From the window of the haunted restaurant of Muriel’s at Jackson Square you could slip back in time and watch the history of New Orleans unfold. This territory claimed by La Salle for France in 1698 gave birth to the city known as La Nouvelle Orleans, officially in 1718. Bienvelle founded this settlement with high hopes but it was the Scottsman, John Law, who swindled settlers from all around the world to come here. The colony suffered many a blow and lay abandoned to her fate. New Orleans seemed nothing more than a weak military outpost at best, only hopes and fears remaining. True, it was a natural port with serpentine crescent shape, but plague, flood and pestilence were ever knocking at our door. New Orleans was, and always has been, a giant swamp at its heart.
They say it was the French that founded New Orleans; though the Native Americans had been here for thousands of years before! It was the Spaniards who invested enough make New Orleans a viable city, it was the Africans who made it run and gave us our distinctive song, it was sugar cane that sweetened the pot enriching our city and our flavor, and it was the Mississippi herself who embraced us, seducing a nation with our charms. As United States’ city since 1803 we remain unique bastion of European and African culture. We are “proud to swim home!” as the post-Katrina locals now say. All the deeds of past and the future are ever present here embedded and imprinted into our Mississippi Mud —a haunting truth, ever repeating in a ghostly replay in modern day.
Why does New Orleans have such a haunted history?
New Orleans had the highest mortality rate in North America for nearly two centuries. Plagues of yellow fever and cholera claimed tens of thousands of lives very quickly, leaving their shadows behind. This is imprinted here: the dead are not dead. Energy never dies, it just transfers. There are many geophysical factors that may contribute to our haunted phenomenon as well. And spirits still love to party – what better place than New Orleans?
Do people still speak French there?
No, and we don’t have a southern drawl either! The old Patois – our Creole French and its endearing melody have left us with a few phrases we use as “New Orleans lingo,” but the mainstream old French died out early 20th century. The Americans actually made it illegal to speak here! Some spoke it in the closet, some learned proper French in school but it is not used in daily conversation. We have our “laissez le bon temps rouler,” let the good times roll. “Laignappe,” a little something extra. A few other phrases remain, but today we speak American. The Cajuns have their own French dialect and some still some speak it in the swamps. It too, however, is dwindling away.
“Creole,” “Cajun,” what’s the difference?
A simple answer from the inside, would be “city,” “country,” respectively. The Cajuns or Acadians came from various part of France, especially in the Brittany area, moved to Canada. They eventually made their way to “New France” to settle in the swamps as trappers, furrers, fishermen and such. Creole—technically means “native born.” In this area it tends to refer to those born here in the new world, in Louisiana prior to the Americanization of 1803. You could have been Creole French, Creole Spanish, Creole German, Creole African or Creole Italian.
What do Catholics have to do with New Orleans?
Everything! We were 100% Catholic colony by order of the king and order of the Pope. Under the French and Spanish we had what many say was a “liberal Latin Catholic attitude,” it was truly unique. Our religion was not officially mixed until after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Now we actually have more Baptists, but we remain Catholic empowered. New Orleans is the only part of the country that has parishes instead of counties, to cite one example.
How did Voodoo survive in this strongly Catholic city?
Wherever the slave trade existed in Catholic areas it seems the religions merged. Voodoo seems to be syncretism, or many say. The French and Spanish Catholics did not truly look at Voodoo as a religious threat and the Africans saw the power of the Catholic God and the Saints from their “masters’” religion as very much the same as their God and Loa. The Catholics were not against dancing or music, an integral part to the Voodoo religion. Multi-cultural customs were somewhat accepted in the Creole Catholic mind, definitely depended on for survival and perhaps a bit less hypocritical than present day religious views from the Vatican on Voodoo. No matter what the verdict is from the Vatican on the subject today, it cannot erase the early New Orleans Voodoo/Catholic connection). New Orleans Voodoo still respects and embraces Catholicism today.
How did New Orleans give birth to Jazz and Blues?
The sounds of the seething swamps called to the pounding beat of the Rivers’ thunderous tide, a chorus called back with a gator’s snap and the eagle wailed in response and a new music was born! Spellbinding in form. Music has been called the universal language. Where else on earth has that shown as true as in this melting pot of the world, New Orleans? We are indeed a gumbo town, always “sumpun’ stirrin’ the pot!” The old ones, the natives played their sacred drum, played the wind from flutes and skins. The new ones added to the brew: playing Europe’s finest sounds. Then, of course, the march, the brass societies paraded through banding up and blending in their favorite beat. The Africans added their shouts, stomps, drums and banjo too – spiced it up all hot! Sprinkling an unforgettable call and response. The blues was born without solid form—a kind of soulful moan in music rattling from deep within the bones. Blues begat a new note all its own and then along came Jazz moving on in and out—screaming and dancing us through the streets, through the brothels, through the heartland and all the joints loosened up and down the river true. Music history here does not stop, but it sure was born here and embedded in the soul of that crescent curve. It snakes its way back in modern day where spirit still respects that mambo beat. Our hometown hero, ambassador true, Mr. Louis Armstrong knew this too, “There wouldn’t be any rock and roll if it weren’t for me!”
Bloody Mary ©2003, last update 2015