The Philadelphia Mummers Parade is a renowned tradition that traces its roots to before the city was founded. The daylong event is held every New Year’s Day (weather permitting) and is the oldest folk parade in America. 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 an 8.7 household rating over the years it has been broadcast on myphl17.
This year marks the 112th edition of the parade, which will proceed north on South Broad Street to 15th and Market, the site of myphl17’s broadcast center, and the location of the reviewing stands where judging takes place.
The Mummers tradition dates back to 400 B.C. and the Roman festival of Saturnalia, 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 club traditions 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 Year’s Day in Philadelphia date back before the revolution. Prizes were offered by merchants in the late 1800s. Jan. 1, 1901 was the first “official” parade, offering 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 Mummers 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 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, N.Y. 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 Bland, 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, Bland 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, where he died of 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 mis-credited 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, 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 those 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 for the first time in 13 years, and there have been 22 weather-related postponements since 1922. There was no parade in 1919 due to World War 1, and none in 1934 due to the Depression and the lack of prize money. If postponed, this year’s event will take place on Jan. 2.
The 112th annual Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day will run from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will start at Oregon Avenue and end at JFK Boulevard (new this year). The public event is free along the main route; $17 for Fancy Brigade shows at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 12th and Arch streets. For more information, visit www.mummers.com.
Contact Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.