The History, Culture, and Music of New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana, is the most unusual city in America. It is famous for Cajuns, Mardi Gras, Voodoo, and jazz. Nicknamed the "Crescent City" because of its shape, it is filled with peculiar traditions. It has always been bawdy and dedicated to debauchery.
Built on a patch of swampland between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the humidity, mosquitoes, disease, hurricanes, and floods dissuaded most folks from moving there. New Orleans has one of the highest levels of rainfall in the United States. That is a problem because much of the city is below sea level—being built on extremely low ground to take advantage of ocean-going shipping—and has been slowly sinking for centuries.
The French language and Catholicism made New Orleans different. Protestantism was always scorned there. This is part of why the city was long so isolated from the rest of the United States.
It sits 110 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi. The elevations of the city range from 12 feet above sea level to 6.5 feet below, and the rich folks live above the poor as they do in every city in the world prone to floods.
History of Louisiana
Louisiana squats in a gulf coastal plain approximately 300 X 300 miles square. It was first explored by the Spanish in 1528. La Salle (who founded my hometown of St Joseph, Michigan) claimed Louisiana for France in 1682 and named it after the Sun King, King Louis XIV. He thought it important because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
It is so French that Louisiana doesn't have counties like the rest of the United States; it has parishes. Known as the Pelican State; the pelican is the state bird, the magnolia the state flower, and the bald cypress the state tree.
Louisiana produces the second most natural gas of all American states and 1/3 of the U.S. total. It boasts 2,482 islands and produces the most furs in America at 1.3 million per year of otter, mink, and beaver; as well as producing the most oysters and crawfish—10 million pounds per annum.
History of New Orleans
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718. He was born in Montreal, one of 14 children born to parents from Normandy. After joining the French Navy as an explorer at age 17, he was sent with his older brother to explore the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1743, Bienville retired to Paris and produced many historic maps and panoramas.
From 1717-1720, Paris deported boatloads of criminals to Louisiana. 1/4 of original male population was smugglers and convicted felons. In 1721, New Orleans was described as "100 wet, wretched hovels on flood-prone banks full of malaria and alligators, and infested with snakes." A massive hurricane struck in 1722 that blew down the whole town. The city was repopulated with riff raff and undesirables—people nobody else wanted.
While the original settlers of New Orleans were French, they were followed by Spaniards, and then the French Acadians (Cajuns) came from Nova Scotia and the surrounding area (Acadia). The Cajuns fled from the conquering British Army to Louisiana in 1754-1763 because they did not want to live under British rule. The population got another boost from Frenchmen fleeing the horrors of the French Revolution after 1789.
In 1762, King Louis XV lost a bet and gave New Orleans to his cousin, the King of Spain, Charles III. In 1800, it was given back to France, but then Napoleon sold all of Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Americans soon came to live there, as did Germans, Irish, and Sicilians. The Slave Revolt in Haiti of 1804 brought a new influx of French aristocrats fleeing that island, as well as a goodly number of slaves fleeing the violence along with their former masters.
The Haitian Revolution of 1804 led to an ongoing experiment where the first (and only) country in the Western Hemisphere was to be led by black people. Many Haitians, though, fled the island for New Orleans apparently preferring to live where whites rule. They were welcomed because they spoke French. The number of Haitian refugees by 1809 is estimated to include 3200 slaves, 3100 free blacks—And 2700 whites escaping the carnage visited upon their brethren in Haiti.
In 1791, the wettest town in the Western Hemisphere boasted twice as many taverns as all other commercial establishments combined. Gambling ruled, as evidenced by the 54,000 packs of playing cards imported in that one year into a town of 8,000. By 1800, after 37 years of light rule by Spain, New Orleans had become a haven for pirates, smugglers, and prostitutes.
There were only 97 blacks in New Orleans in 1771—3% of the population—but by 1777 that number jumped to 300, and there were 820 in 1788. By 1805, blacks were 20% of the population in Louisiana. The Census of that year counted 8,500 souls in New Orleans: 3551 whites, 3105 slaves, and 1556 free blacks.
The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 burned down 856 buildings, only to be followed six years later by another that burnt down 212 of the remaining buildings. This time the wooden structures were replaced by Spanish architecture built with bricks. The oldest building that survived the fires is the Ursuline Convent, built in 1752.
