by Denis McGilvray
“New Orleans culture has cast a spell over the nation and the world for nearly a hundred years. But it is the music – more than Mardi Gras, more than the French Quarter, more than a streetcar (now a bus) named Desire, more than beignets for breakfast – that has always been at the heart of our fascination with New Orleans. No other place has contributed a richer heritage of pop music to the rest of the United States, from Dixieland to rock ’n’ roll to contemporary jazz, from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, from Fats Domino to Dr. John, from Mahalia Jackson to Harry Connick, Jr.”
— from Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner
I had originally planned on launching this blogazine on January 1, 2010, a nice way to start the new year. When that date came and I was nowhere near ready to get it going, I started to think of another date to use as my goal for publication. When I looked at the calendar, I knew immediately that Mardi Gras would be the perfect birthday for Jukebox Delirium since it had such strong musical and celebratory connections for me (and it was just far enough away that I figured I could get the writing done…)
My first exposure to the wild revelry that is Mardi Gras came through the fantastic musical heritage of New Orleans and Lousiana as I was exposed to it in the recordings of the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Michael Doucet & Beausoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco and others. I was already into jazz music at this time and knew that the melting pot of New Orleans, with its confluence of Afro-Carribbean rhythms and European band music, had been an integral part of the formation of jazz music, but I wasn’t as familiar with the rest of the New Orleans musical heritage. While volunteering as a music programmer at public radio station KAZU-90.3 FM in Pacific Grove, California during the ’80s, I was turned on to the great New Orleans musical tradition by several other programmers at the station who were aficionados and played many of those musicians on their shows. I remember one woman in particular who was immersed in the music, and may have been from or lived in New Orleans for a time; she went by the name Mama Roux and she always played some very groovy tunes on her weekly show, “Bon Temp Blues.” I was hosting a late night rock show called “Not Fade Away” – named after the classic Buddy Holly tune (hear a sample) that I first became familiar with through the Grateful Dead’s souped-up cover version (see it). I played different versions of the song as the opener of the show each Friday night (there are a bunch of them – including a great one by the Rolling Stones (see it) and after a while, my DJ friend Art O’Sullivan and I noticed that the staccato beat that was so prominent in “Not Fade Away” was also present in many other rock tunes. We knew it was similar to the famous Bo Diddley beat and we also heard it most prominently in the Mardi Gras song “Iko Iko,” as we’d heard it covered by Dr. John (see video below) and again by the Grateful Dead. We decided to do a whole show dedicated to playing as many songs that had that distinctive beat as we could find. I don’t remember now exactly what we came up with, but I think it must’ve been a couple dozen different songs. As we were musing on the air about the connection of that beat to so many different songs, Mama Roux called up and started telling me about how that beat was connected to second line parading in New Orleans, primarily in connection with traditional New Orleans jazz funerals. She described it as an elemental beat that was commonly heard in the streets of New Orleans, and she also talked a bit about how it had been taken from the streets into popular music.
After doing a little research into the history of this beat, I’ve found that it seems to have been first adapted into pop culture in the song “Jock-A-Mo” written and recorded by New Orleans musician James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in 1953, who says he wrote the song based on some rhythms and chants he heard during Mardi Gras parades. From there it was incorporated into many other songs right up to this day. “Jock-A-Mo” was most famously recorded by the Dixie Cups under the title “Iko Iko,” and that’s the way it is most commonly known today.
Check out this nice example of the beat and a discussion of it as played by Dr. John himself:
(He is such a wonderful player; I marvel at how his left hand is playing the incredible bass line and his right is playing the intricate melody.)
Since that first exposure to it almost 25 years ago, I have come to love the music of Mardi Gras and New Orleans with a passion. It’s easy to do. The music is so rhythmically infectious that you can’t help but move to the groove; the melodies are so free and catchy that they just breeze through your head and lift you up. For me, it’s the sound of pure joy and celebration and life. It doesn’t hurt that Mardi Gras is also accompanied by great food and drink. If you’ve ever had a really good gumbo or jambalaya or the amazing beignets at Café du Monde, then you know what I’m talking about. The food is like the music, a wild combination of many flavors that blend perfectly together to make something new.
There is also the spiritual side of Mardi Gras to consider – and yes, it has a spiritual side! Taking place on the day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent — the season of purification leading up to Easter Sunday) is no accident. For many centuries there has been a wild celebration on the Tuesday before Lent starts, allowing the faithful one last time of revelry and excess before the call to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which culminates on Easter Sunday. The ancient Roman calendar had a wild festival which typically took place in mid-February, and when the Church came to Rome it absorbed this festival into its own calendar partly to help assimilate the pagan converts more easily. There has been a Carnival-like celebration before Lent for centuries, with regional variations around the world. Mardi Gras is one of those. I like the idea of this sanctioned craziness, of communal lunacy, of letting our wild side loose for a time, not forever, but long enough to perhaps keep our spirit nicely balanced throughout the year. We need such things.
And I have to rave about the city of New Orleans itself. I’ve visited there once, in the late ’90s, very briefly, and really loved it. It has played such a vital role in the creation of so many good things: jazz, great rhythm & blues music, delectable food, and Mardi Gras itself. The unique blend of cultures and people that made all this possible can be found in no other place. No one could have imagined what great new things would be birthed in this city. Hurricane Katrina certainly put a serious dent in the soul of the city, but I’m so grateful that it did not break it. New Orleans continues to rise from the floodwaters and thrive again, as it has done for several centuries. The spectacular victory by the New Orleans Saints in this year’s Super Bowl was perhaps one of the most emotional sporting wins I’ve witnessed in a long time. I know of no other city that would feel a championship on such a deeply emotional level. Even the World Series win by the Boston Red Sox in 2004, after an 86 year championship drought, did not resonate on quite the same level as the Saints victory for New Orleans. The whole city of New Orleans was lifted by the Saints, and it was so fun to watch.
A discussion of Mardi Gras music by the creators of Mardi Gras Unmasked
A history of Mardi Gras online at Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide
An interesting web page that talks about how Mardi Gras grew out of the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia
Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner (W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.) Out of print, but available from used book sellers.