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E. A. Kennedy III

Life, Liberty, and the Mummers

E. A. Kennedy III

In this Q&A, Temple University Press author E. A. Kennedy talks about his experience in the world of the Philadelphia Mummers.

Q: What prompted your interested in the Mummers?
A: Well, at first it was nothing more than mild curiosity. I thought I would shoot a few pictures and be done with it, of course, that was 14,000 photographs ago. I think what drew me to Mummers was the fact that Mummers actually are a whole urban folk culture in and of themselves. The thing is that this isn’t readily apparent from just watching the parade. It wasn’t until I went down to 2nd Street (aka 2 Street) that evening that I began to understand that it was more than a parade, it was a part of the culture of South Philly, and that’s why it became the subject for a book.

Q: When did you attend your first Mummers parade? And what do you recall about it?
A: The first parade that I went to was in 2003. I really thought that the parade was like any other major parade, like the Tournament of Rose’s or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade but of course it was very different with a lot more spontaneity. It was homegrown. I remember meeting this kid, Anthony Dameano, dressed in a camouflaged dress (a wench suit) waving an American flag, dancing around in the middle of the street shouting “Happy New Year’s” as he went. He projected this sense of exuberance that is hard to describe except to say that it immediately reminded me of Mardi Gras. At the time, I had no idea how much New Year’s Day in Philadelphia had in common with Carnival in New Orleans. But, that story started to unfold when I ran across one of the African American brass bands that were actually from New Orleans.

Q: How did you go about getting the Mummers’ trust, and letting you photograph them? For many it appears to be a very insular world.
A: Access is the big hurdle for any documentary project, but with the Mummers it wasn’t a problem at all. I just asked, and they kicked the door open. The Mummers feel, shall we say, a bit underappreciated. When I approached them with the idea they were more than willing to let me into their world. Another thing is that these are simple hard working people who are open, honest and very giving, they will open their homes and their hearts to just about anyone who is open and honest with them.

Q: What discoveries did you make? What did you learn in your research?
A: I don’t think anything surprised me—that’s what surprised me. I’m from New Orleans and I have participated in Mardi Gras on many different levels so there was an organic or intuitive understanding of what the Mummers and the parade was about. In New Orleans you have these traditional groups, called Mardi Gras Indians, they spend the entire year building these elaborate sequined, beaded and feathered Indian suits, and on Mardi Gras Day they parade through the streets of the city. These are working class folks like the Mummers and the entire family gets involved just like the Mummers and they’ve been doing this for as long as anybody can remember, just like the Mummers. I’ve paraded with them in the past, and so I understood the pride in building a new suit every year and this sense of carrying on a tradition. The only difference is that in New Orleans the Mardi Gras Indians is an African American tradition while the Mummers, for the most part, are ethnic European-Americans. But what I didn’t know at the time, but subsequently learned, is that there is a real and historical relationship between the Mummers and Mardi Gras that goes back as far as 1857.

Q: What stereotypes do you think your book/photographs debunk?
A: Early on in the project I showed some of the work to a local photo-editor that I knew, his criticism was that the work didn’t depict the “wild and wacky” side of the Mummers. I suppose that was because there weren’t a lot of photographs of drunkenness, no pictures of public urination or the other negative images that too many Philadelphians have of the Mummers. Now there certainly is a lot of drinking and rowdiness on New Year’s Day but that isn’t the sum total of “Mum” culture. In fact the real essence of Mummery is, as the Mummers put it, “family and tradition” and the fellowship and community that makes the Mummer’s parade happen. So, I felt that my primary goal was to try to present a visual depiction of those relationships, the work, the fellowship, and the community in which it exists.

Q: What can you explain about the various brigades/bands etc.?
A: Talking about the Mummers is like talking inside baseball. There are layers upon layers of rules and traditions that define Mummery. There are four distinctive groups: the comics, fancies, string bands, and the fancy brigades, each marks an evolutionary phase in the history of mumming and contemporary society. The Comics are the original Mummers, the court jesters who use pantomime and parody to poke fun of contemporary mores, the people’s voice regarding contemporary issues; a tradition that goes back to the original celebrations of the Swedes who first settled in the area. The fancies provide the parade a sense of pageantry and arose in the mid-19th century alongside the growth of Philadelphia’s garment industry. Shortly after the institution of the “official” parade the first string bands were formed from within the Comic division mirroring the evolution of Minstrel shows into Vaudeville. The last group, the fancy brigades, are spin offs of the fancies themselves and emerged at the end of WWII when returning soldiers formed into regimented brigades. To the uninitiated they are a blur of costumes but each is delineated by an elaborate set of rules that governs how they compete.

Q: What is your photojournalist background that you were able to approach the Mummers in the way you did?
A: Well, I’ve been a documentary photographer for almost 25 years and during that time I have had the opportunity to work on a number of extended story projects so I think that has given me the ability to tell a complete story with pictures. My personal approach is to use my camera like a writer uses a notebook. I’m not looking for any particular photograph, I am just trying to let the story unveil itself to me and I follow it wherever it leads me. Towards the end of the project, you begin to see how it all fits together because the real storytelling starts with the editing.

Q: The preparation takes almost a year from start to finish for a parade; how long did you photograph them?
A: I began the project with the 2003 parade and I didn’t finish, for a number of reasons, until the 2007 Parade. But the window of actual photography was about 18 months. While the Mummers do spend a year preparing for the next parade, the actual physical doing doesn’t begin until after Labor Day. Prior to that, most of the business of mumming is a matter of meetings, planning and fundraising.

Q: What were some of the “secrets” you learned about the Mummers?
A: There really aren’t any secrets except for the routines and props that they are building out of sight of the competition, but all of that is revealed on New Year’s Day. But if I had to come up with something that isn’t readily known it is the amount of money that many of the clubs spend in pursuit of winning, because you have to remember, the New Year’s Day is a really a competition.

Q: What criteria did you use to select the images for the book?
A: The pictures had to tell the complete story, which sometimes meant sacrificing better photographs from an aesthetic point of view, for some that were better at filling in parts of the story. It’s not a photo art book per se, where I would have chosen photographs purely from an artistic standpoint; it is a documentary. So substance sometimes trumped style. Not a lot but sometimes.

Q: Have/Would you ever dress up as a Mummer and parade? Were you invited to?
A: It depends on what day you ask me. I was invited to go up the street as a fancy and I may go up and do that one day. But I think that I can relate more to the comic wenches. The wenches are accompanied by the New Orleans nouveau-style brass bands. Now, I can second line behind the brass bands. That’s like being back in New Orleans because the Mummer’s Strut isn’t any thing but a variation of the Cakewalk and that’s the same place the New Orleans Second Line came from, just another one of those Philly to New Orleans connections.

Q: What accounts for the Mummers’ tremendous appeal and longstanding tradition?
A: I go up and talk to a kid and ask him how long he’s been “going up the street?” He says that he’s 22 years old, and this is my 21st parade. They go out as Mummers before they can walk. They are involved in organizations with their fathers, brothers, cousins, and life long friends that they grew up with. It’s just part of the lifestyle and as Frannie McIntyre put it, “it’s their religion.” Of course, some people say that the tradition is dying and that’s true when you look at some of the divisions, there are fewer sting bands, fancies and brigades than there used to be. The money and commitment in time just doesn’t fit in with today’s lifestyle. But by the same token the wench brigades are growing…to be a wench all you have to do is pick up a suit and show up on New Year’s Day. Yet the comic wenches are the oldest part of the Mummer tradition so instead of dying, maybe it’s just coming full circle.


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