In my biography of George Herriman, I write that Herriman was born into a family of New Orleans Creoles. Here, the word “Creole” refers to a mixed-race population that inhabited New Orleans before the Civil War, as distinguished from the “Americans” who moved to the region following the Louisiana Purchase. Further defining the word “Creole,” however, is a daunting task. Books have been written on the topic. Among the best are Virginia Dominguez’ White by Definition, Sybil Kein’s Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, and, my favorite, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans.
The full dimensions of the “Creole” identity, as with any cultural identity, are shaped and re-shaped by writers and artists who emerge from the tradition. The voices here belong to three Creole musicians I was fortunate to interview in the mid to late 1990s. Their lives and stories offer intriguing views of Creole culture and how it might have influenced the Herriman family.
Allison “Tootie” Montana was a revered New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Chief. Historically, Mardi Gras Indians are groups of working-class African Americans who dress in elaborate costumes on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day and other special occasions, expressing themselves through a unique blending of African-Caribbean-influenced music and Native American-influenced costuming. The tradition goes back well into the nineteenth century, and is described by New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton in his Library of Congress interviews. It is quite likely that Herriman witnessed an early version of Mardi Gras Indians in his boyhood neighborhood, and the tradition provides a fascinating historic parallel to Herriman’s adoption of Navajo themes, designs and landscapes in “Krazy Kat.” Listen to audio.
The Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot did not grow up in New Orleans; he was raised on a farm about a hundred and fifty miles to the west, near Eunice, Louisiana. Fontenot was a deeply soulful singer and fiddler, and a gifted storyteller. Here, he recounts the tale of Amédé Ardoin, a triumphant and tragic figure in rural Creole music. The tale underscores a constant threat of racial violence that was woven through the lives of the Herrimans in New Orleans, and all Creoles in Louisiana. (I write more about Ardoin in my first book, The Kingdom of Zydeco.) Listen to audio.
Finally, I was deeply honored to call Danny Barker a friend. When I began working on George Herriman’s story, I thought of Barker frequently. Both Herriman and Barker were deeply influenced by early American popular entertainment, including vaudeville and minstrel shows, and both shared a sly, unpredictable sense of humor. Danny once told me of his various voices: his intelligent voice, jazz voice, night-life voice, day-life voice, black Northern voice, black Southern voice. “All the various voices you have to have when you have a brown or black paint job, you see.” I imagine this as quote that could have come directly from Krazy Kat. Listen to audio.
These recordings were made for articles originally published in Cultural Vistas and OffBeat magazines. I never expected anyone else to hear these tapes, and they were recorded on cheap equipment with much background noise. Thanks to Philip Foster for making it all listenable.
All interviews were conducted in the artists’ homes, with an additional phone interview with Danny Barker. In one section of the Barker home interview, musicians Maria Muldaur and Lucy Burnett stop by to visit Danny’s wife, Blue Lu Barker, offering an unscripted look at a typically busy afternoon at the old Barker house.