By Jeffrey Jones
Sat May 6, 12:56 PM ET
Bethany Bultman got her first taste of New Orleans music as a child in Mississippi in the early 1960s, drawn by an ironic source to the songs and musicians she is now trying to nurture through post-hurricane devastation.
"One day when I was 8 or 9 years old, I went into town with my mother and the Ku Klux Klan had put signs all over the telephone poles that said, 'Colored music corrupts white youth.' I saw that and thought, 'Well, God, that must be fabulous,"' said Bultman, who is white.
She and a friend tuned their radio to the crackling, late-night sounds of a faraway New Orleans station to sing and dance along with rhythm-and-blues hits such Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law."
"I thought, 'This is exactly what the Klan thought I would enjoy,"' she said.
Bultman went on from that childhood entrancement to make caring for the health of New Orleans' musicians her life's work, and after Hurricane Katrina she took up the additional challenge of making sure they would still have places to play.
Bultman and her husband, Johann, founded the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic in 1997 to provide health care for a segment of society that defined the city and fueled the tourist economy, but largely had no insurance and little access to care.
When Katrina hit last August and flooded 80 percent of the city, both the musical and medical communities were plunged into crisis.
Jazz, funk and zydeco artists and their families were scattered across the country. Nightclubs, many of which paid musicians paltry sums even before the storm, closed.
Meanwhile, the city has lost 77 percent of its doctors and 70 percent of dentists.
The musicians' clinic, whose 1,000 patients made use of the Louisiana State University medical school's doctors, was tossed into limbo when the facility was forced to slash its budget and lay off staff.
The Bultmans sprung into fund-raising mode. They moved the clinic temporarily to Lafayette, Louisiana, and then back in December to a small office near their 1850s New Orleans Uptown area home.
They also expanded their work to include funding badly needed gigs for bands. This came after legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John told her that dejected artists needed to get back to work.
'STEPPED UP LIKE CHAMPIONS'
Initial promotion money went to musicians who played at John Blancher's Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, a combination bowling alley and nightclub. The initiative spread to other bars and lasted through March.
Bultman has launched a summer program to send musician to nursing homes, adult care facilities and arts groups.
The clinic now has a small staff and about 500 patients from the musical community, which has its own medical risks. Artists keep late hours in smoky environments. Horn players need healthy teeth to play and are susceptible to glaucoma. Alcohol and drug abuse-rates are high.
"They've just stepped up like champions since Katrina," LuMar LeBlanc, drummer for the Soul Rebels Brass Band, said of the clinic's staff. LeBlanc, 38, commutes to New Orleans each week from Houston, where he, his wife and two sons have been living.
Bethany Bultman, he said, "is intelligent enough to know that musicians usually don't pay attention to those things. We just kind of haphazardly go through life, getting home at four in the morning, eating once we get home, then sleeping in. She knows we're not prone to go get health care."
The lion's share of the organization's funding after Katrina has come from foreign donors and private foundations, Bultman said. Her next step, she said, is to travel to New York to raise awareness about the plight of the musicians and the rich traditions that have been so influential in modern American music.