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88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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Mardi Gras Moments: The Early Days

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You may have noticed a new element on our airwaves on Monday. Peppered throughout the day, some old timey music; a slice of Dixie jazz from the distant past. What I hoped to invoke was the spirit of Mardi Gras. As we count down the days to 88Nine's Fat Tuesday Party at Turner Hall on February 21st, we'll be the rich musical traditions of New Orleans to Milwaukee with a daily dose of the good stuff.

And Monday was our start and we took a trip to the ball. To New Orleans of antiquity and the humble beginnings of one of America's most beloved traditions; Mardi Gras. These days Mardi Gras is a big deal and an even bigger party, but back in the day it was pretty plain. I'm getting ahead of myself however. Once upon a time...

...that Mardi Gras came to North America from France is no secret. After all it is called Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, where it had been celebrated since the Middle Ages and likely even before that. Many connect it to the ancient European pagan rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of Spring.

Some suspect it was originally was the Lupercalia, a carnivalesque Roman orgy of Bacchinalian proportions that, like Mardi Gras were held in mid-February in Rome. The early Church fathers, realizing that it was impossible to divorce their new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them into Christian channels. Thus Carnival was created as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.

Fast forward to the late 17th century when in 1699, French explorer Iberville and his men explored the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico and on a spot some 60 miles south of the yet unfounded City of New Orleans, they set up camp on the river's West Bank. Knowing that the day, March 3, was being celebrated as a major holiday in France, they christened the site Point du Mardi Gras. Setting the stage, cause whatever would come next would definitely involve a party. Though I'm no expert on the subject (I am from Wisco yo!), The folks at neworleans.com seem to be however, and have a full write-up on Mardi Gras' history, here's what Arthur Hardy had to say:

Under earlyFrench rule masked balls flourished in New Orleans, but were later banned by the Spanish governors. The prohibition continued when New Orleans became an American city in 1803, but by 1823, the Creole populace prevailed upon the American governor, and balls were again permitted. Four years later street masking was legalized.

In the early 19th Century, the public celebration of Mardi Gras consisted mainly of maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. In 1837, a costumed group of revelers walked in the first documented "parade," but the violent behavior of maskers during the next two decades caused the press to call for an end to Mardi Gras. Fortunately, six New Orleanians who were former members of the Cowbellians, (a group that had presented New Year's Eve parades in Mobile since 1831), saved the New Orleans Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization in 1857. The men beautified the celebration and proved that it could be enjoyed in a safe and festive manner. Comus coined the word "krewe" and established several Mardi Gras traditions by forming a secret Carnival society, choosing a mythological namesake, presenting a themed parade with floats and costumed maskers, and staging a tableau ball.

A visit by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff was the partial inspiration for the first appearance of Rex in 1872. The King of Carnival immediately became the international symbol of Mardi Gras. Rex presented Mardi Gras' first organized daytime parade, selected Carnival's colors--purple, gold and green, produced its flag, and introduced its anthem, "If Ever I Cease To Love."

So that's where we started on The Mardi Gras Moments, with Mardi Gras' first song. And the version I played was pure Dixieland jazzDixieland jazz, sometimes referred to as Hot jazz, Early Jazz or New Orleans jazz, is a style of jazz music which developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century and is generally the early NO jazz sound everyone is familiar with. C'mon, who hasn't heard "When The Saints Go Marching In"? 

So in a style that's as quintessentially New Orleans as Mardi Gras itself, we heard the OG theme of the party. This version is a classic from 1956, the Dukes Of Dixieland did it and if you missed it...

Dukes Of Dixieland "If Ever I Cease To Love" Mardi Gras With The Phenomenal Dukes Of Dixieland

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