By 1800, sugar was big. But then came 100 years of epidemics; smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever. These problems were naturally exacerbated by dirty people, a transient population, lots of sailors passing through, and poor sanitation. The last yellow fever epidemic was in 1905. No one blamed it on the government or racism.
Everywhere in the New World there was a shortage of European women. The fact is, that in the first few centuries European men outnumbered European women 50 to 1 on ships headed west, and that is why men sought out women who were Indian or African—that's all there was. A Quadroon was a 1/4 black, and in 1825, Quadroon Balls started up in New Orleans at which 1/4 black women who were pretty would attend voluntarily in the hopes of meeting a rich white man who would make her his mistress.
Jean Lafitte (1780-1826) was a privateer and smuggler who preyed on Spanish ships and helped the U.S. in the War of 1812 against the Brits. Lafitte was a gentleman in manner; wealthy and possessed of a certain mystique. Was he the "Hero of New Orleans" or the "Terror of the Gulf"? Probably both.
A "Creole" means a French or Spanish person born in the New World. It never meant a person of color, despite urban legends. It means a person not born in Europe even though they are of European stock.
French and Spanish Creoles did not want Americans to live in New Orleans. They saw them as low-class, uncultured, rough and tumble Yanks. To be fair, this perception was based on the first Americans they became acquainted with, who were river rats and frontiersmen. Creoles would do business with Anglos but never socialize with them. American businessmen came and made great fortunes from cotton, sugar, trade, and banking.
It was in fact to keep Americans out of the French Quarter that Canal Street was first built. When you cross it today the Streets change to Rues. St Louis Cathedral served the old settlers from France and Spain, while St Patrick's served the Irish and other American Catholics. They did not worship together. By the same token, Jackson Square was for Creoles and Lafayette Square for Americans. Creoles had the pedigrees of old families, and they had created the unique culture of New Orleans, but the Americans soon had the wealth. They are money-making people. A nation of hustlers.
Along Canal Street there grew a strip of neutral ground between Americans and Creoles. The Americans formed the Business District and the Garden District. The two sides finally came together when they fought side by side in the Battle Of New Orleans behind Andrew Jackson in 1815, helped by slaves, Indians, and pirates (behind the notorious buccaneer Laffite).
The population of New Orleans doubled in the 1830s. By 1840, New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the United States, and the third most populous with 102,000 residents. "New Paris," as it was called, was flourishing, rich, dazzling, and filled with Parisian couture, fabulous restaurants—and quite the permissive society. Royal Street was the main thoroughfare. It was a major setback when 1/3 of the city residents contracted Yellow Fever in the epidemic of 1853. There is no record of anyone blaming the federal government or racism.
1815-1860 is considered the Golden Age of New Orleans. It was then that the city was the major port and financial center of the United States. This ended when the Union Army occupied it for years on end during and after the Civil War. It was only Mardi Gras and Jazz that brought New Orleans city back as a tourist attraction. Oil and petro chemicals saved the fortunes of the city in postmodern times.
In the 1880s, New Orleans was known as "America's most European city." The Mississippi River was full of boats, steamers, and freighters. The New Orleans Mint produced gold and silver coinage from 1838 to 1861 and again from 1879 to 1909—427 million coins in all.
Early in the Civil War, New Orleans was captured without a fight and thus spared the destruction most of the South suffered at the hands of a vengeful North. During the Civil War the teaching of French in public schools was banned by Yankees as a threat to national security. By 1900, few people in New Orleans could still speak the language. No one cried about the culture being diminished. If they wanted to speak French, people knew they could move to France. It was in the Civil War that Admiral Farragut famously said "Damn the Torpedoes."
The French Quarter
Although it is world famous, the French Quarter only covers 4X11 blocks of this earth. It features the oldest apartment buildings in America, which are not French but of Spanish architecture from the 1850s. By 1900, the French Quarter had slouched from elegant to slummy.
Many of the streets are named for Catholic Saints in New Orleans and for the royal houses of France as well. Bourbon Street is not named for booze but for the House of Bourbon.
The old French Quarter is battered but still charming, Bohemian and decayed, but still vibrant. The cast iron balconies, hidden courtyards, and stucco buildings stained by time present a haunting fascination and a jumble of sights, sounds, and smells—a truly sensual experience you feel in no other place.
