It's time to meet the Mummers
January 1, 2013 12:06 PM   Subscribe

New Year's Eve comes with many widespread traditions. But for those who live in and around Philadelphia, New Year's Day has a tradition all its own: The annual Mummers Parade. Started in 1901, making it possibly the oldest folk festival in the United States, the all day parade features string bands, floats, elaborate dance routines, and fancy brigades - plus about a gazillion feathers. Want to see more? You can watch a live stream of this year's parade here
posted by Mchelly (24 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
And don't forget the Mummers Museum's gallery of costumes (autoplay, though with mute button).
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:12 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just came from watching some of it. Nothing like watching a beefy dude dressed in a gold lame jumpsuit stagger down the street held up by his girlfriend, or a similarly large gentleman in a pinafore and face paint taking a leak while talking on his phone in the corner of the Williams-Sonoma next to the Bellevue. It is truly a festival of the folk, badly-painted rolling props and all, but at least now women can march and there isn't as much blackface.

When I first stopped drinking, a number of my friends who were trying to do the same got buddies to accompany them up Broad Street to protect them from the booze. Many (by no means all, but many) of the participants are so drunk they can barely stand up.
posted by Peach at 12:14 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is...something.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:30 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I grew up in Philadelphia and I still don't get the appeal. The only people I knew who cared about it grew up within a three or four block radius in South Philly.

And that New Delhi/New Jersey call center thing... wow. I don't even.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:50 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well, bring me wine and call me Tyrion! I can actually watch a real "mummer's farce"!
posted by history_denier at 1:07 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, man. I can't find an image link just yet, but according to a friend who lives in Center City Phila., the Ferko String Band is performing in blackface this year, only with reddish/orange makeup instead of dark brown. I went to to investigate, and found the Ferko listing: Joseph A. Ferkel -- Minstrels "Ferko's Bringin' Back Those Minstrel Days."

posted by bakerina at 1:49 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's amazing. Snazzy and jazzy and truly American - all we've got round here is cheese rolling.

Folk traditions eh? Actually of course there's loads of mummers festivals in UK of varying degrees of interest and snap and contemporariness. Blacking up is also a thing, which, for reasons of cultural sensitivity, many groups try hard to adjust the iconography of (see gallery.) (I wrote that and then I had trouble finding examples.) It's worth saying in some of the traditions the Mummers went round getting their own back on local worthies and landowners and blacked up so as not to be recognised. Not quite the same iconography as in the States.
posted by glasseyes at 1:57 PM on January 1, 2013

We had Mummer's Plays that would call round to all the houses at Halloween where I grew up in rural Ireland. I remember it happening up until the mid 1980's at least.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:09 PM on January 1, 2013

Blackface - really??? It's truly amazing what some people think is a good time. Too bad it spoils it for everyone else.

A great string band, not in blackface, showed up at the Philly airport last December after the holidays, or maybe it was the year before after the big storm had cleared up. They had the Mummers/Dixieland sound I remembered from watching the Philly area news every New Year's when I was growing up, so I assumed they'd be part of the parade on New Year's. It made holiday travel a little nicer for those who heard them.
posted by Currer Belfry at 2:34 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents took us to plenty of Philadelphia Mummer's Parades when I was growing up (even when we lived in NJ), and I well remember standing for hours and freezing my feet off to watch the parade. The string bands are my favorites.

The parade is also when the city shows its working class roots, and the influence of minstrel shows, for good or ill (they have been phasing out blackface for a while) and the New Delhi/New Jersey call center routine linked above from one of the Comic brigades is definitely one of the low points of the 2013 parade. As this history of the parade says "Comic division clubs lampoon modern day local and national political and social themes", but there's a fine line between comedy and offensiveness and this one is a spectacular miss on their part. The parades have always had some transgressive behavior (and a lot of alcohol), but there's also a lot of people doing it out of love of the tradition: Pennsport String Band.

For some better over the top string band action more in keeping with the good side of the parade, here's the Fralinger String Band (founded 1914) performance from 2012, and here's the South Philadelphia String Band 2012 performance.
posted by gudrun at 3:31 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It was very disappointing. Ferko's performance was just ugh...

That was followed up by a problematic Native American performance from another group.

As I said on Twitter during it, the Mummers Parade is not universally racist, less racist than it was...but still sometimes racist.

I can still support dancing bunnies, duckies and cakes, though. More of that. No more of what Ferko did.
posted by inturnaround at 3:33 PM on January 1, 2013

The Fero performance was pretty embarrassing, even though I think they were trying (and failing, definitely failing) to use the minstrel music as their theme. Quaker City's Pow Wow themed performance was also a terrible idea, if maybe well-intentioned.

Seeing the Mardi Gras Indians in Treme made me poke around the internet for some articles on them and the Mummers:

In this Q&A
, Temple University Press author E. A. Kennedy talks about his experience in the world of the Philadelphia Mummers. He is from New Orleans.
Voice of America article.
New Orleans article about strains of carnival there, including a possible Philadelphia connection.
Jonkanoo, Gombey, New Orleans Indians, & The Philadelphia Mummers Costume Traditions. This blog looks like it has tons of other interesting entries on black folk music.
Never Mind the Sequins - art collective joins the Mummers. The Vaudevillians NYB.
posted by sepviva at 3:45 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Self-link alert: I took some photos of the parade today. Didn't stay until the end to see the string band, but there's a pretty representative sample of the way people Mummer out.
posted by nosila at 5:13 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

