I began this column in 1994 with fresh memory of the Elvis act in Chalmette: Andrew Jaeger, the risen king, popping out of a coffin to roars of the crowd. The New Orleans environs are a floorshow of the mythic mind surpassing the rest of the South.
As my interests have moved deeper into long form work, the space for this outlet has shrunk, and so, with thanks for the run, I bid my readers farewell.
In a quarter-century of following the musical tides of these latitudes I’ve enjoyed choice encounters with the muses.
Dave Bartholomew, the composer who molded the Fats Domino sound, told me that “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” was inspired by a scribbled note from a lady in an airport. Who was she? Dave the Great shrugged. No idea.
Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., in his Ninth Ward home with Indian suit trappings on the table, 1995 – Guardians of the Flame founder invited me to an interview. “Some people go to churches. It’s a religious experience for them, right? When I’m into the Indian thing, that’s a religious experience for me,” he said. Your inner self, expressed through your outer self.” Harrison, who found validation in Camus’s “The Rebel” for Black Indian rituals of resistance, nailed my approach, trying to capture how musicians and tradition-bearers express the inner self via the outer self.
In April, Demond Melancon, Big Chief of Young Seminole Hunters, was sewing bead patches, priced at $3,000 each, for his upcoming slot in a Jazz Fest booth.
Early on, Melancon gravitated to Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Tootie Montana’s Seventh Ward house, mesmerized by the suit taking shape. “I started sewing in ’92 at Colton Junior High when I had friends maskin’ Indian,” said Melancon, a Rastafarian with dread locks, sewing at a warehouse art space. “I use small beads and pattern my work off Tootie.”
“I pulled concrete for fifteen years and then I was a lobster cook for three years. I’d get fired at Mardi Gras for making my suit.”
His break came when a collector purchased a beaded apron for $45,000. He quit hard labor.
The photographer Christopher Porché West alerted him to Bras-Coupé, a one armed rebellious slave portrayed in George Washington Cable’s classic, “The Grandissimes.” “I knew I had to deal with who Bras-Coupé was and what he did,” Melancon said, sewing.
“Bras-Coupé was one of the most notorious outlaws in the history of New Orleans,” wrote University of California at Berkeley professor Bryan Wagner, a New Orleans native, in “The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé,” a new book with two pages of photographs of Melancon in the suit.
“Bras-Coupé became a leader of the maroons who lived in the cypress swamp outside the city,” Wagner wrote. “As his legend was transformed in novels and plays and narrative poems, Bras-Coupé became a superhero.”
Not every musician or Masking Indian – the term preferred by many tribal memory artists – becomes a superhero. But there is something heroic in a music culture that finds an expanding stage in film coverage and museum events, beyond the clubs and outdoor stages, by celebrating long struggle. Camus also wrote that super-human is something that takes men longer to do, as in the mythic power of a tradition yet unfolding.