Baby Dolls and Skeletons
On the album Island Man: The Afro-Louisiana Sound, the latest album by Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, leader Bruce Barnes lays out hypnotic melodies on piano accordion, alternating on harmonica, weaving a warm zydeco beat and Caribbean rhythms with stellar backing from 10 musicians.
The songs traverse a stylistic terrain of Delta blues, rhythm and blues and Creole lyrics from southwest Louisiana, drawn together in a homegrown mojo sound to make even sloths get up and dance.
“I’m So Happy” is a paean to life that Barnes wrote while on a tour in South Africa, gazing one morning at the Indian Ocean. Back home, Barnes recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice and at Piety Street Studios. Sparkling lines from trumpeter Eric Lucero and tenor sax man Lance Ellis push the joy stream as Barnes sings:
“I am so happy,
to be alive today
I am so proud
to walk in shadows of
… to be right here
in New Or-leens.”
Barnes grew up in a rural enclave of Benton, Ark., part of a sprawling family; he has more than 100 nieces and nephews, and a grandmother, 98, whose father came from Madagascar. He learned harmonica from his dad; he took his stage name from an uncle called Sunpie, who was half Blackfoot Indian. The Sanctified Church was a primary musical experience for him.
Barnes played linebacker at Henderson State University, earned a degree in marine biology, and after a brief stint in professional football, joined the National Park Service. In the mid-1980s, he moved to New Orleans with the service and still wears the uniform, pursuing his own music nights, weekends and vacations.
All this is sweet irony to Barnes’ alternate persona as a Mardi Gras Skeleton, a counter-veiling force on several of these 14 tracks. As leader of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, he has for some years now guided the cadre of Bone Men who wear crate-size skulls atop body suits emblazoned with white rib cages and speckled spines. These skeletons tote real bones as a reminder: don’t mess with skeletons. Unlike the Mardi Gras Indians’ love fest with the public, the Skulls roam Tremé and downtown-wards in a sinuous performance of the mortal coil.
“We Are the Northside Skull and Bone Gang” is Exhibit A in the Sunpie Barnes’ brief for culture recasting music. The melody borrows from the floating, circular sound of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” – a meditation on death’s arrival, sung variously by many artists in a gospel vein. The Sunspots use a flurry of tambourines and warm harmonies, as the singing spins slowly, like a record on a turntable:
“We are the Northside Skull and Bone Gang
We come to remind you
before you die
You better get your life together
next time you see us
It’s too late to cry.”
Barnes will miss Mardi Gras 2014 for the first time in years. With a sabbatical from work, he will be on tour with Paul Simon.
If the Skeletons give Mardi Gras a seriocomic take on death, the Baby Dolls are a more satiric reminder of the life force that make the streets a floorshow. Wearing short dresses, white bloomers, spangled stockings and garters stuffed with the cash, black women from neighborhood groups on both sides of Canal Street have paraded thusly for decades.
The Baby Dolls formed in 1912 “as a Carnival club for women who were working in the dance halls and brothels.”
But the Baby Dolls, otherwise known as upstanding mommas and aunties gone gallivanting, extend a tradition from the rough days of Storyville. Origins and transition are excavated by Kim Marie Vaz, an associate dean and professor of education at Xavier University, in one of the more fascinating cultural books on New Orleans: The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Traditions (LSU Press).
The subtitle is a postmodern mouthful but Vaz keeps a close lens on a culture of role reversals. The Million Dollar Baby Dolls formed around 1912, writes Vaz, “as a Carnival club for women who were working in the dance halls and brothels” of the area where City Hall and the Superdome stand today. A century ago, it was Back-o-Town, a vast working-class area where Louis Armstrong grew up. Some of the Million Dollar Baby Dolls carried dolls.
“They were sexy and raunchy,” writes Vaz, “singing bawdy lyrics to vaudeville show tunes and Creole songs, playing tambourines and cowbells.” The pimps called them baby dolls, hence the costumes of sexy women disguised as babies who came from mothers-to-be.
Vaz gives important credit to Robert McKinney, a Dillard graduate who worked for the Federal Writers Project doing field interviews in the 1930s. McKinney’s work was mined by Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant and Edward Dreyer in Gumbo Ya-Ya (1940).
“To get their information, they literally copied from the reports of Robert McKinney,” writes Vaz. “Many of McKinney’s transcripts of interviews with members of the Zulu Club and the Baby Dolls were marked ‘Private’ and slated for Tallant’s files.”
I found McKinney’s work invaluable in writing The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians (1995), crediting his reports in the public library, and in the text remarking on his skepticism about some folk ministers. Vaz rightly spotlights Tallant’s exploitation of McKinney and the sensationalist tone that colors his voodoo book and Gumbo Ya-Ya.