On January 1, 2014, the Mummers will make their 114th strut up Broad Street in the city’s annual New Year’s Day parade.
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade is a renowned tradition that traces its roots to before the city was founded. The daylong annual event is held every New Year's Day (weather permitting) and is the oldest folk parade in America. There are two components to the day-long parade: a festive march up Broad Street that begins in South Philadelphia and ends at City Hall for four of the Mummers divisions (Comics, Wench Brigades, Fancies and String Bands) and two indoor performances (at 12:00 noon and at 5:00 p.m.) at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the Fancy Brigades, who put on two elaborate Broadway-style performances for ticket holders.
The annual Parade is a celebration of the New Year but is serious business in Philadelphia. For many years, the Parade has been the most watched television program in the region on New Year’s Day averaging a 8.7 household rating over the years it has been broadcast on myphl17.
Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange. The Mummers are organized into four distinct types of groups: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. All dress in elaborate costumes and incorporate the costumes of the many ethnic groups that have influenced American culture. This included Celtic variations of “trick-or-treat” and Druidic noise-making to drive away demons for the new year. Comic clubs tradition stem from the ancient Greek god Momus who was the personification of mockery, blame, ridicule, scorn, raillery and stinging criticism. Momus was expelled from heaven for his/her criticisms and ridicule of the gods.
Reports of rowdy groups “parading” on New Years day in Philadelphia date back before the revolution. Prizes were offered by merchants in the late 1800′s. January 1, 1901 was the first “official” parade offered about $1,725 in prize money from the city.
The parade's pre-colonial roots have been traced to the New Year's celebrations of Northern European and African-American settlers in the mid-1600s. According to the documentary, "Strut," the influence of Southern plantation life is evident in the cakewalk-like "strut" that is the Mummer's signature dance—which is usually performed to African American composer James A. Bland's "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," a 19th century minstrel song that is played and sung all day long.
James "Jimmy" Bland was the greatest and most prolific African-American songwriter of the late 1800s. His tune, "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," is a minstrel show song set in the style of a spiritual. The song's first stanza tells of the protagonist setting aside such fine clothes as golden slippers, a long-tailed coat and a white robe for a chariot ride in the morning (presumably to Heaven).
Born in Flushing, New York in 1854, Bland grew up in a family with rare educational advantages. His father, Allen Bland, a free Black from South Carolina, had attended Oberlin, then graduated from Wilberforce before moving his young family to Philadelphia where James, according to legend, first heard an elderly Black street musician and fell in love with the banjo. Bland composed anywhere from 600 to 700 popular songs and was glowingly referred to as "The Best Ethiopian Song Writer in the World" and "The Prince of the Colored Song Writers." However, he was a poor money manager.
In 1881, James traveled to England as a member of the Callender-Haverly Minstrels. They were very popular and were highlighted before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. At that time, he was making about $10,000 a year, which was quite a bit of money for those years, but Bland was careless about his money. Penniless, he managed to return to the U.S. where a friend got him a job in Washington, D.C. From there he moved to Philadelphia, PA, where he died from tuberculosis on May 5, 1911.
Bland was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave just outside the city. For over 25 years his memory languished as he faded into obscurity while some of his songs where miscredited to Stephen Foster or John Philip Sousa. Eventually, one of Bland's surviving sisters shared with a reporter the suspected whereabouts of Bland's grave in Merion Cemetery at the corner of Rock Hill Road and Bryn Mawr Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., only miles from where the Mummers continue to march in Philadelphia.
In 1939, ASCAP found his gravesite, landscaped it and erected a granite monument. In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. A musical scholarship sponsored by the Lions Club continues to this day.
The Mummers Parade still manages to draw controversy. The comic clubs continue to raise ire over the themes they use in the parade that make fun of current issues and news stories such as issues involving religion, ethnicity and feminism. Women were not officially allowed in the Parade until the 1970s and the wearing of black face paint was once a traditional part of the parade until protests from civil rights groups and the African American community led to most clubs phasing out blackface in the early 1960s. While a 1964 city policy officially ruled out blackface, some still appears in the Parade. The outdoor parade was postponed in 2003, the first time in 13 years, and there have been 22 weather-related postponements since 1922. There was no parade in 1919 due to WWI and in 1934 due to the depression and the lack of prize money.
The making of the Mummers spectacle is on full view in Visit Philadelphia's Behind the Sequins: Showtime for the Philadelphia Mummers video series. Six free-standing videos tell the Mummers’ story through the people who make the costumes, choreograph the routines, build the sets and march in the parade.
The 114th Annual Mummers Parade On New Year’s Day takes place January 1, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The Parade runs along Broad Street, starting at Oregon Avenue and ending at JFK Boulevard. The public event is free along main route. Tickets for parade bleacher seating at City Hall (15th & Market Streets) and for the Fancy Brigade Finales are available at the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market Streets, (215) 965-7676. For more information, visit www.mummers.com.