That One Time at Band Camp, When the Flood Came...

Jesse Phillips on stage with St. Paul & the Broken bones. (Photo by Josh Weichman)

Jesse Phillips on stage with St. Paul & the Broken bones. (Photo by Josh Weichman)


By Chuck Reece

Almost a year ago, as floodwaters inundated 20 parishes in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ bass player, Jesse Phillips, watched the damage unfold on television. “That’s rough,” he said to himself. “I hate they have to deal with it.”

But Phillips had friends living and working all across the flooded areas, and when he began to hear from them, his concerns — and desire to act — deepened. 

“I went to Loyola University, and I graduated with a music-education degree, so I have a lot of friends who are band directors scattered around New Orleans and Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana in general,” he told me. “As I talked to friends about it who were actually there and going through it, I thought it was a lot more serious than most people, including myself, realized. It was just that it happened during a time when there was a lot of other things going on in the news. (Remember that election season?) People's attention spans are short, and it was in a lot of rural areas, so it just didn't get the play in the news that you would from a more major area.”

“The flooding was really destructive,” Phillips said. “There were entire school systems that basically lost the use of almost all of their equipment.”

St. Paul & the Broken Bones. (photo by David McClister)

St. Paul & the Broken Bones. (photo by David McClister)

Phillips is talking about band equipment — musical instruments, uniforms, everything one needs to march onto a Friday-night football field to make a joyful noise. 

If you want to understand the power of high school band programs to produce great musicians all over the South, just catch a show by St. Paul & the Broken Bones. 

“The band is heavily indebted to the school band world,” Phillips said. “Just about everybody in the band, with the exception of a couple of the guys, got their start and came through that world and owes a lot to it.”

After the floods, Phillips’ chats with area band director friends led him to make a connection with Craig Millet, the band director at Ascension Parish’s St. Amant High School, where floodwaters rose nearly to the school’s roof line.

“We were just talking, and it just seemed like there was a real need,” Phillips said. “So, I just started thinking, well, this is the world that a lot of us come from. And we've been very fortunate. Now that we've had a little bit of success, we're at a point now where it would be cool if we take it up as a little bit of a cause. School bands so profoundly affected the trajectory of our lives when we were younger, and that seemed like as good a place as any to start, just because there was a real need.”

Not long after, The Bitter Southerner got an email proposing we team up with St. Paul & the Broken Bones — just as we did last year with the Drive-By Truckers to benefit Nuçi’s Space in Athens, Ga. The Bones wanted us to design and make a T-shirt that would raise money to get new equipment into the hands of not only the St. Amant High School marching band, but also to middle-school bands and other marching bands in the area.

How could we say no? After all, it’s very much in keeping with what The Bitter Southerner is really about: making a Better South. 

The BS could not, on its own, make a large contribution to the Bones’ St. Amant project, but we do have y’all, our readers, and we know you care deeply about helping your neighbor. We also suspect that many of you are alums of your high school bands. At a time when music and art education budgets are being slashed, high school bands have it hard enough already, even when they don’t have to endure a monumental flood.

At least $10 from every St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Original Bitter Southerner T-shirt you buy will benefit budding musicians in and around St. Amant. 

Phillips hopes this effort will be the seed of a larger philanthropic fund the Bones want to develop for the benefit of school bands around the South. 

“We hope that this will be the catalyst project to help us continue to do these things,” he said.

From his mouth to God’s ear… and, we hope, to your wallet.