The repertoire of brass bands that play in Carnival parades and for weekend second-lines in other seasons of the year is a package that allows some evolution, but the song bag relies on a collection of sturdy standards. These songs have a melody so strong, clear and recognizable that people associate them with New Orleans. “When the Saints Go Marching In” is the most universally known. It was originally a spiritual, sung in slow tempo in black churches, but after Louis Armstrong recorded a rousing up tempo version in 1938, “The Saints” became a parade anthem. If you ever have the luck to hear it sung or played the antique way, savor the moment.
Many songs have had their popularity surges with the marching bands. In the mid-1980s, the zydeco hit “Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot” had such overnight popularity on radio that brass bands and even schools with big marching bands adopted it. These days you don’t hear it as much. Likewise, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” off the Graceland CD, became a hot item for several years in the high school and college bands, and even worked its way into the repertoire of Jimmy Maxwell’s orchestra at Carnival balls.
“The Theme From Rocky” had a run and with that loud, brassy sound despite a thin melody; it’s still occasionally found to boost spirits on sidewalks at parades.
If a single song ranks second to “The Saints,” it’s probably “Bourbon Street Parade,” a composition by drummer Paul Barbarin. The song has a clear, contagious melody, and the brisk medium-tempo invites people to open umbrellas, pull out scarves and handkerchiefs and wind along behind the band.
“Bourbon Street Parade” opens with a burst of trumpets and horns resonant of the old military beat, but then the polyphony settles into a loping melody suitable for the streets or a dance hall. When bands parade outside, the lyrics often go unsung. Barbarin composed the song in 1955, several years after he moved back following a long career in New York. He played with King Oliver in the ’20s and had a long association with the Luis Russell Orchestra and trumpeter Red Allen in the ’30s.
Bourbon Street has a stereotype of tourists gawking at strip clubs and beery foot soldiers in the neon glare. Barbarin’s lyrics have sweet irony; it’s a song of romance, a guy wooing his gal with promises of grandeur and his pride in showing her off:
“Let’s fly down or drive down
To New Orleens.
That city, has pretty
I’ll take you, parade you
Down Bourbon Street.
There’s a lot of hot spots, you’ll see lots big shots,
Down on Bourbon Street.”
His father, Isidore Barbarin, played alto horn in the Onward Brass Band, the 19th-century marching band that gained momentum as jazz flowered in the early 1900s. Paul’s brother, Louis, was a drummer, and they were uncles of the great balladeer, Danny Barker. In ’30, Danny moved to New York at Paul’s behest.
Paul Barbarin made his name in New York with the Russell Orchestra, which accompanied Louis Armstrong; the pull of his roots brought him back for several years in the 1930s, and again in the ’40s. On returning for good in ’55, he revived the Onward, making records and countless parades. In ’65, he persuaded Danny Barker to move back home and helped recharge the careers of Danny and Blue Lu Barker. In doing so, Barbarin played an indirect role in getting Barker situated as the mentor of young brass band musicians in the ’70s.
On Feb. 17, 1969, the night before Mardi Gras, as the Onward marched in the Proteus parade on St. Charles, Paul Barbarin stumbled to the sidewalk, sat on the steps of a building and died. His funeral was one of the largest ever; photographers followed the overflow into St. Louis Cemetery No. Two as the coffin went into the tomb that bears his family name.