The New Orleans piano player Henry Roeland Byrd made a name for himself as Professor Longhair, a former street hustler turned self-taught musician who started recording in his early 30s. In 1953 Atlantic records released "Tipitina." “As a kid you heard that song seven or eight times a day,” remembers musician Irma Thomas. At first, it was a hit only in New Orleans, but it’s gone on to inspire generations of musicians. It was among the music chosen during the past year by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry.
Allen Toussaint calls himself a disciple of Professor Longhair and says learning the song “felt like a rite of passage.” But not even Toussaint, the dean of New Orleans songwriters, knows what “Tipitina” is. Was it a place? A person? Hugh Laurie, the actor who recently recorded his own take on the song, relishes the mystery. “I thought it was better not knowing. It adds to its mystique and its power to make me laugh and cry all in one go.”