Mr. Jelly Roll Remembers Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is tomorrow. I doubt most of y’all in New Orleans are checking your email this Lundi Gras, but for any poor souls who are keeping a normal schedule today, here’s a short tribute that’ll keep you in the spirit.
Because it’s Lundi Gras, there will be no talk of film biz in this post. Instead I offer you a short memory of Mardi Gras from one of this city’s great heroes: Mr. Jelly Roll Morton.
Morton was the self-described “creator of jazz.” That is a bold claim, of course, but in Mr. Jelly Roll, the biography created from conversations Morton had with the great folklorist Alan Lomax, the Morton accredits his musical greatness to the city that fostered him.
In this paragraph, Jelly Roll gives us a glimpse of Mardi Gras a hundred years ago—and where the word “second line” comes from:
“Those parades were really tremendous things. The drums would start off down the street, the trumpets and trombones rolling . . . and everybody would strut off down the street, the bass drum player twirling his beater in the air, the snare drummer throwing his sticks up and bouncing them off the ground, the kids jumping and hollering, the grand marshal and his aides in their expensive uniforms moving along dignified, women on top of women strutting along back of the aides and out in front of everybody—the second line, armed with sticks and bottles and baseball bats and all forms of ammunition ready to fight the foe when they reached the dividing line.”
Now that sounds like a parade, right?
The parades seemed to have been pretty violent back in those days-—sort of fantastic, ritualized battles between neighborhoods. I’m certainly glad we second liners aren’t carrying bottles and bats these days, but I do still feel the glorious feeling of going to battle on Mardi Gras day!
I’m not too jazzed on the parading hoopla that happens on St. Charles, but I absolutely love the feeling of conquering the streets with music and dance.
The whole “parade” thing with floats and beads was actually an Americanized, Protestant reaction to the crazy Catholic Mardi Gras. When the Americans entered New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, they witnessed the chaos in the streets on Mardi Gras day and deemed it unacceptable. They forced the native Creoles to stick to prescribed “parade routes” in an attempt to control the madness.
But of course that was futile. Mardi Gras is madness still to this day. Two years ago I got punched off my bicycle on Fat Tuesday and spent a couple days in the ICU!
But hearing the words of Jelly Roll, I guess that’s all part of the “second line” tradition. “The first day I marched,” says Jelly Roll, “a fellow was cut, must have been a hundred times. Blood was gushing out of him same as from one of those gushers in Yellowstone Park, but he never did stop fighting.”
Long live the living! Be careful out there y’all. Have a great time. I’m going to be dressed up as a Ninth Ward Rooster. COCKADOODLEDOO! Maybe I’ll see you in the streets ;)
Happy Mardi Gras everybody.