“Memphis’ Worldly Fair”: Deciphering Riddles In A Hill Country Blues Lyric

Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.

However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:

Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.

What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.

Fair or Fare?

One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.

The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.

The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair

Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.

The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations

Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.

Conclusion

While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.

Oak Street, New Orleans, Sunday Afternoon on Mardi Gras weekend


Although New Orleans is my favorite city, and it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were in town primarily for a Duwayne Burnside concert that I was playing keyboards on, so we didn’t have the opportunity to really get out and enjoy the parades or other performances. In fact, the parades ended up being more of a bother, as they made it hard for us to get from our condominium to the venue. But where we were staying, on Oak Street, was remarkably quiet and empty on the Sunday afternoon, apparently because everyone was further down St. Charles along the parade route. The holiday also wreaked havoc on our food options, with some places closed altogether and others on three-hour waits. But Pizza Domenica is a great stand-by, as it is just about the best pizza in the city anyway, and usually open even on Sunday or at Mardi-Gras. When we arrived, it was largely empty, but after we were seated, it started quickly filling up with people who were making their way back from the parade, and the place went from dead to crowded in less than a half hour, but we were satisfied and comfortable as we headed to the show venue.

R. L. Boyce Brings The Hill Country To New Orleans

001 Sherena Boyce & Michael Bateman004 R. L. Boyce & Friends006 Sherena Boyce009 The Circle Bar010 Sherena Boyce & Amy Verdon013 R. L. Boyce015 R. L. Boyce016 R. L. Boyce017 R. L. & Sherena Boyce018 R. L. & Sherena Boyce019 R. L. & Sherena Boyce020 R.L. Boyce & Friends021 Sherena Boyce and Friends022 Sherena Boyce and Friends023 Sherena Boyce and Friends024 Sherena Boyce and Friends025 Sherena Boyce and Friends026 Sherena Boyce and Friends027 R. L. Boyce & Friends028 R. L. Boyce029 R. L. Boyce035 R. L. & Sherena Boyce036 R. L. & Sherena Boyce037 R. L. & Sherena Boyce and Friends038 R. L. & Sherena Boyce and Friends039 R. L. Boyce and Friends040 R. L. Boyce & Friends041 R. L. Boyce042 R. L. Boyce043 Sherena Boyce044 Sherena Boyce045 R. L. Boyce050 R. L. & Sherena Boyce052 R. L. & Sherena Boyce054 R. L. & Sherena Boyce056 R. L. Boyce057 Sherena & R. L. Boyce064 R. L. Boyce067 R. L. Boyce & Friends
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.

Football & Funk At Grambling Homecoming

001 Grambling Homecoming002 Grambling Homecoming003 Grambling Homecoming004 Grambling Homecoming005 Grambling Homecoming006 Grambling Homecoming007 Grambling Homecoming008 Grambling Homecoming009 Grambling Homecoming010 Grambling Homecoming011 Grambling Homecoming012 Grambling Homecoming013 Grambling Homecoming014 Grambling Homecoming015 Grambling Homecoming016 Grambling Homecoming017 Grambling Homecoming018 Grambling Homecoming019 Grambling Homecoming020 Grambling Homecoming021 Grambling Homecoming022 Grambling Homecoming024 Grambling Homecoming025 Grambling Homecoming026 Grambling Homecoming027 Grambling Homecoming028 Grambling Homecoming029 Grambling Homecoming032 Grambling Homecoming033 Grambling Homecoming034 Grambling Homecoming036 Grambling Homecoming037 Grambling Homecoming038 Grambling Homecoming039 Grambling Homecoming040 Grambling Homecoming041 Grambling Homecoming042 Grambling Homecoming043 Grambling Homecoming044 Grambling Homecoming045 Grambling Homecoming046 Grambling Homecoming049 Grambling Homecoming050 Grambling Homecoming051 Grambling Homecoming052 Grambling Homecoming053 Grambling Homecoming054 Grambling Homecoming055 University City High School057 University City High School058 University City High School059 Grambling Homecoming060 Grambling Homecoming063 Elite Danceline064 Elite Danceline066 Rayville High School067 Rayville High School068 Rayville High School069 Grambling Homecoming070 Grambling Homecoming071 Grambling High School072 Madison High School074 Madison High School075 Grambling Homecoming076 Grambling Homecoming077 Grambling Homecoming078 Grambling Homecoming079 Grambling Homecoming080 Grambling Band081 Grambling Homecoming082 Grambling Homecoming083 Grambling Homecoming023 Grambling Homecoming084 Grambling Homecoming085 Grambling Homecoming086 Grambling Homecoming087 Grambling Homecoming
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.































