Southern Life in Southern Literature/George Washington Cable

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Southern Life in Southern Literature
Maurice Garland Fulton (Ed.)
George Washington Cable: The Dance in Place Congo
PART III. THE NEW SOUTH IN LITERATURE - NOVELISTS AND STORY WRITERS

NOVELISTS AND STORY WRITERS


GEORGE WASHINGTON CABLE

[George Washington Cable was born in New Orleans. Louisiana, in 1844. Though very young when the Civil War began, he served in the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry.

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GEORGE WASHINGTON CABLE

After the war he was for some years a surveyor and then a clerk in a cotton factor's office. He gave up this position to become a reporter on the New Orleans Picayune, for which he had been writing sketches. Reporting was, however, not to his taste, and finding that the stories he had had time to write between his newspaper duties were accept able to Scribner's Magazine and other periodicals, he decided in 1879 to devote himself to literature as a profession. In 1886 he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he still resides. While engaged in newspaper work he began to write sketches of New Orleans life. These he later gathered into his book "Old Creole Days," published in 1879. Since then he has written several novels and collections of short stories, nearly all of which have his distinctive background of Louisiana Creole life. Becoming interested in philanthropic enterprises, he has given much time and energy to the promotion of societies for social betterment, such as the Home Culture Clubs, founded in 1887, now the Northampton People's Institute. In addition to the writing of books, he has lectured on literary and philanthropic subjects and has given readings from his own stories.]

THE DANCE IN PLACE CONGO[1]

I. CONGO SQUARE

Whoever has been to New Orleans with eyes not totally abandoned to buying and selling will, of course, remember St. Louis Cathedral, looking southeastward—riverward—across quaint Jackson Square, the old Place d'Armes. And if he has any feeling for flowers, he has not forgotten the little garden behind the cathedral, so antique and unexpected, named for the beloved old priest Père Antoine.

The old Rue Royale lies across the sleeping garden's foot. On the street's farther side another street lets away at right angles, northwestward, straight, and imperceptibly downward from the cathedral and garden toward the rear of the city. It is lined mostly with humble ground-floor-and-garret houses of stuccoed brick, their wooden doorsteps on the brick sidewalks. This is Orleans Street, so named when the city was founded.

Its rugged round-stone pavement is at times nearly as sunny and silent as the landward side of a coral reef. Thus for about half a mile; and then Rampart Street, where the palisade wall of the town used to run in Spanish days, crosses it, and a public square just beyond draws a grateful canopy of oak and sycamore boughs. That is the Place. One may shut his buff umbrella there, wipe the beading sweat from the brow, and fan himself with his hat. Many's the bullfight has taken place on that spot Sunday afternoons of the old time. That is Congo Square.

The trees are modern. So are the buildings about the four sides, for all their aged looks. So are all the grounds adornments. Trémé market, off beyond, toward the swamp, is not so very old, and the scowling, ill-smelling prison on the right, so Spanish-looking and dilapidated, is not a third the age it seems; not fifty-five. In that climate every year of a building's age counts for ten. Before any of these M. Cayetano's circus and menagerie were here. Cayetane the negroes called him. He was the Barnum of that region and day.

Miché Cayetane. qui sortie de l'Havane,
Avec so chouals et somacaques.

That is, "who came from Havana with his horses and baboons."

Up at the other end of Orleans Street, hid only by the old padre's garden and the cathedral, glistens the ancient Place d’Armes. In the early days it stood for all that was best; the place for political rallying, the retail quarter of all fine goods and wares, and at sunset and by moonlight the promenade of good society and the haunt of true lovers; not only in the military, but also in the most unwarlike sense the place of arms, and of hearts and hands, and of words tender as well as words noble.

The Place Congo, at the opposite end of the street, was at the opposite end of everything. One was on the highest ground; the other on the lowest. The one was the rendezvous of the rich man, the master, the military officer—of all that went to make up the ruling class; the other of the butcher and baker, the raftsman, the sailor, the quadroon, the painted girl, and the negro slave. No meaner name could be given the spot. The negro was the most despised of human creatures and the Congo the plebeian among negroes. The white man's plaza had the army and navy on its right and left, the courthouse, the council-hall and the church at its back, and the world before it. The black man's was outside the rear gate, the poisonous wilderness on three sides and the proud man's contumely on its front.