The grid of the French Quarter remains unchanged since 1721, and most of its buildings are over 200 years old. It is a home to many a poor musician and artist, and the center of southern decadence.
Vieux Carre means old square—French quarter—the site of the original city, founded by Jean-Baptiste le Moyne and not named for Orleans, France, as most folks think. Orleans is in fact a royal family name since 1372 in France, and New Orleans was named for the Duke of Orleans.
Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday." This is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a period of six weeks that leads up to Easter during which Catholics do not party, and they vow to give up something they physically love, such as meat, dairy products, sugar, or fatty foods. Lent is a time of repentance.
The idea of Mardi Gras, which marks the end of a festive period known as Carnival, is that this is your last day to eat anything you want and sin all you want before Lent. Oft times masks are worn to disguise one's identity so those in your community will not recognize you as you step outside the normal boundaries of good behavior. Fat Tuesday can be any day between February 3rd and March 9th, depending on the day Easter falls.
Carnival means "farewell to meat" from the Latin carne vale. It begins with Twelfth Night, the 6th of January, the last day of the Christmas season. It has evolved into a time of public celebration that includes costume balls, parades, and street parties.
Carnival is a decidedly Catholic thing. It originated in Venice in 1162, and slowly spread to Rome and the rest of Italy, eventually becoming entrenched in Spain, Portugal, and France. Venetian masks became famous for their beautiful glass artistry. Today many are made from porcelain or leather.
Before he founded New Orleans in 1718, Jean Baptiste Bienville had established Mobile, Alabama in 1703, which right from the start celebrated Fat Tuesday—a first in North America. In 1711, a secret social organization was formed, the "Boeuf Gras Society" (Fatted Calf Society), that put on the party in Mobile for the next 150 years. By the 1730s, this was copied in "Nawlins."
The Governor of Louisiana established the first Mardi Gras balls in the 1740s, but it wasn't until the 1830s that street processions of fine carriages with masked riders began, the way lit by men carrying gas torches called flambeaux. This turned into the parades of decorated platforms on or towed by vehicles (floats) we see today. The first decorated float appeared in 1837.
From the 10th century, the Church had put on Passion Plays in European towns utilizing chain theatre on pageant wagons. Chain theatre is a method in which plays are portrayed one scene at a time from one wagon to the next, beginning to end. "Pagyn" is an archaic word for a stage on wheels. Townspeople would line up along a route to see actors, sets, and props. From 1535 in London this was done on the River Thames on barges—hence the word "floats."
In 1856, six anonymous businessmen formed an ultra-secret society in New Orleans to put on masked balls and dazzling parades, the "Mistick Krewe of Comus." In 1870, another group formed the competing "Twelfth Night Revelers" and it was they who instituted the Mardi Gras "throws"—throwing keepsakes to revelers, originally glass beads but now plastic beads or doubloons. For forty years the Parisian papier-mâché artist Georges Soulie created all Mardi Gras parade floats for New Orleans. Papier-mâché means "chewed paper." It was invented by the Chinese who used it to make helmets, but France was the first European country to use it from the 1650s.
1872 was a watershed year for Mardi Gras. This was when the first Rex, or King of Carnival, was named. And the year official colors were introduced: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith; as well as when the royal anthem was adopted—"If Ever I Cease to Love." This song was written a year before by an Englishmen known as "Champagne Charlie" who was already famous for composing "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." In 1875, the Mardi Gras Act made Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana.
The population of New Orleans doubles the weekend before Fat Tuesday. Another tradition is King Cake—a coffee cake that contains a little plastic baby or hidden bean that whoever finds it must throw the next King Cake Party. Mardi Gras has become known as a time of female immodesty—featuring the baring of breasts in public in exchange for cheap beads. Because of narrow streets and overhead obstructions the Mardi Gras parade no longer comes into the French Quarter where it began. The last time this did happen was 1972.
Storyville was the Red-Light District of New Orleans from 1897-1917. The locals simply called it "The District." It was named after city alderman Sidney Story, the man who came up with the idea to confine prostitution to one part of town so it could be regulated and monitored, which was modeled on such districts in Holland and Germany.
