1800′s Music & Dance

It took until 1718 after several decades of good intentions for a French settlement of any permanence to be established at the mouth of the Mississippi.  La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded adjacent to a centuries- old portage site, where the area’s Houma and Choctaw people dragged canoes between the river and a large inland bay, across whose shallow waters lay the nearby Gulf of Mexico. This cresent shaped site was later called the “inevitable city on an impossible site.”

The story of New Orleans  and its music is at the center of North American history.

This was the America’s greatest melting pot and everybody loved to dance!

In 1768, weary of an independent colony informed my a non-French Creole identity France decided to let the estranged colony go, as Louis XV handed it off to his cousin Carlos III and Spain.

In many ways, the story of New Orleans is at the center of American history: the city’s acquisition was the midwife of American empire, and prompted the spread of a system of racial slavery whose rise led directly to one of our history’s defining events–the Civil War. New Orleans.

The colony’s culture was enriched not only from Europe but from Africa as well. As early as 1721 enslaved West Africans totaled 30% of the population of New Orleans, and by the end of the 1700s people of varied African descent, both free and slave, made up more than half the city’s population. Many arrived via the Caribbean and brought with them West Indian cultural traditions.

New Orleans Mardi Gras history has it that after he became governor of Louisiana in 1743, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, assisted by a dancing  

master called Bebe, established elegant society balls and banquets that became the model for upper-class Carnival soirees of later generations of New Orleans. The earliest reference to Mardi Gras “Carnival” appears in a 1781 report to the  Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association is the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

What is unique about New Orleans, as Ned Sublette recounts in The World That Made New Orleans, an absorbing history of the city’s rise, is how its identity was shaped by three colonial eras in rapid succession. As musicologist Sublette traces his well researched account of New Orleans’s first century, the Spanish loom large. It was there era that brought with them new slave laws, a new language and a new influx of African slaves and a disciplined respected approach to making an outpost profitable. This was a Creole culture where  intra-Caribbean trade remained their lifeblood. The colony’s permanent population, fed by an influx of German planters, Spanish merchants and French Acadians expelled from British Canada, rose from some 2,500 in 1760 to more than 8,000 in 1800, transforming a dissolute town into a bustling small city.

In the 1790s Spain was in decline as an imperial power, its Armada defeated, its treasury empty. Shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte took power in France, by coup d’état, in November 1799, King Carlos IV entered into secret negotiations to cede Louisiana back to the French. The agreement was made formal on October 1, 1800, in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. In March 1801, reports of Napoleon’s secret acquisition reached the United States’ newly elected Republican president, Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson, the ownership of New Orleans by a weak Spain–whose governors had allowed US merchants to use the city for trade–was tolerable; the prospect of its falling to France, which was becoming the world’s pre-eminent military power, was of grave concern.

Napoleon’s thinking on New Orleans shifted to retreat when his French forces were unable to contain  the hemisphere’s 2nd independence revolution on what today we know as Haiti. France had lost its most profitable colony and the ambitious plans for expanding the New Orleans empire, which controlled the great commercial gateway to the Mississippi river, were abandoned.

 The reason the inscrutable Napoleon proffered this “noble bargain” had its roots in his shifting strategy. Just months before, Napoleon had appeared intent on building a new French empire in America. However, the first step in his New World plan–to quell a slave revolution in the French Indies and retake the lucrative sugar colony of Saint-Domingue–had met with ruin. The force of 25,000 he’d dispatched to the Caribbean under his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc had made landfall in Saint-Domingue, and after LeClerc tricked the slaves’ leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, into a meeting, he took Toussaint captive (Toussaint would die in a French dungeon). When the colony’s 500,000 blacks realized LeClerc’s true intentions, and yellow fever began to rip through his ranks, his force was routed. (Early the next year, Toussaint’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, would announce the founding of the independent Republic of Haiti.) Napoleon, it seems, had elected to cut his New World losses and focus his imperial eyes on Europe instead. Selling Louisiana provided necessary monies; it also headed off a prospective alliance between Britain and the United States.

The Creole culture was Catholic and French-speaking rather than Protestant and English-speaking. A more liberal outlook on life prevailed, with an appreciation of good food, wine, music, and dancing. Festivals were frequent, and Governor William Claiborne, the first American-appointed governor of the territory of Louisiana, reportedly commented that New Orleanians were ungovernable because of their preoccupation with dancing.

Many French planters and their household slaves from the Caribbean French colonies would eventually find their was to the fast growing Crescent City which was also filling with Anglo-Protestants from the North who were far less tolerant of mixed race relations and free coloreds.
Jefferson, a widower at 39, is believed to had a long-term relationship with an enslaved companion Sally Hemings who was a young quadroon believed to have been a half-sister to his late wife. DNA now supports the weight of historical evidence that Jefferson was the father of her six mixed-race children. On 2 March 1807 Thomas Jefferson signed a bill abolishing transatlantic slave trade, effectively making New Orleans and Richmond Virginia the two largest slave markets in the country. There would be no codes ever passed similar to the French and Spanish regulating the treatment of slaves by the US government.

