Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler, Anybody?
"Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler," literally means "let the good times roll." And if you happen to be in the Crescent City around Mardi Gras time, it's a phrase you will hear mentioned many times. In fact, it's a motto that should be practiced by everybody, for first and foremost, Mardi Gras is all about having a good time.
In 1946, Louis Jordan recorded a popular tune called "Let the Good Times Roll." Although not specifically about New Orleans, this song captures the spirit of the day very well.
"Don't care if you're young or old," is a line from this song that aptly applies to the big celebration on Fat Tuesday. Newcomers to New Orleans might be surprised that all kinds of celebrations occur throughout the city and its surrounding townships. Family-friendly parades dominate the Carnival day festivities, but bar-hopping, dancing in the street, public consumption of alcohol, and bawdy merrymaking are also part of the celebration, especially in the French Quarter.
"Don't let anybody play me cheap, I got 50 cents more than I'm going to keep." There's no way around it, Mardi Gras runs the New Orleans economy. And if you visit the Big Easy before the Lenten season begins, everyone expects you to spend some cash.
It All Begins With a King Cake
Many residents of the Crescent City initiate their Mardi Gras with a simple get-together in early January. The date for these congenial parties is the Twelfth Night or more precisely the twelfth day of Christmas, which, if my math is correct, falls on January 6th.
Of course, the main feature is a King Cake. Also known in French as le gateau de Rois, this popular pastry is nothing more than a simple cake, baked in a ring shape, and covered with sweet confectionery. The most important of the cake is a small plastic baby, baked right into the dessert; whoever receives the little infant has to host the next king cake party. And so in this manner, small groups of dedicated Mardi Gras revelers meet once a week right up to the big day, itself.
Following is a classic Dixieland style Jazz tune, called "Bourbon Street Parade." Even though New Orleans revelers don't parade through the French Quarter till Mardi Gras Day, I will include the tune here, because the Bourbon Kings were an important French dynasty. And, after all, New Orleans is a Fleur de Lis city.
The Second Line
Musically, nothing defines New Orleans jazz better than the second line. In reality, the second line is two things. For musicians, it is a style of improvisation, where the player varies from the main melody in a way that is still coherent with the spirit of the song. Dixieland jazz is a classic style of utilizing the second line to create an overall symphonic effect.
Then there are the second-line dancers that will follow a big brass band as it marches through the street. The occasion can vary from Mardi Gras to other holidays honoring various Saints, to a funeral for a popular jazz musician.
Finally, there is a popular tune, named "Joe Avery Blues," which is more often referred to as "The Second Line Song." This is an old-time jazz number, played in the Dixieland manner, yet it features a distinctive lead arrangement. Check out the first video, which features the Excelsior Jazz Band performing on stage and playing "The Second Line Song" along with a second number.
Following are two other videos. One explains the second line, while the other features The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performing "Blackbird Special."
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Mardi Gras Native Americans
Early on Mardi Gras Day, down in the Ninth Ward occurs one of Mardi Gras's most eclectic events, the appearance of the various Black Native American tribes. Just as the song says, Claiborne and Dumaine is a hot spot for the Mardi Gras Native Americans, who have divided themselves into distinct tribes, based primarily on the closely-knit neighborhood, where each tribe lives.
In the old days, the meetings could sometimes turn violent, but in modern times, confrontations have evolved into ritual dancing and singing. Each tribe is known for its colorful display, which is primarily intended as a Caribbean-style tribute to the war regalia of the Great Plains Native Americans.
The Most Popular Tunes
All during Mardi Gras, there will be music in the air. Much of it will be live, but every little corner store and coffee shop will be getting in the spirit and contributing in their small way with at least a few Mardi Gras songs, broadcast from the premises.
Over the course of a day, revelers will likely hear the same song played over and over again. When I first moved to New Orleans, "Jambalaya," the much-venerated Hank Williams hit, could be heard everywhere. But as the years rolled on, "Mardi Gras Mambo," a Latin-styled tribute, became more popular, and then that song gave way to Professor Longhair's whistling classic, "Go To the Mardi Gras." All three songs are featured below.
Mardi Gras Nights
In the days before the big event, there are numerous parties and balls sponsored by various krewes. If you are fortunate enough to attend one of these gatherings, they can be a lot of fun and even a bit magical, as Dr. John so aptly describes in his song titled "Such a Night."
For most participants, Mardi Gras night is anti-climatic. The parades are over, some bars are closing early, and many party-goers begin thinking about Ash Wednesday, which follows Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday in New Orleans most likely brings with it, a return to work and a visit to a local church to acknowledge the first day of Lent.
© 2018 Harry Nielsen