plans a Sept. 9 benefit telethon featuring Stevie Wonder and such hip-hop stars as Jay-Z.

These are just the first in what likely will be months of benefits across the country. Yet if something as massive as Live 8 could be staged simply to raise awareness of global poverty – not to raise money but, supposedly, influence political opinion – then the world’s biggest stars should come together for similar cross-genre, festival-scale events to concretely assist those in Katrina’s wake. After all, the beloved punk of Live 8 organizer Bob Geldof has its seeds in the raw, rowdy blues of the Magnolia State.

Even disasters of biblical proportions, such as the South Asia tsunami, eventually flow to the back of the wider public consciousness. But help should be ongoing, as reconstruction in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast towns will take years. The Stones and their peers should donate rare recordings to charity albums, with full proceeds going to rebuilding efforts. Record companies could fly Gulf Coast musicians – once they’ve scraped their lives back together – to New York, Los Angeles and wherever else to cut benefit discs in studios that forgo fees for the cause. Great records can sell for years.

Ultimately, musicians famous and almost famous should go out of their way to play for free in the wonderful clubs of the Crescent City once they’re rebuilt and reopened. Music fans should travel down to see them with every opportunity.

Memphis Minnie was surely right when she sang, “Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good” in “When the Levee Breaks.” But these days, music – the money it generates, the morale it lifts – can play a part in helping shore up the breach.

Bradley Bambarger is classical music critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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