A Second-Line in Memphis To A Winter Wonderland

047 Memphorleans Street Symphony048 Memphorleans Street Symphony049 Memphorleans Street Symphony050 Memphorleans Street Symphony051 Memphorleans Street Symphony052 Memphorleans Street Symphony054 Memphorleans Street Symphony057 Memphorleans Street Symphony058 Donnon Johnson059 Memphorleans Street Symphony060 Memphorleans Street Symphony061 Memphorleans Street Symphony062 Winter Wonderland063 The Dantones064 Sledding in Memphis065 Sledding in Memphis066 Sledding in Memphis067 Suavo J & Otis Logan068 Winter Wonderland2026 Memphorleans Street Symphony2028 Memphorleans Street Symphony2029 Memphorleans Street Symphony2030 Donnon Johnson2032 Sledding in Memphis
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.



Grambling Homecoming 2015: And The Rains Came

1948 Lea's of Lecompte1949 Waterfront Grill1950 Waterfront Grill
When I got up early for breakfast on Grambling’s Homecoming Day, the weather was grey, but it wasn’t raining, so I was hopeful as I went to Lea’s of LeCompte in Monroe for breakfast. But no sooner had I left Monroe headed toward Ruston than the rains came down fiercely, and it was a cold and miserable rain at that. Even though I made my way to the area of Grambling where the parade was to begin, I could not find any place to park, and the rains were coming down so heavily that I decided to forego the parade and head to the Lincoln Parish Library in Ruston instead to do some historical research. About noon or so, I left the library, but the rains were continuing, so I headed over to Johnny’s Pizza House on Cooktown Road for a pizza buffet lunch. After that, it was still raining, and evident that the storms were not going to let up enough to let me attend the football game. I had no umbrella, no raincoat and no poncho. So I headed back to West Monroe, visiting the antique malls along Trenton Street, but really not finding much of anything of value. At dinner time, I headed to the Waterfront Grill, my favorite restaurant in Monroe, for a shrimp dinner, and then headed back over to Grambling to briefly hang out with my friend Dr. Reginald Owens, a journalism professor on the faculty at Louisiana Tech. But the rainy day had also been election day, so he had to go and comfort his cousin, who had lost his campaign for the Lincoln Parish Police Jury. Even worse, David Vitter had won the primary for governor, and was attacking his opponent on television as a proxy for Barack Obama. Altogether, it was a thoroughly depressing day.

A Rainy Day In Shreveport

001 The Kitchen, Monroe002 Day Old Blues Records003 Day Old Blues Records004 Rick's Records005 Artspace006 Artspace007 Artspace1928 Stan Lewis Exhibit1930 Stan Lewis Exhibit1932 Stan Lewis Exhibit1934 Stan Lewis Exhibit008 Texas Street011 Big D's Bar-B-Que012 Big D's Bar-B-Que1936 Port-au-Prince1940 Cross Lake1942 Port-au-Prince1944 Port-au-Prince1938 Cross Lake1945 Lakeshore Clothing & Music1946 Cedar Grove Wall of Hoods1947 Rhino Coffee
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.