Before the city overgrew its flimsy palisade walls, and closing in about this old stamping-ground gave it set bounds, it was known as Congo Plains. There was wide room for much field sport, and the Indian villagers of the town's outskirts and the lower class of white Creoles made it the ground of their wild ball game of raquette. Sunday afternoons were the time for it. Hence, beside these diversions there was, notably, another.

The hour was the slave's term of momentary liberty, and his simple, savage, musical and superstitious nature dedicated it to amatory song and dance tinctured with his rude notions of supernatural influences.


II. GRAND ORCHESTRA

The booming of African drums and blast of huge wooden horns called to the gathering. It was these notes of invitation, reaching beyond those of other outlandish instruments, that caught the Ethiopian ear, put alacrity into the dark foot, and brought their owners, male and female, trooping from all quarters. The drums were very long, hollowed, often from a single piece of wood, open at one end and having a sheep or goat skin stretched across the other. One was large, the other much smaller. The tight skin heads were not held up to be struck; the drums were laid along on the turf and the drummers be strode them, and beat them on the head madly with fingers, fists, and feet,—with slow vehemence on the great drum, and fiercely and rapidly on the small one. Sometimes an extra per former sat on the ground behind the larger drum, at its open end, and "beat upon the wooden sides of it with two sticks." The smaller drum was often made from a joint or two of very large bamboo, in the West Indies where such could be got, and this is said to be the origin of its name; for it was called the Bamboula.

In stolen hours of night or the basking-hour of noon the black man contrived to fashion these rude instruments and others. The drummers, I say, bestrode the drums; the other musicians sat about them in an arc, cross-legged on the ground. One important instrument was a gourd partly filled with pebbles or grains of corn, flourished violently at the end of a stout staff with one hand and beaten upon the palm of the other. Other performers rang triangles, and others twanged from jew's-harps an astonishing amount of sound. Another instrument was the jawbone of some ox, horse, or mule, and a key rattled rhythmically along its weather-beaten teeth. At times the drums were reenforced by one or more empty barrels or casks beaten on the head with the shank bones of cattle.

A queer thing that went with these when the affair was pretentious—full dress, as it were—at least it was so in the West Indies, whence Congo Plains drew all inspirations—was the Marimba brett, a union of reed and string principles. A single strand of wire ran lengthwise of a bit of wooden board, sometimes a shallow box of thin wood, some eight inches long by four or five in width, across which, under the wire, were several joints of reed about a quarter of an inch in diameter and of graduated lengths. The performer, sitting cross-legged, held the board in both hands and plucked the ends of the reeds with his thumb-nails. The result was called—music.

But the grand instrument at last, the first violin, as one might say, was the banjo. It had but four strings, not six: beware of the dictionary. It is not the "favorite musical instrument of the negroes of the Southern States of America." Uncle Remus says truly that that is the fiddle; but for the true African dance, a dance not so much of legs and feet as of the upper half of the body, a sensual, devilish thing tolerated only by Latin-American masters, there was wanted the dark inspiration of African drums and the banjo's thrump and strum.

And then there was that long-drawn human cry of tremendous volume, richness, and resound, to which no instrument within their reach could make the faintest approach:

Eh! pou’ la belle Layotte ma mourri ’nocent,
 Oui ’nocent ma mourri!

all the instruments silent while it rises and swells with mighty energy and dies away distantly, "Yea-a-a-a-a-a!"—then the crash of savage drums, horns, and rattles—

For the fair Layotte I must crazy die!
 Yes, crazy I must die!

To all this, there was sometimes added a Pan's-pipe of but three reeds, made from single joints of the common brake cane, and called by English-speaking negroes "the quills." . . .

Such was the full band. All the values of contrast that discord can furnish must have been present, with whatever there is of ecstasy in maddening repetition, for of this the African can never have too much.

And yet there was entertaining variety. Where? In the dance! There was constant, exhilarating novelty—endless invention—in the turning, bowing, arm-swinging, posturing, and leaping of the dancers. Moreover, the music of Congo Plains was not tamed to mere monotone. Monotone became subordinate to many striking qualities. The strain was wild. Its contact with French taste gave it often great tenderness of sentiment. It grew in fervor, and rose and sank, and rose again, with the play of emotion in the singers and dancers.


