[Here is Part 8 of the Rolling Jelly Series]
Jelly Roll Morton’s discussion of jazz-funeral violence (in his 1938 conversations with Alan Lomax) was not the only context for simultaneous fighting and celebration in the New Orleans of his younger days. The Mardi Gras Indians could be a violent lot as well, he explained to Lomax. As I noted in one of the stories in Letters From New Orleans, the old-timer Indian guys all make references to this stuff, but I was never sure about whether to believe it. Well, Morton’s recollections are obviously of an era that pre-dates even the oldest old-timer among contemporary Indians, but here’s what he had to say.
He explained the Indians to Lomax like so: “These people, they had the idea that they wanted to act exactly like the old Indians did in the years gone by, and they wanted to live true, to, to traditions of their style.” There were only four or five “tribes” in the city, but when they showed up at one of the big Carnival parades, even ones that “cost millions of dollars,” they would steal the show. “If a band of Indians was coming, why the parade wouldn’t have anybody there. Everybody would flock to see the Indians.”
The Indians were a feature of the city, he said, for as far back as he could remember. As a child, he added, he was a spy-boy – which is a sort of lookout, trying to spot rival tribes coming. “They was always kids that did the spyin’. These were real men that did this Indian dance and played the Indians. And their main object was to make the enemy bow, and they would use this word, when the spy-boys would meet another spy-boy, they said, ‘Bow-wow. Bow-wow. Ah, bow-wow.’ I don’t remember all the words they used to use. They’d point their fingers to the ground, ‘Bow-wow.’”
That, of course, is where the violence could start. Many of theses Indians were armed, he continued. “Some even had pistols. And I have known many cases where there have been killings in the city of New Orleans with the Indian bands.”