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A READER'S JOURNAL
The Early New Orleans Carnival
Comus to Zulu
Published by Carnival Press/LA in 2007
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2008
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Any veteran of New Orleans Carnival balls knows that there is at least one person you are guaranteed to see before the night is over, and that is the author of this book, Errol Laborde. His perspective on early Carnivals in this city is valuable because he brings his own research into past carnivals together with his vast experience with the Carnivals of the present. And his understanding of the history of Carnival makes his words on the Carnival celebrated a few months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans so meaningful. In his Preface he writes:
[page 7] Some people argued that the parades should not be held at all, but reason prevailed. Instead of the world getting a message that New Orleans was too battered to even stage its Carnival, it saw instead a city recovering and that still had its spirit. Carnival 2006 was the first big event in the city after Katrina and did much to help New Orleanians believe in themselves. Never has a Mardi Gras celebration meant so much.
Errol lost his home to Katrina and was staying on Julia Street during that Carnival season. He points out that Julia Street and Magazine was the corner from which the Mistick Krewe of Comus began its first parade on February 24, 1857. Standing in that area during the 2006 Carnival was a bittersweet time for him. In this passage you can feel the tug at his heartstrings as the parades passed by and inspired him to write this book.
[page 8] I was blessed to be on Julia Street during the Carnival of 2006 although for the most tragic of reasons. As the New Orleans Carnival approached its 150th anniversary I could hear the drums echo off the same buildings from which they did a century and a half ago. There could be no better setting for going back to the beginning.
New Orleans began as and has always been a port city so its residents have come here from all over the world. The same was true of the original six men who formed Comus. While the people of Mobile say that the New Orleans Carnival was started by natives of Mobile, that claim obscures more than it reveals about the origin of the New Orleans Carnival.
[page 15] Though the original six are often thought of as being form Mobile, only three, the Ellison brothers and Todd, lived there at some point in their lives, though none was a native of that town. Most of the eight [RJM: Merriam and Churchill joined the six] were Yankees whose activities would transport the New Orleans Carnival from being strictly a French Creole festival to something that would become distinctively American.
The Yankees in this group brought the Mummers tradition of masked marchers from Philadelphia and that was melded with the Mobile form of street parades to create the uniquely American approach to Mardi Gras which grew up in the New Orleans area. In my sixty-plus years experience with Carnival, I have seen the tradition change and continue to grow. New Orleanians live for Mardi Gras. A good Mardi Gras sets the tone for the entire year. Take the 2006 Mardi Gras, which was almost canceled because of Hurricane Katrina, the successful Carnival season was followed by an incredible Saints run for the Super Bowl later in the year.
Comus was the beginning of a new Mardi Gras. It paraded at the end of Mardi Gras and gave the disorganized gangs of celebrants of the old Creole celebrations a place to congregate along the parade route that night. But there was no organized activity during the day on Mardi Gras and that hole was soon filled by Rex in 1872. People might wonder where the curious costume for the King of Carnival originated, and like so many things it can be traced to Shakespeare.
Edward C. Hancock was one of the Rex founders, originally from Philadelphia, and Lewis Salomon, the first Rex, explained how Rex's royal attire was due to Hancock's assistance.
[page 28] "At the time we were getting ready for the Carnival, Lawrence Barrett, the tragedian was playing at The Varieties," Salomon remembered. "Hancock introduced me to Barrett while he was behind the stage 'Rex, king of carnival.' We told Barrett what we wanted to do in the way of having a pageant and he agreed to help.
" 'I'll do all I can,' he told me, and he loaned me his Richard III costume and we located a crown, scepter and other paraphernalia in the wardrobe of the theater so that I could look like a regular king. The cloak, I recall, was a beautiful thing of velvet and ermine."
The old Louisiana capitol building in Baton Rouge is designed to resemble a crenelated castle of the Middle Ages. It is quite an elegant structure inside and out and only an old reprobate like Mark Twain could find fault with it, as he did with the romantic notions of the Deep South in General or Colonel or Major or Judge as he said every gentlemen in the South claimed to be.
[page 36] "Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would have ever been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influences of his books."
Nor, I might add, have we recovered from the exciting and romantic influences of his books as when the band plays during the Rex Ball and other Carnival balls, "If Ever I Cease to Love," and all the Generals, Colonels, Majors, Judges, and, yes, Kings, dance with their true love. If your heart doesn't beat faster during Mardi Gras time, you're probably not living in New Orleans.
