Mardi Gras is a French phrase meaning "Fat Tuesday," and is so named to commemmorate the last opportunity to get your partying in before giving up some sin for the Catholic holiday of Lent. (That's definitely oversimplified, I know.)
The traditions surrounding the celebration of Mardi Gras in Louisiana stretch back all the way to the founding of New Orleans by the brother explorers d'Iberville and Bienville. It's believed that they landed in the place that would become New Orleans on Lundi Gras (the day before the day before Lent, or Fat Monday).
Mardi Gras Music in New Orleans
Since then, Mardi Gras and New Orleans have gone hand-in-hand. The musical elements of the holiday come from the slew of cultures that predominate the city. Almost from the beginning, the gumbo of French, Canadian, American, and Carribbean cultures has influenced the music of New Orleans and its Mardi Gras celebration. If you've ever walked down Canal Street on Mardi Gras day, you know what I'm talking about. Here are some of the great traditional songs that have become synonymous with American Mardi Gras.
For many years, the African-American population in New Orleans held a separate carnivale from the one the whites celebrated on Canal Street. Black Mardi Gras took place on Claiborne Avenue, which bordered the Treme and other predominantly African-American neighborhoods. One of the African-American krewes developed the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians to pay homage to local native tribes that had helped runaway slaves before the Civil War. "Iko Iko" is a song about the Mardi Gras Indians, mimicking the languages of the local Native Americans, and paying homage to this deeply rooted tradition.
"When the Saints Go Marching In"
Since its inception, New Orleans has been a predominantly catholic town, and "When the Saints Go Marching In" started out as a religious song played during funerals. Traditional New Orleans funerals include a march from the funeral home to the graveyard, complete with a band and people carrying the coffin. "When the Saints" would traditionally be played slowly as a dirge on the way to the graveyard, and would be sped up and played in a celebratory tone at the end of the funeral.
Of course, the song was widely popularized by local music hero Louis Armstrong as a jazz number in the 1930s, and is typically performed these days by any number of jazz and brass bands in New Orleans as an upbeat dixieland jazz tune. Many of the marching bands participating in Mardi Gras parades will perform "When the Saints" as an homage to their home town of New Orleans.
"Go To the Mardi Gras"
This song, written by Professor Longhair—one of New Orleans' greates musical treasures—brings together two of Mardi Gras's richest traditions: the Zulu parade and second-lining. Zulu is an all-African-American krewe (actually a "Social Aid and Pleasure Club") whose parade includes the tossing of golden coconuts, and is one of the biggest-draw parades on Mardi Gras morning. Originally the staple parade from Black Mardi Gras in Congo Square, Zulu now ends up on Canal Street like all the other major parades. "Go to the Mardi Gras" sings about someone coming to NoLa to see the Zulu parade. Complete with whistling and second-line drumming, this song is one of the staples of the Mardi Gras celebration.
"If Ever I Cease to Love"
This silly song was appointed the official song of Mardi Gras back when the Krewe of Rex first organized in the late 1800s, appointing a king, a Mardi Gras flag and the colors green, gold, and purple (faith, power, and justice). "If Ever I Cease to Love" was the official anthem of that year's Rex parade, and has since been considered one of the staple tunes of Mardi Gras.
In tradition, the second line is a derivative of the "jazz funerals" and, as MardiGrasUnmasked.com says it, the "uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up." The band and the mourners dance down the street, joined by an ever-growing crowd of people who dance through town to bury the deceased and celebrate the living. The song "Second Line," however, is a song popularized by Stop, Inc., in the 1970s.
Actually a combination of two different numbers—"Picou's Blues" and "Whuppin' Blues"—"Second Line," parts 1 and 2, have become some of the most widely played songs by brass bands in New Orleans parades and second lines on Mardi Gras day and throughout the year.
Mardi Gras Music - The Bottom LineThough "Second Line" and "Go to the Mardi Gras" are relatively newer compositions, they have become deeply entrenched in the traditions surrounding this annual celebration; and their inspiration comes from hundreds of years of Carnivale music that drive the American Mardi Gras celebration.
There are, of course, hundreds of songs commemorating Mardi Gras and celebrating the rich cultures and traditions of New Orleans. Each of these songs integrates elements of traditional music with the intent of simply celebrating, dancing, and having a good ol' time; and that's what Mardi Gras is all about.