For the full experience, you need to witness the Mummers returning to their South Philly clubhouses on Two Street (actually 2nd Street). I went one year and found myself amazed and horrified by the sweaty, drunken Mummers, makeup smeared and soaked in beer as they danced and partied in the street. When one of them saw our group and stumbled his way over to the sidewalk to spread cheer, tongue waggling from his nightmare clown face, I was extremely thankful for the metal barricade that separated us.
posted by orme at 5:33 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to live on 2nd St/Two Street. I never bothered braving the cold and going up to Broad on New Year's Day. I was usually too hung over anyway. But by the time I started sobering up, the parade eventually made its way to me! Generally the paraders were three sheets to the wind by that point and there were some wigs on sideways, but still! Good times!
posted by medeine at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2013

Fancy brigades are on the live stream right now. I missed the superhero one, but just got to see a cyborg themed one with what I think was Skrillex as some of the background music.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:45 PM on January 1, 2013

Wife and I went to the Parade the last two years thanks to having good friends who come from there and go home during the holiday. Sounds like it might be a good thing; sounds pretty cringe worthy and we don't usually go in for that.

In general though, I love the vibe of the Mummer's parade. Middle aged men with beer guts prancing around in tutus and frilly umbrellas?? Love it. It's one of the most laid back scenes I've can wander/stagger up to a cop with your open container and take a photo, or jump in the parade and dance! Also the lack of corporate presence is almost stunning in this day and age.

Philly definitely made an impression on me during those visits.
posted by dry white toast at 7:08 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I live in South Jersey and every Philadelphia wedding reception I've been to in the last 20 years had a DJ or band play Dem Golden Slippers just to get the older folks on the floor. I hadn't watched the parade for years, but was under the weather today so I decided to sack out on the sofa and check out the string bands.

Ugh, Ferko. Ugh, Quaker City. Seeing the smaller clubs with much less of a budget create whimsical and fun performances (Duffy's bakery was great!) and then see the bigger clubs go for the lowball "Indians!" and "Not-quite-Blackface" themes was disheartening. Coming from a kid who was an Indian complete with red face for a Halloween back in the 80s, what was okay then (and it really wasn't okay, just accepted) is not okay now.

I liked South Philly's farm themed set and Fralinger's zombie routine most of all. Long live the Philly Mummer's Parade, but some of those clubs need a come to Jesus talk.
posted by kimberussell at 7:41 PM on January 1, 2013

From Philly Weekly posted on Storify, an overview of the racism: It's Time To Talk About Mummers In Blackface.

I agree with kimberussell, the smaller clubs and the newer clubs are doing some neat stuff, but ugh, I hate the tired racist shit that still gets trotted out and let slide because "tradition!" It's not going to die until more old-school mummers take a stand and apply harder peer pressure.

(I like watching the hilarious drunken debauchery of Two Street from friends' rooftops. Seeing is better without the smelling.)
posted by desuetude at 9:42 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I grew up in Philadelphia and I still don't get the appeal. The only people I knew who cared about it grew up within a three or four block radius in South Philly.

Same here and, yes, the Mummers are a South Philly phenomena. The rest of the city is pretty ambivalent and most of the onlookers seem to come from Jersey.

The parade is also when the city shows its working class roots,

White working class - union members - the sort of people liberals normally bleed for until they actually have to rub shoulders with them and then they're a bunch of ignorant racists.
posted by three blind mice at 12:49 AM on January 2, 2013

The day after:

2013 Mummers Parade Winners

And local columnist Stu Bykofsky says we should get a sense of humor if we think the parade's racist. Oh, Stu.
posted by kimberussell at 4:29 AM on January 2, 2013

Same here and, yes, the Mummers are a South Philly phenomena. The rest of the city is pretty ambivalent and most of the onlookers seem to come from Jersey.

That's not really true. People come from all over the Delaware Valley to watch the Mummers. As for it being a South Philly phenomenon, that would come as news to the Greater Overbook String Band in Delco or the Greater Kensington String Band in the Northeast. There's no question that South Philly and South Philly culture tends to dominate the Mummer thing these days, but that's a relatively recent thing. There used to be more from North and West Philly, but then the white flight thing happened. After the black Mummers stopped marching in the parade in the 1920s, the tradition died off amongst non-white Philadelphians, so South Philly is the last bastion of what was once a city-wide thing.

The South Philly focus is probably also due to the city's decision to herd the Mummers into a parade up South Broad Street instead of the pre-1901 practice of random bands of Mummers wandering the streets of Philadelphia wherever they pleased, which actually began outside of Philadelphia, in the Swedish colonial settlements at Tinicum and Kingsessing (which is now in Philadelphia but wasn't then).

It's too bad that packs of racist knuckle-draggers were the ones carrying the torch throughout much of the 20th Century and it's shameful that some still behave that way, but it's an amazing tradition that's continuing to evolve.

Personally, I love the idea of Swedes and Finns drunkenly wandering through the colonial streets, terrorizing their German neighbors and their new Dutch and later English overlords by shooting guns in the air, singing, and loudly demanding free drinks.
posted by snottydick at 8:34 AM on January 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

three blind mice: " White working class - union members - the sort of people liberals normally bleed for until they actually have to rub shoulders with them and then they're a bunch of ignorant racists."

Well that's just an absurd generalization, not only of white working class union members, but of liberals who support unions.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:45 AM on January 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

> Same here and, yes, the Mummers are a South Philly phenomena. The rest of the city is pretty ambivalent and most of the onlookers seem to come from Jersey.

Oh, how nice of you to clear that up so authoritatively. Um, what?
posted by desuetude at 10:42 PM on January 2, 2013

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