In 1887 a great-great-grandfather of a friend of ours, Evan Soulé, Jr., George Soulé wore the crown of Rex, King of Carnival. He was founder of Soulé College in New Orleans, and wrote a memorable passage about the role of Rex in Mardi Gras which still holds true today.
[page 44] "To aid in the destruction of these elements of discord, dislike and dissension, and to enthrone in place thereof pure friendship, fraternal feelings and noble sentiments of esteem for one another is the higher and nobler purpose for which the Rex organization stands, and which it is striving to accomplish. . . . The management of the organization took advantage of the Carnival festivities to add eclat to its attraction while it directed its energies to the nobler work of bringing the people of all sections of our country to New Orleans. . ."
As natives, we enjoy our Mardi Gras even if no people come from other parts of the country, but when they come (and they do, in droves), it energizes every one of us to show them the best time they ever had. And make them want to come back. Which many of them do, often to stay and become our neighbors in this amazing and unique city. And none of the newcomers to our city had a greater impact than those who banded together to form the Rex organization. They were truly Kings whose legacy remains among us today.[page 49] Many kings have come to power with less civic calling than did Rex. On the practical side Rex gave the New Orleans Carnival a day parade. That in turn had financial benefits for the city as circulars promoting New Orleans and its expanded Carnival were distributed by the railroads along their route. On a civic side Rex allowed another circle of participation in Carnival. On the political side Rex gave Carnival a public figure in counterpoint to the cherished secrecy of the mystic clubs. On a ceremonial side Rex greeted a Grand Duke. Kingdoms are created by circumstance but few can count among their circumstances one that Rex could. His was a kingdom that came into existence partially because a troubled republic needed it.
The city and culture that really influenced Carnival was Philadelphia, especially the wide area parades that replaced the miscellaneous neighborhood celebrations after the Civil War. Add to the Mummers influence, the African links, and a Bahamas connection and place them all under the rubric of the French Canadians phrase, Mardi Gras, then mix in a lot of Protestant influence, stir in the Gumbo Pot that is the river city of New Orleans, add Creole seasoning and Cajun Zydeco, simmer for 150 years, and you have modern Mardi Gras on the banks of the Mississippi River.
There were four parading krewes by the beginning of the twentieth century, Comus, Rex, Momus, and Proteus. By the end of the same century, two of the Krewes would no longer be parading. Momus and Comus decided to stop parading in 1992 rather than submit to the draconian city ordinance, a most un-civil ordinance. Comus stopped parading on Mardi Gras night, and that Mistick Krewe is sorely missed yet today. They continue their mystery in their Mardi Gras night Ball where the Royal Courts of Rex and Comus meet to bring the Carnival season to a close. Sadly, also, the satirical antics of the Greek God, Momus, the god of laughter, ridicule, and satire disappeared from the streets of New Orleans.
Shortly after the Krewe of Momus stop parading, I wrote the following poem in the memory of the silent streets they left in their wake.
The streets bear
testimony tonight —
There will be no speeches,
no blaring loudspeakers
Just empty, silent streets
while in some gentler
Momus reigns in the divine company
Satire, Grace, and Dignity.
Laborde writes on page 75, "From the beginning Momus seemed destined towards Chaos." There is a hint that the energies of Momus have died only to be resurrected as the Knights of Chaos in 2001. He adds, on page 102, "Suspiciously resembling the old Momus parade, the Knights of Chaos make their debut. Besides having the Momus look, the Knights parade on the Thursday evening before Mardi Gras, a night traditionally known as 'Momus Thursday'."
There is much more to Mardi Gras: the truck parades, the suburban parades, the Krewe of Zulu, the marching bands like Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Marching Band, and the Mardi Gras Indians, among other things, and Laborde covers them all. The one thing he didn't cover, which one cannot really cover in a book is the music of Mardi Gras. One has to hear it, to feel it, to get carried away with it to understand how vital music is to Mardi Gras. In 2008, I woke up at 6 AM on Mardi Gras Day listening to WWOZ radio — that music poured out of my speakers, my feet began tapping, my legs began moving, my heart beating with excitement to the pulsating rhythms, the inimitable rhythms of Mardi Gras, and I knew that there was no place else in the world I wanted to be but in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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