Celebrating The Culture of Orange Mound at the Southern Heritage Classic Parade

027 SHC Parade028 SHC Parade029 Kirby Middle Band030 Kirby Middle Band031 Kirby Middle Band032 Stop The Killing033 Titan Fans034 Star Steppers036 SHC Parade037 SHC Parade038 SHC Parade039 A. B. Hill Elementary MajorettesJPG040 Drummers Without Drums041 Elite Starz042 Elite Starz043 Elite Starz044 Elite Starz045 Elite Starz046 Elite Starz047 Southwind High School Band048 Southwind High School Band049 Southwind High School Band050 Southwind High School Band051 Southwind High School Band052 Southwind High School Band053 Old School Biker054 SHC Parade055 Cowboy Fans056 Cowboy Fans057 Oakhaven High School Band058 Oakhaven High School Band059 Oakhaven High School Band060 Oakhaven High School Band061 Oakhaven High School Band062 Oakhaven High School Band064 SHC Parade065 SHC Parade066 SHC Parade067 SHC Parade068 SHC Parade069 Old School Bikers070 Old School Bikers071 Old School Bikers072 Old School Bikers073 Hickory Ridge Middle Band074 Hickory Ridge Middle Band075 Hickory Ridge Middle Band076 Hickory Ridge Middle Band077 SHC Parade078 SHC Parade079 Steeler Nation080 Steeler Fans081 Steeler FansJPG082 Steeler Fans083 Steeler Nation084 Steeler Nation085 Steeler Fans086 Steeler Fans087 Steeler Fans088 SHC Parade089 North Memphis Tigers090 Vikings Fans091 Melrose Float092 Melrose High School Band093 Melrose High School Band094 Melrose High School Band095 Melrose High School Band096 Melrose High School Band097 Melrose High School Band098 SHC Parade1837 SHC Parade1839 Melrose Flags1841 Java Cabana
The Southern Heritage Classic Parade is a lot more than just another parade. Held on the early Saturday morning of the Southern Heritage Classic game, the parade proceeds down Park Avenue through the historic Orange Mound neighborhood, and becomes a rallying point for the neighborhood. Parade entries include local school bands, the bands from Jackson State and Tennessee State, custom cars, Memphis fan clubs for NFL teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys, drill teams, drumlines and politicians. The Melrose High School Sound of the Mound band always brings up the rear, and draws a large cheer from the crowds along the sidelines.


TBC Brass Band Brings The Seventh Ward Funk Rolling Downtown With Revolution SA & PC

