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Mardi Gras in New Orleans:
Running the Streets of the Crescent City

By John Sinclair

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Elsewhere in the funky southern metropolis pandemonium also reigns, but it's of a whole different order and magnitude: the official Mardi Gras celebration takes place downtown, in and out of the Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, and out in various exurban neighborhoods, where the elaborate floats of the straight Mardi Gras krewes are towed down the streets by tractors, and bands are hired to lend the spectacle a slender shred of authenticity.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday - the last day before Lent begins - is basically the province of the white New Orleans aristocracy, a gaudy component of the local social season which starts three days after Christmas and winds up the night before Ash Wednesday, fifty parades and an equal number of exclusive society balls later. The celebration, modeled on the traditional French Shrove Tuesday festivities, took root in Nouvelle Orleans soon after the exotic seaport was colonized by the French, and by the early 1720's numerous citizens could be seen parading roughly in costume through the streets of the town on a Mardi Gras morn.

By 1766, when the Spanish took over, the custom had been firmly established, and even a long-standing ban by the Spanish authorities was finally overturned so that by 1803, when the French retook possession of Louisiana and then quickly dealt it off to the U.S. of A., the Mardi Gras parade was an irrepressible fact of life in New Orleans. The Americans put a stop to it in 1806, but the tradition was so strong by then that the Yankees were persuaded, in 1827, to let the maskers return to the street for that one day a year.

Unable to suppress the joyous carnival spirit of old New Orleans, the Americans soon figured out a way to impose their own twisted set of cultural values on the celebration, and in 1838 a group of American businessmen organized the first formal Mardi Gras parade. But let me quote from the eminent Mr. Robert Tallant, author of the definitive tome "Mardi Gras":

"Until then (1838) maskers had formed lines and chains and walked and run through the streets on Mardi Gras to the amusement or disgust of the spectators, but without real organization or plan. They romped and shouted and behaved as foolishly as possible, but those taking part were usually considered wild young men at best. Perhaps a few groups had also ridden about in carriages and wagons, but there was no semblance of order.

"It was the Americans who gave Mardi Gras its present pattern. It was they who, at least to some extent, took it away from the people and changed what had been an unorganized and informal street revel into an entire social season, a highly stylized program of balls and pageants, related to debutantes and a caste system as rigid, although in a different way, as that of the Creoles . . . The Americans kept alive and increased the whole concept of imitation aristocracy and the ridiculous snobbery that still characterizes some of the Mardi Gras krewes." (pp. 103, 104).

Since then the American pattern has spread over Mardi Gras much as it has spread over the rest of the land, reducing the multi-various beauty of native and other immigrant cultures to a plastic smear seen through a slide projector in a museum. In New Orleans now the Mardi Gras celebration is a strange combination of Chamber of Commerce-type parades, organized and produced by rich New Orleanians, and a gargantuan week-long street festival in the Fort Lauderdale-Woodstock mold, with beer and wine and liquor flowing freely twenty-four hours a day, through which the organized parades pass in all their hincty glory.

The modern-day celebration reveals its true nature during these prolonged passages, when the wealthy maskers on their expensive floats pose haughtily high above the crowds and the peons stretch out their hands and holler, "Throw me something, mister!" The aristocrats reward these pleas with showers of plastic beads and trinkets and handfuls of phony "doubloons" stamped with their krewe's name, the suckers on the street turn their attention to the next float in the parade, and the whole procession lurches on down the block.

But even given its essentially vile social role as an annual public affirmation of the reactionary conditions of everyday life in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras celebration is an incredibly vibrant and positive event to be taking place in the streets of an American city. And since it is strictly controlled by the ruling class of the city, Mardi Gras enjoys the full and almost uncontrolled enthusiasm of the local news media, which would certainly be freaking out of their gourds if any other stratum of society were to propose such an all-out bacchanal. (continued)

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"Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Running the Streets of the Crescent City"
© 1976, 1997 John Sinclair - All Rights Reserved
photos © Michael P. Smith

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