It is now almost two years to the day since hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and surrounding areas with such devastating force in August 2005. I am still shaken by the fact that I was in New Orleans giving a talk at the Louis Armstrong conference early in the month, and the good times seemed to be rolling without end. Now, although many in the city are still struggling with basic survival needs, the French Quarter–the heart and soul of New Orleans jazz–seems to be returning to its former vibrancy.
This fact highlights for me the amazing message of resilience which, paradoxically, the traditional African-American music of the New Orleans funeral communicates so powerfully. This music flows from a unique set of beliefs and many famous quips.
For instance, the jazzman, Jelly Roll Morton has been credited with the hair-raising pun about the end of someone’s life: “It was the end of a perfect death.”
Or how about: “Rejoice at the death and cry at the birth.”
In a traditional New Orleans funeral march, the music is sad and slow on the way to the cemetery as mourners march to the poignant strains of the band playing “Flee As a Bird,” inspired by the opening verse of Ps. 11–“Flee as a bird to your mountain.” But on the way back to town, usually to the lodge or home of the fraternal order, which has traditionally paid burial expenses, sick benefits, and small amounts to beneficiaries, the musicians break loose with a lively number like “Oh Didn’t He Ramble.”
Lynne asks, Why do we write about funeral music on a site called Music and Happiness? Because we believe that this ability to move from sorrow to joy is an essential aspect of human resilience in the face of its greatest challenges–destruction and death. So listening to music with this awareness in mind can lead each of us through our own moments of despair into the knowledge that hope still exists. Hope is one of the great virtues connected to happiness.
What music carries you from a place of sadness into one that arouses your sense of hope?