The Bonnaroo site, an oasis in the wilds of Tennessee, becomes something of a nation in its own right during that one magical weekend in June, when tens of thousands of fans come together with no allegiance, at least for four days, to anything but the music. But if Bonnaroo has a spiritual outpost in the real world, it’d be the city of New Orleans. Not only was the fest first conceived there, but it still books plenty of New Orleans roots acts each year and draws its name from a classic New Orleans album, Dr. John’s Desitively Bonnaroo. At its heart, Bonnaroo shares New Orleans’ deep love of community, culture, and celebration.
Here’s a primer on some of New Orleans’ deep-rooted festive traditions.
MARDI GRAS INDIANS
The uniquely New Orleans culture of Mardi Gras Indians is as complex as it is mysterious. Many say the tradition came from a desire to pay homage to the Houma Indians and other tribes, who helped slaves flee Louisiana before emancipation. Today’s Mardi Gras Indians still meticulously hand-sew beadwork with images of Native American culture on the massive feathered suits they wear in the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph’s Night, and other special dates.
The first field recordings of Indians were made in the early ’50s, featuring only traditional chants like “Handa Wanda” and “Shallow Water” along with the rattle of the tambourines the maskers carried as they roamed. In the ’70s, the Wild Magnolias tribe added funk to the mix, cutting the first Indian studio album with Snooks Eaglin, Willie Tee, and other local players.
The Bonnaroo version: The Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians, led by Big Chief Bo Dollis, played Bonnaroo in 2007.
The New Orleans brass band tradition is as old as jazz itself. For a century or more, musicians have toted horns and drums through the city’s streets, providing the soundtrack for Carnival parades and funeral processions.
In the ’70s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—who opened the first Bonnaroo in 2002—revolutionized the tradition by mixing elements of funk, R&B, rock, and Latin and Caribbean sounds into their music. They paved the way for a new generation of fiery young brass ensembles like the Stooges, the Soul Rebels, and the now-legendary Rebirth, who continue to mix it up by adding hip-hop and pop to that street-parade sound.
Galactic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band perform at Bonnaroo 2005
The Bonnaroo version: A laundry list of New Orleans’ hottest brass bands have played Bonnaroo over the years, including the Rebirth Brass Band, the Soul Rebels, the Stooges, the Dirty Dozen, and more—and returning this year, the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The “second line,” New Orleans’ musical street parade, got its name from the city’s jazz funeral tradition. In the mourning procession, the “main line” is the family, the band, and the hearse; the second line is the guests following along to pay their respects at the cemetery.
Once the body is interred, the procession becomes a celebration: The band, which had been playing a dirge, picks up the beat, and the mourners joyfully send their loved ones to rest.
Second lines still follow funerals in New Orleans, but most such parades are held by Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs. Throughout the year, these community-based benevolent societies fundraise and collect dues to pay for permits and bands for their annual celebration in the street; they also band together to help fellow members out if they fall on hard times. Most weekends when the weather’s good, at least one club dresses to the nines – in ice-cream colored suits, alligator shoes, sashes, bright parasols, and feathered fans – and struts several miles through the streets of New Orleans behind a brass band, trailed by revelers.
The Bonnaroo version: The Bonnaroo parades, with floats, brass bands, and open participation for all, are kind of a mash-up of an official Mardi Gras parade and a street-level second line. In 2011, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band led a rollicking parade after the Meters, Dr. John. and Allen Toussaint performed Desitively Bonnaroo. The 2002 Bonnaroo parade, led by the 6th Ward Treme Allstars brass band and winding up onstage as Galactic kicked off its set, was particularly epic.
And the Bonnaroo version of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club? If you see a fellow camper in need of aid – or socializing – help ‘em out.
Have you seen the Mardi Gras Indians run, or have you ever second-lined? Share your New Orleans memories with us on Facebook or Twitter.
Here’s a little something extra too — a women’s social aid and pleasure club second lining, just to add that into the mix.