Fat Tuesday always brings a bit of a cultural stew to our corner of Wisconsin.
Just 15 miles to the northwest, in Pulaski, the Polish country bakery was at it in the wee hours of this morning, turning out thousands of paczki. That’s a deep-fried piece of dough with a sweet filling. It’s a Fat Tuesday tradition.
Also this morning, another bakery here in town was filling orders for dozens of king cakes — an O-shaped yellow-and-purple cake with, again, a sweet filling. They’re decorated with beads and coins. If you find the small plastic baby in your piece, you buy next year’s king cake.
Tonight, the party hounds are out, wearing their beads, celebrating Mardi Gras. Some of them may feel so rough in the morning that they may briefly consider giving up alcohol for Lent.
Our Mardi Gras celebration is a bit more laid back. We just turn around and grab a Professor Longhair record off the shelf.
I couldn’t begin to tell you how I came to buy three Professor Longhair records in the early ’80s. Trust me, I was not that sophisticated when I was in my 20s. I must have read something about him. I’ve always loved piano players, ever since hearing my dad’s boogie-woogie records as a kid.
So for me, Professor Longhair always has meant Mardi Gras. Especially considering I’ve never been to New Orleans. Some day, I hope. Until then …
“Mardi Gras In New Orleans,” Professor Longhair, from “New Orleans Piano,” 1972.
This cut was recorded in New Orleans in 1949 and originally issued as Atlantic 897, with the Professor credited as Roy “Baldhead” Byrd. This LP is from Atlantic’s “Blues Originals” series issued in the early ’70s. It has tunes recorded in 1949 and 1953. (The buy link is to the 1990 CD reissue, which adds alternate takes of three songs, including this one.)
“Tipitina,” “Her Mind Is Gone,” “How Long Has That Train Been Gone,” “Boogie Woogie” and “Carnival In New Orleans,” Professor Longhair, from “The Last Mardi Gras,” 1982. It appears to be out of print.
This is Side 4 of a two-record set recorded live at the Tipitina Club in New Orleans on Feb. 3 and 4, 1978 — the Friday and Saturday nights before Mardi Gras. (It runs 21:26.)
It’s just OK, not great, but it is a small way to get a sense of what it was like to hear a New Orleans legend playing for Mardi Gras revelers. All five cuts are written by the Professor.
It really was Professor Longhair’s last Mardi Gras season. He was 59 at the time. The 1979 festival was canceled because of a police strike and the Professor died on Jan. 30, 1980, before the next one started.
Dan Phillips, the proprietor of Home of the Groove, the fine New Orleans music blog, knows more about Professor Longhair and this record than I ever will, so I’ll defer to him. Dan wrote about “The Last Mardi Gras” a year ago and back in 2007. Much of what I know about New Orleans music, I learned from Dan.