III. THE GATHERING

It was a weird one. The negro of colonial Louisiana was a most grotesque figure. He was nearly naked. Often his neck and arms, thighs, shanks, and splay feet were shrunken, tough, sinewy like a monkey's. Sometimes it was scant diet and cruel labor that had made them so. Even the requirement of law was only that he should have not less than a barrel of corn—nothing else—a month, nor get more than thirty lashes to the twenty-four hours. The whole world was crueler those times than now; we must not judge them by our own.

Often the slave's attire was only a cotton shirt, or a pair of pantaloons hanging in indecent tatters to his naked waist. The bondwoman was well clad who had on as much as a coarse chemise and petticoat. To add a tignon—a Madras handkerchief twisted into a turban—was high gentility, and the number of kerchiefs beyond that one was the measure of absolute wealth. Some were rich in tignons; especially those who served within the house, and pleased the mistress, or even the master—there were Hagars in those days. However, Congo Plains did not gather the house servants so much as the "field-hands."

These came in troops. See them; wilder than gypsies; wilder than the Moors and Arabs whose strong blood and features one sees at a glance in so many of them; gangs,—as they were called,—gangs and gangs of them, from this and that and yonder direction; tall, well-knit Senegalese from Cape Verde, black as ebony, with intelligent, kindly eyes and long, straight, shapely noses; Mandingoes, from the Gambia River, lighter of color, of cruder form, and a cunning that shows in the countenance; whose enslavement seems specially a shame, their nation the "merchants of Africa," dwelling in towns, industrious, thrifty, skilled in commerce and husbandry, and expert in the working of metals, even to silver and gold; and Fulahs, playfully miscalled "Poulards"—fat chickens,—of goodly stature, and with a perceptible rose tint in the cheeks; and Sosos, famous warriors, dexterous with the African targe; and in contrast to these, with small ears, thick eyebrows, bright eyes, flat, upturned noses, shining skin, wide mouths and white teeth, the negroes of Guinea, true and unmixed, from the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast, and the Cape of Palms—not from the Grain Coast; the English had that trade. See them come! Popoes, Cotocolies, Fidas, Socoes, Agwas, short, copper-colored Mines—what havoc the slavers did make!—and from interior Africa others equally proud and warlike: fierce Nagoes and Fonds; tawny Awassas; Iboes, so light-colored that one could not tell them from mulattoes but for their national tattooing; and the half-civilized and quick-witted but ferocious Arada, the original Voudoo worshiper. And how many more! For here come, also, men and women from all that great Congo coast,—Angola, Malimbe, Ambrice, etc.,—small, good-natured, sprightly "boys," and gay, garrulous "gals," thick-lipped but not tattooed; chattering, chaffering, singing, and guffawing as they come: these are they for whom the dance and the place are named, the most numerous sort of negro in the colonies, the Congoes and Franc-Congoes, and though serpent worshipers, yet the gentlest and kindliest natures that came from Africa. Such was the company. Among these bossals—that is, native Africans—there was, of course, an ever-growing number of negroes who proudly called themselves Creole negroes, that is, born in America;[2] and at the present time there is only here and there an old native African to be met with, vain of his singularity and trembling on his staff.


IV. THE BAMBOULA

The gathering throng closed in around, leaving unoccupied the circle indicated by the crescent of musicians. The short, harsh turf was the dancing floor. The crowd stood. Fancy the picture. The pack of dark, tattered figures touched off every here and there with the bright colors of a Madras tignon. The squatting, cross-legged musicians. The low-roofed, embowered town off in front, with here and there a spire lifting a finger of feeble remonstrance; the flat, grassy plain stretching around and behind, dotted with black stumps; in the distance the pale-green willow undergrowth, behind it the cyprière—the cypress swamp—and in the pale, seven-times-heated sky the sun, only a little declined to south and westward, pouring down its beams.

With what particular musical movements the occasion began does not now appear. May be with very slow and measured ones; they had such that were strange and typical. I have heard the negroes sing one—though it was not of the dance-ground but of the cane-field—that showed the emphatic barbarism of five bars to the line, and was confined to four notes of the open horn.

