Festivities - Throws, Balls & Music
The tradition of throwing trinkets to the crowds during Mardi Gras parades was initiated in the early 1870s by the Twelfth Night Revelers and has become a time-honored expectation. In 1884, the Krewe of Rex threw the first medallions (silver-dollar-sized commemorative coins later called doubloons) instead of the customary trinkets.
Today's doubloons are usually aluminum and anodized in a variety of colors, depicting the parade theme on one side and the emblem of the particular Krewe on the other. Many of these doubloons later become collectors' items. Early medallions were much heavier than those minted today and were usually awarded only as ball favors.
The custom of throwing trinkets from floats and from the balconies of the city is one of the older traditions in New Orleans and began one year when the parade featured Santa Klaus aboard a float, dispensing small trinkets to the watching children. Other popular throws include long strings of pearlized beads and plastic cups bearing the emblems of the Krewes.
The traditional cry of parade-goers who are pleading for throws is: "Throw me something, Mister!"
Private masked balls and parties have been held in New Orleans since at least 1718, when the majority of such festivities were hosted by the French inhabitants. However, when the Spanish government assumed control of the city, parties and street dancing were banned and it was not until 1827, when the United States came to power, that the right to party in mask was restored.
During the 1850s, the elite of New Orleans and their elegant Mardi Gras celebrations provided quite a contrast to the wild party atmosphere and near-rioting which took place in the streets. Most official Mardi Gras balls are (and always have been) formal and private affairs, with the only attendees usually being members of the individual Krewes and their invited guests.
An integral part of any Mardi Gras ball is the revealing of the reigning King and Queen of the Krewe, whose identities are a closely guarded secret until the night of the festivities. This tradition is employed to enhance the mystique of the celebrations. Debutantes are presented at the Ball Tableau as a formal introduction to society. The climbing of this social ladder begins much earlier in life with the children serving as pages to the court. Women dress in ball gowns and hope to be issued a "call-out" card.
If fortunate enough to receive such a card, the woman is seated in a selected area and waits her turn to be "called out" for a dance by the Krewe member who sent the card. Such an honor is customarily accompanied by the presenting of a small gift (known as a "favor") from the Krewe member to his chosen partner. At some balls, general dancing will follow the "call-out."
Attendance at the older and more aristocratic balls is strictly "by invitation only." Many people have been (and still are) omitted from this prestigious list over the years...including some former Governors of Louisiana who have expressed a desire to be in attendance. Originally, ball invitations were die-cut and printed in Paris. Today's versions still continue to be quite colorful and considered by some to be valuable works of art.
Many invitations are looked upon as collector's items and, as such, are frequently framed and prominently displayed in the home...serving as intersting conversation pieces. Many of the old-line and most prestigious Carnival organizations do not hold actual Mardi Gras parades, but host only balls (usually in large hotel ballrooms with attendance by invitation only, of course).
Not all parading Krewes host a ball after their parade, but the majority do indulge in such festivities. Some Krewes...notably Bacchus and Endymion...throw large-scale parties which include headlining entertainment. Prior to the actual dancing, many Krewes stage Tableaux. A Tableau is a "still-life" depiction of a scene by costumed Krewe members and based on the theme of the ball itself.
Mardi Gras music (basically a second-line beat, which is the same rhythm which propels New Orleans brass bands) is comprised of various forms, including the orchestral and big-band arrangements played at tableau balls, carnival-themed rhythm-and-blues numbers that explode from jukeboxes, jazz tunes, Afro-Caribbean chants complete with percussive rhythms which are associated with Mardi Gras Indians and parade-time beats from the school bands who march between the floats during parades.
Traditional carnival favorites include: "Carnival Time" (by Al Johnson); "Mardi Gras Mambo" (by The Hawketts and written in 1954 by Art Neville); "Iko Iko" (written by James "Sugarboy" Crawford and performed by many artists including the Dixie Cups, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers); and "Big Chief" (considered to be a classis and first recorded in 1964 for Watch Records during a session which included Professor Longhair...for whom the song was writted by guitarist-composter, Earl King...and Mac Rebennack, a native of New Orleans who would later become known as "Dr. John").
However, it seems that each year brings the introduction of new would-be anthems. In the late 1800s, New Orleans had over 100 brass bands, most of which were affiliated with fraternal orders, fire departments and militia companies, in addition to various social and benevolent organizations.
Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, white maskers began to hire black bands to ride with them in spring wagons, providing music for their dancing. Thus were these horse-drawn or mule-drawn wagons forerunners of the bandwagons found in modern Mardi Gras parades. The early brass bands (which played mostly dirges, marches and quadrilles) were composed of musicians who had some formal training and who could, therefore, read sheet music.
Jazz emerged when this tradition overlapped with Latin and African cultures...particularly the improvisational style of the black musicians. The official theme song of Rex (and therefore, by default, of Mardi Gras itself) is "If Ever I Cease To Love You." Not particularly an immensely popular public song, it was first played in 1872 during the visit to New Orleans of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.
The Grand Duke had ostensibly fallen in love with the American singer Lydia Thompson after seeing her in a New York burlesque-type musical called "Bluebeard." This song was featured in that show and to honor the Grand Duke's presence at the celebrations, the newly-formed Rex organization set the tune to "march time." It has remained the "song of the season" ever since...even though it has absolutely nothing to do with a "carnival theme."
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