Blues for New Orleans
Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul
by Roger Abrahams, Nick Spitzer, Nick Spitzer, John F. Szwed, John F. Szwed, Robert Farris Thompson, Robert Farris Thompson
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the citizens of New Orleans regroup and put down roots elsewhere, many wonder what will become of one of the nation's most complex creole cultures. New Orleans emerged like Atlantis from under the sea, as the city in which some of the most important American vernacular arts took shape. Creativity fostered jazz music, made of old parts and put together in utterly new ways; architecture that commingled Norman rooflines, West African floor plans, and native materials of mud and moss; food that simmered African ingredients in French sauces with Native American delicacies. There is no more powerful celebration of this happy gumbo of life in New Orleans than Mardi Gras. In Carnival, music is celebrated along the city's spiderweb grid of streets, as all classes and cultures gather for a festival that is organized and chaotic, individual and collective, accepted and licentious, sacred and profane.
The authors, distinguished writers who have long engaged with pluralized forms of American culture, begin and end in New Orleans—the city that was, the city that is, and the city that will be—but traverse geographically to Mardi Gras in the Louisiana Parishes, the Carnival in the West Indies and beyond, to Rio, Buenos Aires, even Philadelphia and Albany. Mardi Gras, they argue, must be understood in terms of the Black Atlantic complex, demonstrating how the music, dance, and festive displays of Carnival in the Greater Caribbean follow the same patterns of performance through conflict, resistance, as well as open celebration.
After the deluge and the finger pointing, how will Carnival be changed? Will the groups decamp to other Gulf Coast or Deep South locations? Or will they use the occasion to return to and express a revival of community life in New Orleans? Two things are certain: Katrina is sure to be satirized as villainess, bimbo, or symbol of mythological flood, and political leaders at all levels will undoubtedly be taken to task. The authors argue that the return of Mardi Gras will be a powerful symbol of the region's return to vitality and its ability to express and celebrate itself.
"As a battle cry for summoning up our collective will to save our Creole city, Blues for New Orleans is clear and strong."—The Times-Picayune
"Blues for New Orleans is a generous study of Mardi Gras, but it is also a creative intervention, a passionate explanation (and defense) of creolization, a cultural rescue operation. It is a furious, blues-tinged, erudite hymn to our greatest vernacular city. Read it and weep; read it and rejoice!"—Edward Hirsch, President, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
"Will New Orleans become a memory and a myth? Will the bon temps ever roulette again? I took for granted many of the things in this book as I experienced them every day. As residents, we never imagined a day when we would be called on to plead for recognition of our worth to our city. But, like the old folks said: 'It goes to show, you never can tell.' Without an awareness of the many contributions to the city's culture inherent in the make up of the neighborhoods, the planners can't begin to plan realistically. The information in this historic work is much needed by those who are rebuilding New Orleans. I thank the authors for their deep and clear insight on New Orleans culture and what goes into making an artistic American city."—Charles Neville
"If there was ever any question about the resilience of this endlessly fascinating city, this imaginative book should lay it to rest. In the land of dreamy dreams, where order is a doubloon's throw from disorder, and paradox reigns with pleasure, the carnival spirit has always held New Orleans together even when its civic culture seemed broken beyond repair. Blues for New Orleans is more than a study of Mardi Gras' origins in the polyglot order of Atlantic World Creoles; it is a wonderful meditation on what it would mean to lose New Orleans."—Lawrence N. Powell, author of Troubled Memory and other works on Louisiana