Monica's Reviews > Why New Orleans Matters

Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza
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's review
Aug 29, 2008

really liked it

I picked up Tom Piazza's book "Why New Orleans Matters" a few weeks ago, but couldn't read it until now. I can't read anything about Hurricane Katrina without feeling it in the pit of my stomach and, well, I've been depressed enough lately. However, I brought the book to court the other day for the time spent waiting in line, and there I was, standing in line at the clerk's office, overwhelmed again at the beauty and the sadness and the joy of life that is New Orleans, and remembering why that city touched me so deeply, and why, in the midst of feeding lost kitties in a devastated land of toxic dust and mold, I fell in love.

Here's an excerpt by Piazza about jazz funerals in New Orleans:

... They (the pallbearers and ushers) wear officially sorrowful expressions, and some of them are no doubt sorrowful inside as well, but in the most profound sense it is a masque of grief that is being staged here, in which the fact of mortality is being given its due, and yet is also undercut by what is about to happen.

In the real old times they would continue this way all the way to the graveyard before the next stage of the funeral ritual took place, but even New Orleans isn't totally immune to the Worldwide Attention Deficit, and today this part of the procession will last for a block or two at most before the band stops playing the dirge (in the old times the snare drummer would, at this point, remove the handerchief from the head of the snare drum) and the snare drum beats out a familiar sharp tattoo, the band launches into a jubilant, life-affirming stomp, and the entire crowd explodes into dance.

The procession keeps rolling, followed now by some of the greatest dancing you have ever seen. Some follow the parade, smiling and holding up their cans of beer, waving to friends, or with their arms around their friends, some executing incredibly intricate steps by themselves as they move along, up onto the sidewalk, around cars, back onto the street, or in duet with someone else, trying to outdo each other, never for very long until they split up and find someone else; people are dancing on porches and steps as the parade passes; members of the parade will climb up on light poles and dumpsters and even the roofs of cars... dancing to the music in celebration of the fact that, cold as it may sound, it isn't their time yet to be inside that carriage. They know it is coming, and that is a large part of why they dance. The parade will wind through the streets of the neighborhood, usually passing by beloved watering holes known or unknown to the deceased, where all may partake of a little liquid sacrament, wish the departed a good journey to the land of the shades, and then continue rolling, sometimes for hours.

So which is real, the grief or the celebration? Both, simultaneously, and that is why it is profound. You might sometimes see a mother dancing behind a casket containing the body of her own dead son, with tears of grief running down her face. Most funeral traditions in our society are there to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In New Orleans the funerals remind us that Life is bigger than any individual life, and it will roll on, and for the short time that your individual life joins the big stream of Life, cut some decent steps, for God's sake. No individual life lasts forever, and it is the responsibility of those left outside the walls of the boneyard to keep life going. This isn't escapism, or denial of grief; it is acceptance of the facts of life, the map of a profound relationship to the grief that is part of life, and it will tell you something about why the real New Orleans spirit is never silly, or never just silly, in celebration, and never maudlin in grief.

New Orleanians, poor, rich, and in-between, white and black and in-between, take their cooking and their eating seriously, just as they take their music seriously, and their dancing, and their masks and costumes, and their celebratory rituals, because it is not mere entertainment to them. It is all part of a ritual in which the finiteness, the specificity and fragility and durability and richness and earthiness and sadness and laughter of life, are all mixed together, honored, and given tangible form in sound, movement and communal cuisine.


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