Bringing Mardi Gras Back to Mobile: Joe Cain Day

Revelers in Mobile, Ala., are celebrating Joe Cain Day, which pays tribute to the man credited with bringing back Mardi Gras to the city after the Civil War. Debbie Elliot talks with curator of the Mardi Gras Museum in Mobile, Gordon Tatum.

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DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:

Revelers are lining the streets of New Orleans this weekend for the big buildup to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday: the last chance to eat and drink up before the fasting and penance of lent begins.

(Soundbite of revelers)

Colorful parades are still rolling in the storm-ravaged city, and many local residents, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, have returned for the party. Rio De Janeiro has the biggest carnival celebration, but New Orleans is the city most famous for Mardi Gras. And beads and moon pies are raining down in dozens of other cities all along the gulf coast. In fact, French settlers first brought the pre-Lenten celebration to North America east of New Orleans, in Mobile, Alabama. To find out more, we turned to Gordon Tatum, curator of the Mardi Gras Museum in Mobile. Welcome to the program, Mr. Tatum.

Mr. GORDON TATUM (Curator of the Mardi Gras Museum, Mobile, Alabama): Thank you so much. I'm delighted to be with you.

ELLIOT: Now, I know this, because I'm from that part of the country, but people around here find it hard to believe that Mobile has the oldest Mardi Gras.

Mr. TATUM: Right you are. And we took the concept elsewhere, as in New Orleans, as late as 1847, but we got underway in 1703.

ELLIOT: How did that come to be?

Mr. TATUM: The French settlers here had established a fort, made peace with the Indians, and I'm gonna tell you that boredom set in. They had not too much to do after the first of the year, and they decided to do what they did back home in France, and that was celebrate Mardi Gras. And over the years, it evolved into something much bigger and better than they anticipated, and it's quite a celebration here along the Gulf Coast.

ELLIOT: Now, for weeks, now, secrets societies have thrown fancy balls, kings and queens have been coronated in their full regalia, and the cruise maskers have been parading through downtown Mobile on these elaborate floats. But this afternoon, there was a different kind of parade there. Can you tell me about it?

Mr. TATUM: It is actually not a parade, but a procession. It is the Joe Cain procession, in honor of the gentleman who brought Mardi Gras back to Mobile, after the war between the states. And Old Joe is remembered in a very big way. We rather look forward to this, this is a people's parade.

ELLIOT: So, you don't have to pay any dues to some fancy society to come parade?

Mr. TATUM: Gotcha. Not a matter of getting all gussied up and royal attire and royal attitudes. But just getting out, and getting down with your fellow man.

ELLIOT: So tell me a little bit more about Joe Cain, who was this fellow?

Mr. TATUM: Joe Cain was the City Clerk, and he served in the Confederacy on the Western frontier, came back to Mobile at the end of the war between the states through New Orleans, where they were celebrating Mardi Gras. But when he got to his home, that was not the case. We were still...

ELLIOT: And he was disappointed, right?

Mr. TATUM: Well, definitely disappointed. We were still occupied by Union forces. And so, he and some of his cronies decided they could do something about that. They were walking through the downtown area past a hardware store, and in front of the hardware store, were several barrels of farm implements. And these guys decided to borrow, if you will, from these barrels. And borrow they did. And they paraded through the streets of downtown Mobile with rakes, hoes, shovels, and a few cowbells. And, of course, that brought about a lot of attention from the passing populace.

ELLIOT: Tell me a little bit about the Joe Cain procession that happens on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday there in Mobile. The people who start the parade are all dressed in black?

Mr. TATUM: There are a number of Cain's Merry Widows. These are ladies in black, mourning his loss, they're usually heavily veiled. They have arm bouquets of assorted flowers, and they take those to the Church Street Graveyard where he is interred, and along with his official widow.

ELLIOT: I remember coming to Joe Cain Sunday, and everybody spreads out their picnic blanket there in Bienville Square, there in downtown Mobile. And one of the floats that goes by is someone dressed up like an Indian Chief?

Mr. TATUM: Slacabamorinico, the legendary Chickasaw Indian chief. And that is the personage of Joe Cain. He, in 1866, donned a hastily thrown together costume, and called himself the legendary Chickasaw Indian chief, Slacabamorinico. And that's quite a mouth full, stone cold sober.

ELLIOT: But to this day, somebody dresses up?

Mr. TATUM: Oh yes, always, and it's all part of Mardi Gras history here in Mobile.

ELLIOT: Gordon Tatum is curator of the Mardi Gras Museum in Mobile. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. TATUM: My pleasure.

ELLIOT: Have a good time.

Mr. TATUM: Thank you, let the good times roll.

(Soundbite of the song, Mobile)

ELLIOT: That's THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliot.

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