Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture

By Dorst, John | Western Folklore, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture


Dorst, John, Western Folklore


Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture. Edited by Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Pp. xv + 179, introduction, photographs, bibliography, questions for discussion and writing, index. $48.00 cloth, $18.00 paper)

Like so many other seeming verities of folklore studies, the concept of folk region is subject to critique to the degree it is premised on unexamined essentialisms. But, that said, it is difficult not to see southern Louisiana as virtually the epitome of a geographically bounded cultural profile that is so distinctive, so lively, and so visibly enacted as to justify the designation "folklore land." This collection of previously published essays and articles, dating mainly from the 1980s and 1990s, is best viewed as a casebook on the cultures and traditional practices of southern Louisiana. The complexity of the region's rich cultural milieu comes across in this eclectic reader, which includes both academic and journalistic selections. Topics range from urban and rural Mardi Gras celebrations to veneration of folk saints and from the Christmas bonfire tradition to witchcraft beliefs.

The names of some contributors-Barry Jean Ancelet, Tom Ireland, Frank de Caro, and editor Marcia Gaudet, among others-are well known in professional folklore circles. Essays by these authors mingle with pieces by non-academic documentarists and freelance writers-Glen Pitre, Barbara Sillery, Michael Tisserand, and others-who have deep connections to the region and who display admirable sensitivity to the complexities of cultural dynamics. Overall, the expertise and intellectual substance of this volume is above question.

Because of the differing professional orientations of the contributors, the selections are quite varied in topic, academic apparatus, and style. Perhaps the most overtly scholarly of the essays, Frank de Caro and Tom Ireland's "Every Man a King," about the politics of participation in New Orleans Mardi Gras, makes use of theories of Carnival to conduct a symbolic analysis of class relations and tensions. In doing so, the authors reveal some of the complexity underlying the celebration most associated by the public at large with the rolling good times at the heart of many stereotypes about the region as a whole. At the other end of the spectrum, Glen Pitre's brief piece on the obscure and archaic "Mardi Gras Chase" still practiced in a few rural hamlets is a light but informative account of the ritualized mock whippings that derive from very old strata of Carnival celebration. Here the author's goal is to capture the drama, humor, and playful excitement of the celebratory event, rather than to analyze it for deeper social significance. …

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