Mum(mer)’s the Word

Posted January 7th, 2011 at 12:18 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

No doubt the star of this posting will be Carol’s photographs, so I urge you to hang in to the end to take them all in.

She and I spent New Year’s Day in an unlikely place: Philadelphia. Unlikely, because we had long figured that Philly’s cherished New Year’s Mummers Parade would be an earnest, energetic, moderately photogenic, but amateurish and intoxicated exhibition of street theater. On an inhospitably frigid January day, to boot.

These folks didn’t look too unkempt back in 1909. (Library of Congress)

These folks didn’t look too unkempt back in 1909. (Library of Congress)

I had seen a few black-and-white photos of costumed Mummers who looked like your scruffy cousin Fred and his dissolute pal Al, paying off a lost wager. Carol, who had lived in Philadelphia for eight years some time ago, never once left the house to catch a Mummers Parade. From what she had heard and had seen on TV, she assumed the procession would be rowdy and, well, tacky.

But we headed north from our Maryland home to see it anyway this year, mostly to reconnect with old friends and to chuck a few new entries into Carol’s photo archive.

And oh, how wrong we were about the nature and quality of the Mummers’ festivities, and how glad we are that we went.

This was no free-form street happening, no bacchanal with bands. The Mummers Parade — the 111th on 1/1/11! — was a daylong procession of performances that were mirthful, magical, mind-bending, and memorable beyond our wildest expectations.

Captain Charlie Roetz and his Quaker City String Band’s “My Kind of Clown” finished first in the tough String Bands Division.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Captain Charlie Roetz and his Quaker City String Band’s “My Kind of Clown” finished first in the tough String Bands Division. (Carol M. Highsmith)

They were a glittering necklace of musical and dance productions that Broadway choreographers would be hard-pressed to match.

Trust me, this is saying something, coming from devotees of Mardi Gras. To our astonishment, the Mummers outdid New Orleans’s costumed street epic in many ways.

At the latter, crowds of excited tourists and lubricated locals — drinking is cheerfully tolerated on the streets of the Big Easy — yell themselves hoarse begging trinkets from masquers passing in review. These “krewe” members ride high atop themed floats that are recycled from year to year.

A comic club’s cadre, large and small, cavort — in “golden” slippers, of course. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A comic club’s cadre, large and small, cavort — in “golden” slippers, of course. (Carol M. Highsmith)

By contrast, Philly’s Mummers walk, run, and dance — quite a few bobbing parasols as they go — block after block amidst the crowd in original costumes each year, sometimes in formation, sometimes in joyous, helter-skelter waves. Their bent-knee struts are a Mummer trademark, said to be inspired by the 19th-century “cakewalk.”  

Replete with bending and bowing, this dance began as a competition — for which fancy cakes were the prize — among plantation masters and slaves in the pre-Civil War South. The cakewalk “went national” in Philadelphia, coincidentally, at the 1876 worlds fair that celebrated the centennial of American independence.

And there’s another tie between Philadelphia mummery and the Old South. The parade’s unofficial theme song, woven into many brigades’ — or Mummer clubs’ — numbers, is the tinkly “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” written by an African-American Philadelphian named James A. Bland.  It was widely performed, in blackface, by whites in minstrel shows throughout the South.

Philly Mummers marched in blackface, too, until the practice was outlawed as racist in 1964.

None of the figures featured on this sheet music cover of James Bland’s songs appears to be wearing footwear of any sort.  (Library of Congress)

None of the figures featured on this sheet music cover of James Bland’s songs appears to be wearing footwear of any sort. (Library of Congress)

Bland, who also wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was finally dropped as Virginia’s official song because of its references to “darkeys” and “Old Massa,” wrote the “Slippers” song as a parody of a popular Negro spiritual. His lyrics include, “Golden slippers I’s gwine to wear/ to walk the golden street.”

Philadelphia’s streets aren’t paved with gold, but lots of Mummers prance in gold-sequined, or gold-painted, footwear.

Until 1983, women were officially barred from the Mummers Parade. As Philadelphia’s Mummers Museum’s Web site points out, though, they “have a long history of sneaking in. Women disguised as men dressed as women.”  Our friend Lynn Haskin dutifully drove a vehicle each year in which her husband Don marched — as a human kazoo! And for certain a lot of steady female hands have handled much of the costume design and sequin-sewing.

Mummers’ Day builds in intensity and complexity. It begins with a friendly assault of comic brigades whose costumes and antics poke fun at politicians, issues in the news, and economic vagaries. This year, for instance, the Goodtimers Club presented “Bed Bugs on Broad Street,” a reference to alarming stories about the proliferation of the tiny, biting pests. And agitated by the nation’s recent wild financial ride, another Goodtimers troupe delivered a saucy “Big Rock Candy Bailout” routine.

My man, Mr. Wizard!  (Carol M. Highsmith)

My man, Mr. Wizard! (Carol M. Highsmith)

Then followed the “Fancy Division,” in which, as the name implies, both clubs and individual participants sashayed before the crowd in incredibly lavish costumes, often tugging their own backdrops as they went. My favorite, a fellow from the Golden Sunrise Club in a stunning wizard’s outfit, finished third in the “Handsome Costume” category. (Each brigade, individual promenaders such as Wizard Man, and captains — the brigades’ dancing bandleaders — are judged at the final reviewing stand.)

