BILLIE PIERCE'S JAZZ FUNERAL
By Lee Meitzen Grue
Billie Pierce used to
sing to me
when it was hot, when I couldn't get sleep.
She sang Algiers Hoodoo Blues
and Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.
A gold cornet curved around those long hard blues.
Yesterday, I second-lined her to the St. Louis cemetery
with a bunch of school children
holding hands for Billie dead.
The Olympia Brass Band played
a bright skinned man
stiff-armed a derby hat,
gimp-legged, but moving fine for Billie dead.
There were people taking pictures,
as if you could,
too many cars underfoot,
and in a long car, Billie dead.
It was a long way there and sad,
the music crying and us crying,
children needing a bathroom bad
so we went while the music was down.
I never got to hear them
bringing it back happy for Billie dead
so I'm still grieving.
- - -
The Big Easy
is exactly what the name implies:
an historic environment of great laid-back charm and beauty,
with a timeless patina of style and creativity, a tolerance born of ethnic diversity,
and a population noted for its ability to withstand the ravaging of horrific disasters.
Residents of the French Quarter
of New Orleans had little recourse against the
many decades of unrelenting disasters and ills visited upon its natural environment.
Hurricanes, floods, fires and plagues seemed to follow each other in devastating
fashion with each one leaving its distinctive mark on the city and the inhabitants.
Add in the oppressing, sweltering subtropical heat and humidity and you have the recipe for misfortune.
Yet each tragedy helped shape this 6 x13 block area into one of the most unique and colorful places in the world.
The Vieux Carre has survived
its turbulent history and savage weather in style.
Ruled first by the French, then by the Spanish, both architectural influences are fused into one style,
just as a chef would blend ingredients together for a bowl of hot gumbo or spicy jambalaya.
Every door and window is different and unique.
Intricate ironwork wraps around doorways and balconies.
Barbed wire, rusty nails or rows of broken bottles protect each entryway from rambunctious
partiers and locks on rusty iron gates keep lush tropical courtyards just out of sight.
Everything looks old. Everything IS old.
Because of the heat and humidity
(and the beauty all around them, possibly,)
everyone and everything (including time) moves slower in New Orleans.
Sitting below sea level is
both a blessing and a curse for the Crescent City.
The Port of New Orleans has been at the epicenter of American history
since the first French explorer set foot on the riverbank in 1682.
The War of 1812 was fought over it.
Louisiana was purchased for it.
Yet, the Port of New Orleans remains one of America's most modern and popular general cargo ports.
On the other hand, on a perfectly dry day, the city's 22 pumping stations pump out seventeen million gallons of water.
In addition to that, at full strength, they can handle two inches of rain an hour; anything beyond that produces instant flood.
Being a popular port destination for world trade helped fuel epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, and smallpox.
Mix diseased sailors from ships throughout the world with inadequate sewage systems, poor, stagnant water
and the unsanitary conditions of the area in the 18th and 19th centuries and you end up with tragedy.
The dead could not be buried in the ground below sea level
(they would simply pop back up to the surface with the first hard rain.)
Cemeteries (called “Cities of the Dead”) were built above the ground to hold the remains of the dead.
Many families still own crypts in which generations of dead occupy the same above-ground grave.
As the deceased is slid through the entrance of a vault, the remains of the previous occupant
were pushed off down the back shelf into a collection area inside the vault.
The extreme heat and humidity acts like an oven to cremate the body in short order.
Score another one for the inventiveness and efficiency of the Vieux Carre!
The oldest cemetery in New Orleans is St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, which was founded in 1789
and is filled with generations that did not survive the early terrors of French Quarter life.
“[St. Louis 1] is the
mother cemetery ...
the Vieux Carré of the dead;
as confused and closely packed a quarter as the living metropolis...”
-Grace King, 1895
When one survives waves of
historical devastation and calamity, one deserves to party!
New Orleans is known for many passions, but food tops the list.
Then comes drink.
Another infatuation involves music - making it and experiencing it.
Live Jazz, blues, Dixieland, ragtime and Cajun music creates a pulse in every bar,
club and restaurant, as well as on every street corner.
Bourbon Street combines all these elements into one slightly naughty strip,
but the remainder of the Vieux Carre is more genteel.
Mardi Gras is the party to beat all parties - a party on wheels!
The unofficial motto of ‘laissez
les bons temps rouler’,
which means let the good times roll,
is a good indicator of what kind of atmosphere you can expect in New Orleans.
It has also been called by many, ‘The City That Care Forgot.’
After a couple centuries of hell, one can understand why the Vieux Carre revels in having fun any time it can.