Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mummer Mystery

The Mummer's Museum in South Philadelphia is a gem. The guest book was signed by people from all over the world. It badly needed funds for climate control, infrastructure repair, and marketing. The Mummers Parade has been held on New Year's Day in Philadelphia since 1901, with Mummers Clubs competing in one of four categories: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. Apparently planning for the following year starts January 2nd, not to mention a big annual investment in costumes - a subsuming lifestyle for the people involved. The museum houses costumes and documents the history, music, and stories of the tradition.

It was fascinating to learn of the African-American origins of Mummer's tradition, as well as European. The Mummer's anthem was composed by an African American musician, James Bland. It is ironic that a tradition that has such deep roots in African American history is now comprised of all white Mummers Clubs. Blackface was even used until the early 60's, when the clubs phased it out because of pressure from civil rights groups. It seems like one more aspect of the many ways that Philadelphia is segregated, both overtly and subtlely.

And yet this is a unique form of American Folk Art that belongs to all of us. I know we'll be at the next Mummers Parade. I hope it won't be too cold on January 1, 2011, in Philadelphia.

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