The city’s Creoles, Thomas Jefferson wrote, were “as incapable of self-government as children”; for nine years Louisiana was governed by a colonial administrator appointed by the president. While New Orleans’s “foreign” culture was troublesome, perhaps most unsettling of all was the density and relative freedom of its blacks. Its free people of color were far greater in number than those in Anglo-American cities like Charleston, South Carolina. Moreover, under the Spanish, its slaves enjoyed comparatively far greater rights than they would be accorded under the Anglo-American system. And it is this combination of factors, as Sublette writes, by which the city provided “an alternative path of development for African-American culture.”

In French New Orleans, a Code Coir had nominally regulated the treatment of slaves and allowed them the right to assemble on the Sabbath for worship and market. Under the Spanish, all slaves were permitted to request contracts to buy their freedom, to own property and–most critical for the development of its culture–to continue to socialize en masse each weekend.

After the Louisiana Purchase, English-speaking Anglo- and African-Americans flooded into New Orleans. Partially because of the cultural friction, these newcomers began settling upriver from Canal Street and from the already full French Quarter (Vieux Carre). These settlements extended the city boundaries and created the “uptown” American sector as a district apart from the older Creole “downtown.” The influx of black Americans, first as slaves and later as free people, into uptown neighborhoods brought the elements of the blues, spirituals, and rural dances to New Orleans’ music.

Ethnic diversity increased further during the 19th century. Many German and Irish immigrants came before the Civil War, and the number of Italian immigrants increased afterward. The concentration of new European immigrants in New Orleans was unique in the South.

In the city, people of different cultures and races often lived close together (in spite of conventional prejudices), which facilitated cultural interaction. For instance, wealthier families occupied the new spacious avenues and boulevards uptown, such as St. Charles and Napoleon avenues, while poorer families of all races who served those who were better off often lived on the smaller streets in the centers of the larger blocks. New Orleans did not have mono cultural ghettos like many other cities.

New Orleans’ unusual history, its unique outlook on life, its rich ethnic and cultural makeup, and the resulting cultural interaction set the stage for development and evolution of many distinctive traditions. The city is famous for its festivals, foods, and, especially, its music. Each ethnic group in New Orleans contributed to the very active musical environment in the city, and in this way to the development of early jazz.

By the turn of the century New Orleans was thriving not only as a major sea and river port but also as a major entertainment center. Legitimate theater, vaudeville, and music publishing houses and instrument stores employed musicians in the central business district. Less legitimate entertainment establishments flourished in and around the officially sanctioned red-light district near Canal and Rampart streets. Out on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain bands competed for audiences at amusement parks and resorts. Street parades were common in the neighborhood, and community social halls and corner saloons held dances almost nightly.

House of the Rising Sun: “It has been the ruin of many”

This much covered first folk-rock song may date from the 19th century

New Orleanians never lost their penchant for dancing, and most of the city’s brass band members doubled as dance band players. The Superior Brass Band, for instance, had overlapping personnel with its sister group, The Superior Orchestra. Dance bands and orchestras softened the brass sound with stringed instruments, including violin, guitar, and string bass. At the turn of the century string dance bands were popular in more polite settings, and “dirty” music, as the more genteel dances were known, was the staple of many downtown Creole of color bands such as John Robichaux’s Orchestra.

New Orleans was unusual, not only for the wide variety of immigrants, but also because they mixed throughout the city rather than forming their own ghetto neighborhoods.
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Throughout the 1800s, the Port City of New Orleans was enjoying its growing international reputation as a flourishing center of entertainment and arts. Together with Cuba’s Havana and the East Coast’s New York was one of only 3 cities in the Americas that supported an Opera House.

Most New Orleans events were accompanied by music, and there were many opportunities for musicians to work. In addition to parades and dances, bands played at picnics, fish fries, political rallies, store openings, lawn parties, athletic events, church festivals, weddings, and funerals. Neighborhood social halls, some operated by mutual aid and benevolent societies or other civic organizations, were frequently the sites of banquets and dances. Early jazz was found in neighborhoods all over and around New Orleans – it was a normal part of community life.

Sometime before 1900, African-American neighborhood organizations known as social aid and pleasure clubs also began to spring up in the city. Similar in their neighborhood orientation to the mutual aid and benevolent societies, the purposes of social and pleasure clubs were to provide a social outlet for its members, provide community service, and parade as an expression of community pride. This parading provided dependable work for musicians and became an important training ground for young musical talent.

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