"Blue Books" were issued to sex tourists, which were official city guidebooks to available services, ranging from the cheap "cribs" where sex was 50 cents to the upscale bordellos that charged ten dollars. The United States military closed Storyville down out of concern for venereal disease and immorality.
700 women worked in Storyville when Louis Armstrong grew up there. The bars never closed, and spicy food was the rule. It was because Storyville closed down that Jazz spread around America. The neighborhood employed a multitude of musicians, and the majority of them moved to Chicago and Memphis, as well as New York, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.
Voodoo and Jazz
Voodoo came from Africa to Haiti and then to New Orleans. The word "Voodoo" comes from the Fon People of Benin, West Africa. It means "spirits who interact with the living." In 1719, the first slaves were imported into Louisiana, and they were from the tribe of Fon. These folks believed in One God, the Creator, and in angels and demons, as well as in ongoing interaction with human ancestors. In their belief system the Devil is named Legba—a deceiver and a thief. He is symbolized, oddly enough, by the same symbol "gay" people have chosen for themselves: the rainbow. He is also known as a snake—the widely known demonic snake god also called "Li Grand Zombi" or "Ouncongo" or "Papa Labas."
Until about 1830, Voodoo in New Orleans was much as it was in Africa. But an 1808 U.S. law had ended the importation of any new slaves, and this severed the connection between Africans and Negro slaves in the United States. 1830-1930 is considered the Golden Age of Voodoo. During these years Voodoo was intermingled with Catholicism and joined the Mardi Gras festivities. After 1930, real Voodoo went underground. But by then Voodoo had birthed the dance and music called Jazz, an African name for what men ejaculate—semen. A commercialized Voodoo emerged above ground as a tourist attraction—what the locals call Hoodoo. Hoodoo is phony and a business; Voodoo is real and religious.
Marie Laveau (b. 1801) was the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Both of her parents were free mulattos. Her husband and two children died young, and she gave herself the name "Widow Paris." She liked it so well she asked for it to be engraved on her tombstone, which it is. Widow Paris later had seven more children as a "placage" (mistress) to a white gentleman. She was a liquor importer, nurse, and spiritual healer who died in 1881—some said a Saint, others said a Witch. It is agreed she was exceptionally beautiful and got rich selling gris-gris. Marie Laveau was known to dance with snakes in blood-soaked rituals. She is also known to have been a spy, a blackmailer, a Madam, and a fixer. She was outwardly a staunch Catholic, but she owned slaves. She gave much to charity, even though she could not read or write or even sign her name.
Zombies are people who have been poisoned by a powder made from the blowfish, generally put into their shoes and absorbed through the feet, which makes them appear to be dead. Then an antidote made from Angel Trumpet flower seeds appears to "resurrect" the victim. However, though physically functional the poison causes amnesia, incoherence, disorientation, and hallucinations. You are "just not yourself" anymore—considered a fate worse than death.
Gris-Gris (pronounced gree-gree) refers to both the objects and the rituals of Voodoo magic. It is used for love and romance; for power and domination by lawyers, politicians, and athletes; for finance by businessmen and luck by gamblers; and for uncrossing—to undo a hex. Gris-Gris involves voodoo dolls, potions, and verbal incantations performed often by a Witch Doctor. The dolls are made to resemble the target of the spell, and some of the clothing or hair makes it more powerful.
Juju is an object containing a living spirit. Mojo is an object used to make magic. A voodoo thorn is a straight pin used on a picture of a target or something belonging to them—a petition to the spirits. To manifest evil is not called black magic by black people but red magic—for the blood involved.
Voodoo helped make Mardi Gras a celebration of excess, lasciviousness, debauchery, and self-expression. One area of New Orleans became the center of Voodoo in America—Congo Square. In 1884, Voodoo gatherings at Congo Square were forcibly ended. But this is where Jazz was born. Orgies were commonplace after extremely sexual ritual dancing to repetitive, hypnotizing drums and chants, as well as the well chronicled black phenomenon "call and response," all used to invite demonic spirits to come and inhabit the body so they may indulge in human experiences. The dances—the Bamboula, Chacta, Congo, Yanvalou, Counjaille, and the most famous and popular the Calinda, also the most sexually explicit—introduced hip gyrations to America that can be seen today in any hip-hop club; the pelvic thrusts and the butt grinding. Jazz is the anthem for the voodoo religion.
