Friday, December 31, 2010

A Vintage New Year's Tradition

Happy New Year!

New Year's is not my favorite holidy, but I have had some interesting experiences on those New Year's celebrations past where I've been working as a musician. I spent one New Year's Eve playing in a big band, which indulged my Guy Lombardo fantasy for those great New Year's parties of the 1930s and 40s.

But probably my most memorable New Years was playing for the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. The Mummers are a vestige of a thousands-year old tradition from the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange. Reports of rowdy groups “parading” on New Years day in Philadelphia date back before the revolution. Prizes were offered by merchants in the late 1800’s. January 1, 1901 was the first “official” parade offered about $1,725 in prize money from the city. The Mummers, as a whole, are relatively unchanged from those seen in this vintage 1956 film:

The parade lasts all day long, with organized groups of "Comics", "Fancies" and "String Bands". It winds throughout the center of the city first, and then the groups have a second (un-authorized) parade through their stomping grounds on 2nd Street. It is a very long day for the participants, many of which never go to bed the night before. Needless to say the alcohol flows all day long.
We used to put together a marching band of about 15 players to accompany one of the comic groups- live music was a requirement back them; now I think they can use a recording. Basically, we would play a bunch of 1920s standards (Alabama Jubilee, 'Dem Golden Slippers, Tiger Rag) and the comic group (all men, at that time- they even balked at me playing in the band) of blue-collar guys wearing costume dresses and carrying tiny umbrellas "dances" up the street. They have a routine, or at least a theme, but it is mainly an excuse to dress funny, drink a lot and have a good time. Some of the groups do their best to satirize local politicians and events in the best Saturnalian tradition. Below is a fairly typical group of comics- note the dresses and umbrellas.

The Fanices are just that- fancy costumes of sequins and feathers, with elaborate, but mobile set pieces. The String Bands are similar, but they play instruments- banjos, string basses and saxophones. There are many sites devoted to them, if you're interested to learn more:

and even a museum:

This is a string band with a tiki theme!

Doesn't it look like fun? If you're in the Philadelphia area, you can catch the whole parade on TV, or better yet, in person. If not, some of the Harrisburg, New York & DC stations carry it in part. Otherwise, get your fix on YouTube- search "Mummers parade" and you'll find tons! It is truly a vintage tradition, and one that everyone should experience once in their lifetime!