Sunday, May 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Wild Tchoupitoulas (33 1/3) by Bryan Wagner, excerpt five)

from The Wild Tchoupitoulas (33 1/3) by Bryan Wagner

These lyrics provide a historical map of New Orleans. We start close to home, calling out the railroad tracks along Tchoupitoulas Street in the Thirteenth Ward, and then an itinerary is proposed: “We’re the Wild Tchoupitoulas from the golden tracks / We making Melpomene then we coming back.” He does not say exactly, but Jolly is likely planning on leading his gang up to the stretch of Melpomene Street (pronounced Mel-po-MEEN) in Central City, since renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hitting popular intersections on the way, like Washington and LaSalle or Second and Dryades, where Indians have always gathered. In this song, Melpomene Street marks the territorial boundary between Uptown and Downtown tribes. The album also references the Magnolia Bridge, a wooden bridge a few blocks from Melpomene where Magnolia Street crossed over the New Basin Canal, a legendary place where Uptown and Downtown tribes met. Crossing over the bridge into rival territory was considered an act of aggression. The Magnolia Bridge was taken down in the late 1930s when its section of the New Basin Canal was closed and filled, but scenes there are described on The Wild Tchoupitoulas as if they were still happening: “Big Gan Standing on the Magnolia Bridge / Early Mardi Gras Morning / Here Come a Gang from the Metairie Ridge / Struck without no warning.” The Metairie Bridge tribe likely comes from somewhere in the vicinity of the Hollygrove neighborhood, but significantly, this is a topographical reference that would have meant as much to the maroons commemorated by the Mardi Gras Indians as it would have to anyone in the early twentieth century, when the song is set, or in the late twentieth century, when it was sung, as the ridge along Bayou Metairie was one of the main avenues in the cypress swamp used by fugitive slaves to access the maroon camps before the area was eventually drained, graded, and divided into residential blocks.

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