The pioneer of Jazz music was Jellyroll Morton, the godson of the Voodoo Queen Eulalic Hecaud. Buddy Bolden is also credited as the inventor of Jazz Music in the 1890s, using European brass instruments on top of Voodoo rhythms and chants. The nonsensical singing in Jazz called Scat came from Voodoo, where it was a sign of demon possession—the reverse of speaking in tongues, speaking in the language not of angels but of demons.
Hurricanes & Floods
The worst flood in New Orleans history was not Hurricane Katrina, but the Great Flood of 1849. And yet there is no record of people crying for some government official to save them from the decision they made of where to live. There was also severe flooding in 1882. Then the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1929 was the worst flood in the history of the United States, but there is no record of people crying about how mistreated they were for choosing to live there then either.
In 1900, the frontage on the Mississippi River was largely undeveloped swamp and woods because of frequent flooding. In 1910, the ambitious engineer and inventor Baldino Wood drained the city with huge pumps he designed, 50 of which still operate today. He did not know what we know now that much of the city has been continually sinking, especially since the hurricanes of 1909, 1915, 1947, and 1965 (Betsy).
Hurricane Betsy featured catastrophic flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward—the largest of the 17 wards and the blackest ward (home of Fats Domino). In the 1830s, this had only been home to army barracks, which had been cleared by the 1870s to make way for farms. The first blacks moved into the area in the 1920s. It is the area worst hit by Betsy and Hurricane Katrina. In 2000, it had 14,000 residents, but today only 2,800 remain, which might be for the best.
We must remember that thousands of ancient cities around the world are gone, including many famous ones such as Babylon, Troy, Ephesus, etc. In 1995, New Orleans suffered from severe flooding that should have been an ample warning of what was to come. But people everywhere are reluctant to leave their homes. That is understandable.
Katrina was a Category Five Hurricane—the most severe in the world—and the mayor of the city ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the history of New Orleans. Those who refused to leave and those of their same skin color have hollered racism ever since. But 1,000,000 people did obey the evacuation order; only 200,000 chose to stay. The broken levees decried as a sign of racism broke just the same in 1909, but nobody cried racism then because no blacks lived there at the time.
Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Private charity rushed to the rescue—white Christians in particular. 25% of the people never came back this time.
The Big Easy
New Orleans is called the Big Easy because there are so many ways for a good musician to make a living. No other city is so supportive of musical artists. An alternative explanation of the moniker is the slow, easy going lifestyle of the residents.
Its business district looks like the rest of America. The Garden District reminds one of Savannah or Charleston. The unique above-ground cemeteries are known as "Cities of the Dead."
Now let us define a few things for the curious. A Bayou is a body of water like a river but with no current. A Po' Boy Sandwich is roast beef and fried seafood on French bread. A Muffuletta Sandwich is made on Sicilian sesame bread with meat, cheese, and olive salad. Gumbo is a rice stew, and the name is an African word for Okra. It features shrimp, crab, crawfish, meat, sausage, onions, garlic, tomato, green peppers, and okra. Gumbo was invented by Spaniards, its seafood mixture first amalgamated at the Exchange Hotel, Bar, Ballroom, and Auction House, known simply as "The City Exchange." The cocktail was invented at the St. Louis Hotel by serving booze in an egg cup, a "coquetier." Jambalaya is rice, pork, chicken, and spices. Picayune is a Louisiana Spanish Colonial coin worth 6 1/4 cents. Zydeco means snap bean, but we know it is as music that is a hybrid of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Cajun music, featuring an accordion and a washboard and sung in French.
New Orleans is a city of ghost stories and hauntings. The Garden District features many gorgeous old mansions, as well as galleries and antique shops. The streetcars operated up until 1964. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the world's longest bridge (24 miles).
New Orleans is the # 1 port of the United States still today, and one of the world's largest. The Port of New Orleans handles 40% of America's grain exports. New Orleans petrochemicals, aluminum, and food processing are the top industries, along with Dixieland Jazz. By 1990, 4.2 million people lived in the New Orleans metropolitan area making it the 21st most populous area in the United States of America.