001 Treme002 Treme Coffeehouse003 Treme004 New Breed Brass Band005 Rampart Street006 TBC Brass Band007 TBC Brass Band008 TBC Brass Band009 TBC Brass Band010 TBC Brass Band011 Revolution 2015012 TBC Brass Band013 TBC Brass Band014 Revolution & TBC015 Revolution & TBC016 Revolution & TBC017 Revolution & TBC018 Revolution & TBC019 Revolution020 Revolution & TBC021 Revolution 2015022 Revolution 2015023 On Horseback024 Basin Street025 Basin Street026 Revolution & TBC027 Revolution & TBC028 Revolution & TBC029 Revolution 2015030 Revolution 2015031 Revolution & TBC032 Revolution 2015033 Orleans Avenue034 Revolution 2015035 Carver Theater036 Carver Theater037 Revolution 2015038 Revolution 2015039 Orleans Avenue040 The New Breed Brass Band041 Revolution 2015042 Revolution & The New Breed Brass Band043 Revolution 2015044 Revolution 2015045 Revolution & TBC046 Orleans Avenue047 Revolution & TBC048 Neutral Ground on Broad049 Broad Street Ruler050 Broad Street051 Revolution & TBC052 Broad Street053 Broad Street054 Broad Street055 Positive Vibrations056 Revolution 2015057 TBC Brass Band058 TBC Brass Band059 TBC Brass Band060 TBC Brass Band061 TBC Brass Band062 Revolution 2015063 Revolution 2015064 Revolution 2015065 Broad Street066 Broad Street067 Broad Street068 Broad Street069 Broad Street070 Revolution 2015071 Revolution 2015072 Revolution 2015073 Revolution 2015074 On Horseback Under The Arches075 On Horseback at McDonalds076 Revolution 2015077 Revolution 2015078 Revolution 2015079 Revolution 2015080 TBC Brass Band081 The Duck Off082 Revolution 2015083 TBC Brass Band084 Groove City085 A P Tureaud086 A P Tureaud087 Revolution 2015088 Under The Claiborne Bridge089 Claiborne Avenue090 Mother-In-Law Lounge091 Revolution 2015092 North Claiborne093 Revolution 2015094 Revolution 2015095 Revolution 2015096 St. Bernard Avenue097 St. Bernard Avenue098 St. Bernard Avenue099 St. Bernard Avenue100 St. Bernard Avenue101 St. Bernard Avenue102 Revolution 2015103 St. Bernard Avenue104 The Next Stop Bar105 Revolution 2015106 The Other Place107 The Other Place108 St. Bernard Avenue116 After The Second-Line Downtown117 After The Second-Line118 After The Second-Line119 After The Second-Line
Perhaps no New Orleans experience is more enjoyable yet exotic as the Sunday afternoon parades called second-lines. Inspired by the bass-drum, cowbell and tuba-driven grooves of a brass band, the second-line is basically a rolling party led by one of the many social aid and pleasure clubs in the Black community of New Orleans. Unlike more traditional parades elsewhere in the United States, these are participatory events. People come off their porches and fall in behind the marching band, or jump onto high places to dance and be noticed. The refreshments roll too, pulled by vendors with coolers on wheels, so with the music and cold drinks easily available, the average second-liner might not even realize that he’s been marching and buckjumping for nearly four hours in the hot New Orleans sun. Plus, unlike other parades, second-lines stop. The sponsoring club needs to rest, as some of the members are not young, and besides, they are usually dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes that are extremely hot to wear. They also need to salute other clubs by visiting the bars where they hang out, so a second-line is everything- the beat of great music, the exuberance of impromptu dancing, the colorful brilliance of suits and costumes, the joyful meeting of friends or relatives, and ultimately a statement of identity- what it means to be from New Orleans.
On this particular Saturday, the second-line was being sponsored by the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a downtown organization, so the parade lined up at the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the Congo Square Rhythm Festival was going on inside the park, so there was quite a crowd in the vicinity. Revolution is one of the bigger parades of the season, and this year, it featured three bands- the TBC Brass Band, the Sons of Jazz and the New Breed Brass Band, which had formerly been known as the Baby Boyz. With a 70% chance of rain predicted, I had been concerned about the weather. It was certainly grey and overcast, and as the parade began to get underway, big drops of rain came falling down, sending a rush of people into the Ace Hardware on Rampart Street to buy ponchos and umbrellas. But once the parade was up and rolling on Basin Street, the rain abruptly ended, never to return, and eventually, up on Broad Street the sun came out. The crowds grew steadily bigger through the afternoon as we headed down Broad Street toward A. P. Tureaud. At one stop along the way, the club members disappeared into a building, and then came out in completely different attire. Since there had been no “coming out the door” at the beginning of the parade, this was their first “coming out” of the day. All downtown second-lines get kicked up a notch when they hit the I-10 overpass at North Claiborne Avenue. For one thing, the acoustics under the bridge are amazing, and the bass drums and tuba lines seem to hit harder, and the dancers get more creative. For another, there’s usually a crowd of people gathered under the bridge awaiting the arrival of the second-line. The neutral ground of Claiborne was a place of significance in Black New Orleans before the interstate was built, and the ground remains important to the community today, even in spite of what has been done to it. Outside of some establishments were large groups of people, particularly at Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge near the intersection with St. Bernard Avenue. On the last stretch of parade down St. Bernard Avenue, there was some question as to whether we would be allowed to continue, because the parade had run past its permitted time of 5 PM, but the police finally relented and allowed the parade to continue to its end.
Second-line crowds are always reluctant to disperse, and that is even more true of the ones downtown. Lots of people come out with custom cars and motorcycles, cruising up and down North Claiborne Avenue, despite the efforts of the police to break it up. An hour later, there was still a street party in full swing under the bridge. As the sun sets, it gradually breaks up naturally most of the time, the revelers headed home tired but happy until the whole process is repeated the next Sunday.