This captain of the Hog Island New Year’s Association is in full fern, if not flower.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This captain of the Hog Island New Year’s Association is in full fern, if not flower. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The piece de resistance was the undulating surge of Mummer string bands — somewhat of a misnomer, since everything from saxophones to glockenspiels mixes with braces of banjos. The flamboyantly costumed, ever-smiling captain cavorts among his musicians in pageants of Hollywood proportions. This year’s crowd watched clowns, chefs, shipwrecked sailors, alligators, gold prospectors — even fruits and vegetables — strike up the music, sing, and gambol up Broad Street to Philadelphia’s ornate City Hall.

There was even a “wench division” — a Mummer tradition in which outrageously hairy, politically incorrect, men don dresses, bonnets, accessory bags, bloomers, makeup, and — in lieu of golden slippers —spray-painted sneakers.

Philadelphia’s Finest were ready for the froggies this year.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Philadelphia’s Finest were ready for the froggies this year. (Carol M. Highsmith)

One of the wench clubs, “Froggy Carr,” traditionally performs so frenetically that, this year, Philadelphia Police deployed to keep the pigtailed amphibians from overrunning barricades.

Mummers’ Day winds down in two disparate venues. The fanciest brigades frolic inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where wind, snow, and rain cannot damage their fine frocks and feathers. We missed this show, but it’s said to be Las Vegas-caliber, without the strippers and slot machines.

When their street struts, somersaults and serenades are done, thousands of other Mummers repair to what the locals call “Two Street” — South 2nd — in South Philadelphia, which is home to many of the clubhouses in which brigade members prepare their programs and costumes 11½ months of the year. The Mummers’ reputation for drinking and carousing is earned here, as hail fellows are well met up and down Two Street, far into the night.

Philadelphia mummery goes all the way back to colonial times. Each of the seven years that he lived there when “the City of Brotherly Love” was the U.S. capital, President George Washington himself welcomed rowdy, blackfaced New Year’s celebrants, presenting them cakes and ale in return for imaginative doggerel.

Did I say rowdy?  Well, borrowing the New Year’s tradition from Philadelphia’s early Swedish residents, the Mummers roamed the streets, firing guns to such an extent that the “New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association” became a leading early organization.

Mummery itself traces to boisterous Roman Saturnalia fertility festivals; mischief by early English “lords of misrule” at Christmastime “feasts of fools”; and imaginative German Christmas Mummenschanz, or masquerades.

Philadelphia banned New Year’s merrymaking as a “common nuisance” in 1808, but the ordinance was mocked and ignored. Mummery took firm root in industrial, immigrant-filled South Philadelphia, where many of today’s brigades have kept their Swedish, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian identities. The Mummers’ march became a city-sponsored event in 1901.

Why do grown men and women engage in such frivolous make-believe?  A Mummers Magazine article in the 1950s put it aptly, “Mummery is as old as Man’s dream of getting outside his customary life.”  The dress-up, strutting, and tomfoolery let the child in these adults run free. Where else can a scraggly, perhaps paunchy, plumber or pipefitter — few Mummers are CEOs — pretend to be a pirate or a wench in the name of absurdist fun?

The Golden Sunrise club’s Thomas Crompton portrays the “War God of Snow.”  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Golden Sunrise club’s Thomas Crompton portrays the “War God of Snow.” (Carol M. Highsmith)

 

In Don Haskin’s view, the time and the work that go into this day of buffoonery “are all about bonding, belonging to something, sharing good times and stories with friends. And tradition — handing down something unique [I would add, uniquely Philadelphia] to our children. It’s something that outlasts us but that our kids and their kids carry on.”

Mummers start the fun, and the golden slipper painting, young.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Mummers start the fun, and the golden slipper painting, young. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Watching the little ones, in the same billowing costumes as their parents, doggedly keeping step with Mom or catching a ride on Dad’s shoulder, eminently made Don’s point.

The upshot of it all: unexpected precision and musicianship. Radiated pride. And a rollicking good time.

Our Mummers’ Day turned out to be surprisingly dry and barely chilly— about 7° C.

But there was one cloud:

A fellow in the Fancy Division dragged this dragon the entire route, performing all the while.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A fellow in the Fancy Division dragged this dragon the entire route, performing all the while. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Except for a few truckloads of musicians interspersed among the brigades, I did not see a black face in the procession. One lifelong Philadelphian told me that African Americans have simply never been made welcome. Nor did watching whites parade in blackface for the better part of a century make mummery all that appealing to those whose dark faces were real. Even in the crowd around me, I counted the number of minorities on two hands.

This is the only reason I can think of that the Mummers Parade has remained a localized Delaware Valley institution, for it certainly has all the splendor needed to burst onto the national scene. For sure, neither rain nor wind nor depth of temperature will keep Carol and me — and I hope a couple of our kids and their kids as well — from going mumming, if that’s a word, once again.

This Mummer lugged a very large friend along with him.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This Mummer lugged a very large friend along with him. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Bacchanal. Drunken revelry. The name comes from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and the wine harvest.

Dissolute. Marked by excess, such as showing the effects of too much drinking over too long a time.

Doggerel. Comic verse. An example: “Hogamus, higamus/ Men are polygamous.”

Hail fellows well met. A phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s “All hail, fellow, and well met” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It refers to an exuberant and affectionate greeting.

Tacky. Common, lacking in taste or class.

One Response to “Mum(mer)’s the Word”

  1. Well at least bed bugs will be revitalizing the economy, the exterminators are making a killing.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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