While traveling in India in 1978-79, my wife and I went to Rajasthan and stumbled into a Folk Museum. I remember how strange it was that some of the folks also in the museum were dressed like the people depicted in the museum! India at that time (and I believe still today in many places) had an alive and vibrant folk culture and the museum felt redundant, presenting things in a static way that were living and breathing just outside its doors.
A little bit of the feeling I got yesterday going to the Backstreet Culture Museum, with its exhibits of Mardi Gras Indians and stories about what we had just seen on Sunday. Though there was concern about the demise of this remarkable living culture post-Katrina, it seems to be alive and well and joyfully so. I’ve known from afar that New Orleans was unique in this way, the energy and lifeblood bubbling up from the streets rather than confined to museums and ticketed concert halls, but to experience it first-hand has been extraordinary. That a place like this exists in the United States is indeed a rare and valuable treasure, not to be preserved in the Disneyfied touristic fashion, but to be allowed to carry on without exploitation from money-making businesses and vultures of cultures.
At the same time, I’m appreciative of the artifacts of history found in these museums (tomorrow I go to the larger Jazz Museum) and the honoring of the ancestors found in Louis Armstrong Park and such. But instead of getting stuck on idolizing Satchmo, no matter how much he deserves it, the focus is on carrying on the things he loved and the spirit he carried out to the world. I always read his rags to riches passage in his autobiography to my 8th graders and emphasize that unlike the usual climb up the social ladder where the star living in Graceland or Neverland Ranch rejects his poor and humble origins and celebrates making it to the mansion, Louis Armstrong had a whole other perspective. And lived most of his life in a modest home in Queens. Listen to his words:
I’m always wondering if it would have been best in my life if I’d stayed like I was in New Orleans, having a ball. I was very much contented just to be around and play with the old timers. And the money I made—I lived off of it. I wonder if I would have enjoyed that better than all this big mucky-muck traveling all over the world—which is nice, meeting all those people, being high on the horse, all grandioso. All this life I have now-I didn’t suggest it. I would say it was all wished on me. Over the years you find you can’t stay no longer where you are, you must go on a little higher now-and that’s the way it all come about. I couldn’t get away from what’s happened to me.
But man, I sure had a ball there growing up in New Orleans as a kid. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.…”
And it still does. One doesn’t come as a spectator in a museum, reading about a place that once was with your hands folded behind your back. One comes to participate, to join the Second Line, to play music with kids in schools, to play a Jelly Roll Morton tune on the piano in the Treme Jazz Museum, to sit in on piano with the band at The Spotted Cat Café, all things I’ve gotten to do. The next four days is the French Quarter Fest, some 15 bands a day and all for free. Music all around and I believe it will keep me rolling. Big shout-out to the amazing city of New Orleans!