Walkin’ To New Orleans: Mardi Gras!
Well, here we are. Mardi Gras, for all intents and purposes, is New Orleans. The parades, the beads, the coins, the crowds, the costumes, the bare breasts … ahem, that’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Many places celebrate Mardi Gras around the country – and of course they celebrate “Carnival” in other parts of the world.
My favorite Mardi Gras is the old-timey party they throw in Mamou, Louisiana, a small town in “northern” Cajun country (north of where Interstate 10 crosses the town of Crowley). They have the traditional Mardi Gras celebration, consisting of a big dance on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, then a “courir de Mardi Gras” the next day. That’s a sort-of procession where men (traditional) dress up in wild-ass costumes and ride horses (mostly) around to farms in the area, gathering food items for a big community gumbo that night.
My Uncle Harold (Champagne, from near St. Martinville) told me about it once, and I mentioned it to my Port Arthur News partner and ace photographer Art Meripol. So, very early one morning in 1980, we were in the car headed east with the vague idea that there was some kind of Mardi Gras thing in Mamou.
Even before dawn, we tuned in a radio station “covering” the Mardi Gras event and it did sound like the reporter – like many of the people he interviewed – were indeed, ah, drunk. And right after daybreak we found it! Art strapped on his cameras and hopped out of the car. I wouldn’t see him again for hours.
The procession meandered through the countryside and the revelers would pound on doors, forcing the occupants to pour out and dance … to music from a small portable record player on a constable’s front car seat. At one of the stops one drunk guy in costume thrust a beer into my hand. It was 6:30 a.m.
When they found out we were journalists, the revelers summoned their “captain,” who rode up on a horse and made us honorary Cajuns. He gave us each badges that would identify us as such – plastic shamrocks that said “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” Don’t ask.
So on it went, guys who fell off their horses and passed out were tossed onto a flat bed trailer. One dude’s head and arms hung off the end of the trailer as I followed close behind in the car. They even stopped an RV with out-of-state plates and while the (big) women danced in the middle of the highway, a frozen chicken was plundered from the fridge.
The procession finally made it back to Mamou, and while most of the masked riders went off to prepare the big gumbo (or pass out, more likely) we heard the tantalizing sounds of live Cajun music coming from a big party at Fred’s Lounge.
Now Fred’s Lounge is quite famous – it’s been in business for 50 years and every Saturday there’s a live band playing for a live radio broadcast. You can still hear the show, now on KVPI-AM in Ville Platte. In fact, they still do all of this stuff around Mardi Gras in Mamou. Art’s been back to shoot the event for Southern Living many times, and those magazine pieces have attracted more and more tourists to Mamou over the years. TV news organizations have gone out and covered the Mamou Mardi Gras; it’s pretty famous now and bigger than ever. I like to think that, on that cool February morning 29 years ago, we saw Mardi Gras in its purest state.
Thanks to Art Meripol for sharing his photos with us.
YouTube: Fred’s Lounge on a Saturday morning
YouTube: Mardi Gras Mamou style