Book festival: local writers and photographers take to the streets
The streets of New Orleans were among the wide range of topics discussed at the inaugural New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University. The sessions were not about potholes or perennial road works, although that was also discussed. (“The problem with the streets is that we’re sitting on top of an ever-changing river,” said writer Jason Berry.) They were witnessing the spectacle of street life in New Orleans.
Two Friday (March 11) sessions — a panel titled “Visual New Orleans: A City of Neighborhoods” and a talk by Berry about his film and book “City of a Million Dreams” — covered recent works chronicling public rituals in the city’s black communities that have become emblematic of New Orleans: the second line parade and the jazz funeral.
Judy Cooper’s “Dancing in the Streets” and Jason Berry’s “City of a Million Dreams” dive deep into these traditions – deep enough to avoid clichés and appropriation. The authors discussed their works in rooms filled with enthusiastic audiences.
Judy Cooper, “Dancing in the Streets”
The first time photographer Judy Cooper came across a welfare and pleasure club in action while attending Jazz Fest, she was hooked. “Their costumes are wonderfully colorful,” she said. “And their dance moves are very lively and joyful.”
She has become a regular on the second lines on Sunday afternoons, camera in hand. “At first it was just an interest in photography for me,” she said during the panel discussion, “but then I got to know people and discovered this very rich history and complex.”
The roots go back to benevolent societies formed by free people of color in the 1700s, particularly the Societe d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle. After the Civil War, the clubs became a dominant force in the city’s black communities as former slaves formed mutual aid societies to help each other through personal crises – pooling their resources to help members with medical care, end-of-life care and burials. .
In the 20th century, the focus shifted to parades, and the second lines became a defining part of New Orleans culture. Many club names, such as Pigeon Town Steppers, are derived from the neighborhood they originated from, and others, such as Valley of Silent Men (“which aren’t quiet at all”, Cooper noted), are more fancy.
“Getting to know this rich cultural tradition, I thought, well, they deserved a book – and more than just a picture book,” she said. “So, since the parades are a community effort, I thought I’d like to invite other writers and photographers to participate in the book.”
The result is “Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans,” published by The New Orleans Historic Collection as an adjunct to the 2021 exhibit of the same name. It includes profiles of all 58 clubs active in the 2019 season, archival photographs as well as the works of Cooper and 10 other contemporary photographers, and essays exploring the history and artistry of second line parades.
Jason Berry, “The City of a Million Dreams”
Jason Berry has long documented New Orleans music and culture in books such as “Up From the Cradle of Jazz” and “The Spirit of Black Hawk” and in numerous articles. “When I started writing about New Orleans music in the late 1970s, I found myself fascinated by the neighborhoods,” he told the Book Fest audience.
His interviews with musicians become long discussions about the area where they grew up, the church they attended and the street funerals that passed in front of their home.
He found himself attending a jazz funeral even though he didn’t know the deceased. “Funerals display a great tradition of storytelling,” he said. “They’re almost like short stories true to a point in time – the story of a neighborhood, the story of a congregation.”
He said he gradually gained a deeper sense of the beauty of the tradition, how musicians come out of church playing a dirge then, once the body is ‘dropped’, burst into brassy tunes at the tempo. “The first act almost felt like the chorus of a Greek tragedy sending the grief of a community,” he said. “And then, after the dirges and the burial, it’s like a celebration of the soul as it’s cut off from earthly ties.”
He decided to write a book about New Orleans jazz funerals and, knowing it would be a complex undertaking, approached the Ford Foundation for a grant. The foundation no longer funds books but has agreed to support a documentary film. Thus, the book “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at 300” was written to accompany the film entitled “City of a Million Dreams”.
Thanks to the jazz archives of Tulane University, a partner in the project, he found the first historical mention of the ritual which was, until the 1960s, referred to as a “funeral with music”. It was a ceremony held in 1789 for Carlos III, the 18th-century King of Spain and revered ruler of the Spanish colony of Louisiana, the man who inspired the names of two iconic streets: St. Charles Avenue and (as a member of the Royal House of Bourbon) rue Bourbon.
Former slaves and free people of color and their descendants added African-based traditions, such as the ring dance seen in Congo Square. “So the funeral tradition we see today represents the meeting of the ring of African memory and the line of European tradition,” Berry said. “In many ways, for me, this symbol of the ring and the line coming together contains the history of the city within it.”
Funerals also indicate how the disparate groups that have settled in New Orleans over the centuries express their cultural identities. The Mardi Gras season has also inspired distinct rituals, he noted, such as those of masked Indians and old line krewes.
“The way these rituals evolve, to me, it’s almost like a metaphor for the city itself,” Berry said. “New Orleans’ seductive personality is truly the result of the long tension between a culture of showmanship, rooted in Congo Square, and a city of laws, rooted in white supremacy well into the 1960s and 1970s.”
As the film and book project spanned six years, the book blossomed into an expansive story centered around the characters of New Orleans. “I focused on two or three people in each chapter who, in my mind, in their lives – and sometimes in their deaths and the way they were buried – held up a mirror to the moment and gave us lessons in life. history, stories of the city as it evolves.
The film, he said, uses the funeral as a lens on the story. “What I’ve learned is that the way a society buries its people says a lot about its values towards the living, and that we crave transcendence as a people,” he said. declared at the end of the session. “Whether you’re a religious believer or an agnostic, everyone wants a sense of hope. In a strange and ironic way, I think the book and the film tell a story of hope.
Three local screenings of “City of a Million Dreams” are scheduled for this month: Thursday, March 17 at 4:00 p.m. at the Danny Barker Banjo & Guitar Festival at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Ave. ; March 27 at Xavier University, featuring clarinetist Dr. Michael White and band; and March 29 at 7 p.m. at Loyola University’s Nunemaker Hall.