But I can only say that with some such slow and quiet strain the dance may have been preluded. It suits the Ethiopian fancy for a beginning to be dull and repetitious; the bottom of the ladder must be on the ground.

The singers almost at the first note are many. At the end of the first line every voice is lifted up. The strain is given the second time with growing spirit. Yonder glistening black Hercules, who plants one foot forward, lifts his head and bare, shining chest, and rolls out the song from a mouth and throat like a cavern, is a candio, a chief, or was before he was over thrown in battle and dragged away, his village burning behind him, from the mountains of High Soudan. That is an African amulet that hangs about his neck—a greegree. He is of the Bambaras, as you may know by his solemn visage and the long tattoo streaks running down from the temples to the neck, broadest in the middle, like knife-gashes. See his play of restrained enthusiasm catch from one bystander to another. They swing and bow to right and left, in slow time to the piercing treble of the Congo women. Some are responsive! others are competitive. Hear that bare foot slap the ground! one sudden stroke only, as it were the foot of a stag. The musicians warm up at the sound. A smiting of breasts with open hands begins very softly and becomes vigorous. The women's voices rise to a tremulous intensity. Among the chorus of Franc-Congo singing-girls is one of extra good voice, who thrusts in, now and again, an improvisation. This girl here, so tall and straight, is a Yaloff. You see it in her almost Hindu features, and hear it in the plaintive melody of her voice. Now the chorus is more piercing than ever. The women clap their hands in time, or standing with arms akimbo receive with faint courtesies and head-liftings the low bows of the men, who deliver them swinging this way and that.

See! Yonder brisk and sinewy fellow has taken one short, nervy step into the ring, chanting with rising energy. Now he takes another, and stands and sings and looks here and there, rising upon his broad toes and sinking and rising again, with what wonderful lightness! How tall and lithe he is. Notice his brawn shining through his rags. He too is a candio, and by the three long rays of tattooing on each side of his face, a Kiamba. The music has got into his feet. He moves off to the farther edge of the circle, still singing, takes the prompt hand of an unsmiling Congo girl, leads her into the ring, and, leaving the chant to the throng, stands her before him for the dance.

Will they dance to that measure? Wait! A sudden frenzy seizes the musicians. The measure quickens, the swaying, attitudinizing crowd starts into extra activity, the female voices grow sharp and staccato, and suddenly the dance is the furious Bamboula.

Now for the frantic leaps! Now for frenzy! Another pair are in the ring! The man wears a belt of little bells, or, as a substitute, little tin vials of shot, "bram-bram sonnette!” And still another couple enter the circle. What wild—what terrible delight! The ecstasy rises to madness; one—two—three of the dancers fall—bloucoutoum! boum!—with foam on their lips and are dragged out by arms and legs from under the tumultuous feet of crowding newcomers. The musicians know no fatigue; still the dance rages on:

Quand patate la cuite na va mangé li

And all to that one nonsense line meaning only,

When that ’tater ’s cooked don’t you eat it up!

It was a frightful triumph of body over mind, even in those early days when the slave was still a genuine pagan; but as his moral education gave him some hint of its enormity, and it became a forbidden fruit monopolized by those of reprobate will, it grew everywhere more and more gross. No wonder the police stopped it in Congo Square. . . .

It is odd that such fantastical comicality of words should have been mated to such fierce and frantic dancing, but so it was. The reeking faces of the dancers, moreover, always solemnly grave. So we must picture it now if we still fancy ourselves spectators on Congo Plains. The bamboula still roars and rattles, twangs, contorts, and tumbles in terrible earnest, while we stand and talk. So, on and on.

  1. Owing to inability to secure permission from the publishers of Mr. Cable's works to include a selection from his short stories or his novels, I have availed myself of this vivid sketch of a characteristic feature of the old life of New Orleans. The article was originally contributed to the Century Magazine, Vol. XXXI, page 517.
  2. This broader use of the term is very common. The Creole "dialect" is the broken English of the Creoles, while the Creole patois is the corrupt French, not of the Creoles, but rather of the former slave race in the country of the Creoles. So of Creole negroes and Creole dances and songs. [Author's note.]