Friday, February 27, 2009

A Tough Town to Die In

Funerals are strange under the best of circumstances, and for New Orleans' prominent figures, they're even moreso. Danny Barker didn't want a jazz funeral when he died because they'd become such undignified affairs, and though efforts have been made to solemnize them, they're still pretty ratty. People filtered into the Howlin' Wolf during the service for Eaglin, many of them simply there for the second line. Rather than wearing something funereal, they were in T-shirts, cargo shorts, straw hats and athletic shoes. They were dressed for Jazz Fest, and no doubt many had sunscreen in their backpacks.

I don't think their motivations were callow, but I suspect they were a little remote - more connected with a general affection for New Orleans music than Snooks, and more into participating in a New Orleans ritual than in the sad passing of a musician.

This is the mixed blessing of Jazz Fest. One of its great successes has been to support and educate people about second line, jazz funeral and Mardi Gras Indian traditions. But, with that knowledge comes the cultural tourism of people who are barely connected to the death (in this case) joining a Jazz Fest-like event in a Jazz Fest-y way, and the inappropriateness of their wardrobe is lost on them.

In most ways, Eaglin's funeral was a good funeral - a balance of spiritual consolation and good-humored remembrances. Irma Thomas sang three spirituals, and by the end, she had a vibe going with the woman playing organ so that the bar was rocking as if it were a church. Allen Toussaint and drumer James Jackson both confirmed the Eaglin tall tale that the blind guitarist once drove the band they were in, the Flamingos, home after a night when they all got too drunk.

And in death, some guys find their moment in the sun. Jackson stood with Eaglin's open casket for much of the time before the service started, took to the stage to introduce himself when the stage was made available, and when Toussaint spoke, he returned to his spot by Eaglin's casket as if the moment was a shared one. Who knows? Maybe Jackson was closer to Eaglin than any of us knew. Maybe his death spoke to him in a way that made him feel the importance of asserting his presence. I like to attribute positive motivations to people's behavior at funerals, even when I can't figure out what they are.

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