Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

This song is so light and slight it is barely there. It recalls, even more than "Feelin' Groovy," its close cousin "Cloudy."

Later, on Graceland, Simon will do a more sterotypically New Orleans zydeco number, "That Was Your Mother."

But, until its closing jam by the Onward Brass Band-- which itself sounds more like New Orleans funeral-procession music than the Caribbean sounds associated with Mardi Gras-- this song is barely the kind of music one associates with New Orleans altogether.

It is not the tumbling piano of Professor Longhair, nor the zydeco shuffle of Clifton Chenier, nor the gospel-inflected harmonies of the Neville Brothers. And it certainly doesn't have the sparkle and throb of a Mardi Gras Carnival parade.

Instead, it is a gossamer breeze, a tall glass of cool iced tea, and a hammock on a beach. It is about escaping to a place of music (the whole first verse) and warmth, both physical-- "You can wear your summer clothes"-- and emotional-- "You can mingle in the street." It almost seems to be more about Aruba or Provence than raucous, randy New Orleans.

The lyrics are very simple, aside from the word "elite"... and the line "legalize your lows." Elsewhere, it seems, one's mad and sad moods are almost illegal, and people are obliged to put up a false front of cheerful professionalism/romance constantly. Here, however, one's "lows" can be hung out to dry openly, having been "washed" by the "music" and bleached clean by the sunshine.

Another interesting turn of phrase is "in the New Orleans," as if it were more a situation than a place, like "in the water" or "in the meantime."

Mardi Gras is a party, but it has religious origins. It is a last hurrah before the self-denial of Lent, which in some traditions includes fasting and confession.

At this point in the song, a gospel-like chorus is sung by the Reverend Claude Jeter, a member of the famous Swan Silvertones gospel ensemble-- and also of the Dixie Hummingbirds, who appear twice on this album ("Loves Me Like a Rock" and the "Tenderness").

"I will lay my burden down," he sings. This refers to one's sins and regrets. Once one's sins are confessed, the belief has it, and repented for-- once one's "lows" are "legalized" for open discussion-- the burden is forever dropped.

Many speak of confession as "getting something off my chest"; and after confession, they describe having "a weight off my shoulders." There is a sense of relief, of "resting [one's] head."

What of the "starry crown"? This is a halo-- the opposite of Jesus' "crown of thorns." The wording is taken from the gospel song "Golden Slippers" about what one will wear in Heaven. It may also be a reference to the shiny, sparkly headdresses worn by Mardi Gras parade participants. If so, it connects the fancy-free feeling of a reveler with the burden-free relief of one who has confessed. Not just compares-- connects. The revelers can achieve a state of bliss the penitent also seeks.

What happens when he is so coronated? "I won't be wanting anymore." This is an interesting idea to find in this context, as it seems more Buddhist than Christian, as the Buddhist ideal is to be free from desire and "want," which induce suffering.

It seems that having "burdens" paradoxically means having "wants." This is counter-intuitive. Maybe burdens are a bad thing, but they are not nothing. If one has possessions, how can one have wants? Ah, but that is the point. It is burdensome to desire. Once one wants nothings and one needs nothing, one is free of the burden of desire itself.

The song concludes wthe the advice that the listeners, too, "take [their] burdens to the Mardi Gras" and let the experience "wash [their] soul[s]." This is the second allusion in the song to water, the first being "the shore," where one rests one's head, presumably after a baptism.

The last line refers to Jelly Roll Morton, a New-Orleans born musician who claims-- with some validity, it seems-- to have "invented jazz." At the very least, he was the first to publish a jazz composition.

The madness of Mardi Gras, which has turned into a combination of Spring Break the size of a downtown and a Las Vegas showstopper on wheels, masks its origins as a last "blowing off steam" season before the somber sobriety of Lent.

Simon recaptures its original meaning as a way to relieve oneself of emotional "burdens," through the cleaning power of song: "Let the music wash your soul." This is why the song is so relaxed and relaxing. It's about finally being able to relax.

Lastly, what does "toomba" mean? Is it just a nonsense, sung syllable, like "tra-la-la" or "sh'boom, sh'boom"? Possibly. But to a Jewish listener, it could call to mind the folksong "Tum Balalaika." A "balalaika" is a Russian lute with a triangular body." The chorus to this waltz-time song goes:

"Tum bala-, tum bala-, tum balalaika
Tum bala-, tum bala-, tum balalaika
Tum balalaika/ Shpiel balalaika
Tum balalaika/ Freilach zol zein"

Which means: "Strum the blalaika, play the balalaika, be festive" (a balalaika is a large lute with a triangular body). The verses form a riddle song, along the lines of "I Gave My Love a Cherry." (I personally think the song also influenced "Chim-Chimeny" from Mary Poppins.) In any case, the chorus does capture the same relaxed ethos "Take Me to the Mardi Gras."

One last note-- this song was recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. I urge you to look it up and read a bit about it. It deserves equal recognition with better-known studios like Sun and Motown. There is now a documentary about the studio.

The song has been covered by several acts.

Next Song: Something So Right

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