The streets of New Orleans were among the wide range of topics covered at the inaugural New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University. The sessions were not on the potholes or the perennial roadwork, though that was discussed, too. (“The problem with the streets is that we are sitting on top of an ever-changing river,” writer Jason Berry said.) They were on the spectacle of street life in New Orleans.
Two Friday (March 11) sessions — a panel called “Visual New Orleans: A City of Neighborhoods” and a talk by Berry on 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” delve deeply into these traditions — deep enough to avoid cliches and appropriation. The authors discussed their works to rooms packed with enthusiastic audiences.
Judy Cooper, “Dancing in the Streets”
The first time photographer Judy Cooper came across a social aid and pleasure club in action, while attending Jazz Fest, she was smitten. “Their costumes are wonderfully colorful,” she said. “And their dance moves are very lively and joyful.”
She became a regular at Sunday afternoon second-lines, camera in hand. “At first it was just a photography interest for me,” she said during the panel discussion, “but then I got to know the people and found out about this very rich and complex history.”
The roots go back to benevolent societies formed by free people-of-color in the 1700s, in particular the Société 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 one another through personal crises — pooling their resources to assist with members’ medical care, end-of-life care and burials.
In the 20th century, the emphasis shifted to the parades, and second-lines developed into a defining element of New Orleans culture. Many of the club names, such as the Pigeon Town Steppers, are derived from the neighborhood where they originated, and others, such as the Valley of Silent Men (“who are not silent at all,” Cooper noted), are more fanciful.
“As I got to know this rich cultural tradition, I thought, well gee, they deserve a book — and more than just a picture book,” she said. “So, as the parades are a community effort, I thought I’d like to invite other writers and photographers to participate in book.”
The result is “Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans,” published by The New Orleans Historic Collection as a companion to the 2021 exhibit by the same name. It includes profiles of all 58 clubs active during 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, “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 of the area where they grew up, the church they attended and the street funerals that passed by their homes.
He found himself going to jazz funerals even when he didn’t know the person who had died. “Funerals display a great storytelling tradition,” he said. “They are almost like true-life short stories at a given moment in time — the story of a neighborhood, the story of a congregation.”
He said he gradually acquired a deeper sense of the tradition’s beauty, how the musicians come out of the church playing a dirge and then, after the body is “cut loose,” erupt into brassy up-tempo tunes. “The first act was almost like the chorus of a Greek tragedy sending up the sorrows 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 the New Orleans jazz funeral and, knowing it would be a complex undertaking, approached the Ford Foundation for a grant. The foundation no longer finances books but agreed to back a documentary film. So the book “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at 300” was written as a companion to the movie titled “City of a Million Dreams.”
Through Tulane University’s jazz archive, a partner in the project, he found the first historical mention of the ritual that 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 Spain’s Louisiana colony, the man who inspired the name of two iconic streets: St. Charles Avenue and (as a member of the royal House of Bourbon) Bourbon Street.
The 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 tradition of the funeral that we see today represents the coming together of the ring of African memory and the line of the European tradition,” Berry said. “In many ways, to me, that symbol of the ring and the line coming together holds within it the story of the city.”
The funerals also point to the ways the disparate groups who settled New Orleans over the centuries express their cultural identities. The Mardi Gras season has similarly inspired distinct rituals, he noted, such as those of the masking Indians and of the old-line krewes.
“The way in which these rituals evolve, to me it’s almost like a metaphor of the city itself,” Berry said. “The beguiling personality of New Orleans is really a result of the long tension between a culture of spectacle, which was rooted in Congo Square, and a city of laws, which was anchored in White supremacy until the 1960s and ’70s.”
As the film and book project stretched over six years, the book developed into a sweeping character-driven history 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 a mirror to the moment and gave us lessons in history, stories of the city as it evolved.”
The film, he said, uses funerals as a lens on history. “What I have learned is that how a society buries its people speaks volumes about its values toward the living, and that we have a hunger, as a people, for transcendence,” he said as the session closed. “Whether you are a believer in religion or an agnostic, everyone wants a sense of hope. In a strange, ironic way, I think both the book and the film tell a story of hope.”
Three local screenings of “City of a Million Dreams” are scheduled this month: Thursday (March 17) at 4 p.m. at the Danny Barker Banjo & Guitar Festival in the New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Ave.; March 27 at Xavier University, featuring clarinetist Dr. Michael White and his band; and March 29 at 7 p.m. in Loyola University’s Nunemaker Hall.