Share the Luck of the Irish in Jackson, Mississippi


By Tom Gordon

There are some of us—and I’m including myself in this shrinking  select group—who have yet to fully internalize the instinct to Google something when we want to know something about it.

There are times when that stance has its advantages. Years ago, I would read a thumbs-up review of a movie and want to go see it, but I would not get the chance until months later when it finally came to wherever I was living. By then, I had forgotten largely what the movie was about, other than it was supposed to be good, and so it was fun to go “discover” it and enjoy the exercise.

That’s what happened to me last year when I drove over to Jackson, Ms., for its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Friends of mine had been telling me for years that I should go, and so I figured it was probably fun. I could have googled it and found out, but I’m glad I made the voyage of discovery by going there, and I’ll be going again this year.

I don’t know how you say “wang dang doodle” in Irish, but St. Paddy’s in Jackson is all that, and more.

Last year, as I made the three and a half hour trip west along I-20 on the afternoon of March 16, I  thought it was neat that March 17 fell on a Saturday, and that it was an appropriately Irish kind of coincidence on the calendar for what was going to be the 30th edition of the Jackson parade.

My education started almost immediately after I hit town. My friend, Raad Cawthon, who was driving in from Pensacola, told me how to get to Hal & Mal’s, the popular restaurant/bar/club that is ground zero for parade activities. One of Hal & Mal’s partners, Malcolm White, founded the parade in 1983, and the joint was full of people with information about what was going on and when. I had a couple of beers, bought one of  the green and white tee shirts on sale, and visited with another friend, Bill Nichols, who had come in from Washington, D.C., with his wife and two young sons.

At some point, I learned that something akin to a pre-parade—organizers call it the Marching MALfunction and Second Line Stomp—was on tap for that evening, and that trolleys would take participants to the starting point, CS’s, a popular eatery near Millsaps College known for its InezBurger. I boarded one of the trolleys and when  we pulled in front of CS’s, a crowd of several hundred already had gathered. Standing along the side of the building was a short young man, more innocent-looking than impish, with a bright red beard and a green mad hatter’s hat. Out back, members of the locally based Southern Komfort Brass Band were putting their marching faces on. When  they started doing what brass bands do best, the rest of us joined them. Raad was in the ranks of the strutters along with his son Jacob, who had come in from Athens, Ga., and brought along his nearly 3-year-old son, Tucker.

Before the evening ended, I booked a room in a local downtown hotel, and it did not escape my notice that its lobby was bedecked in green and that more than a few of its guests were in town for the parade. When morning came, I noticed hotel staffers setting up a site for an outdoors St. Pat’s Day party, and variations of the same green scene appeared along my route back to the vicinity of Hal & Mal’s.

There was much more to come, and it was not hard to find. Still woefully under-dressed for the occasion, I walked under a canopy where, for the first time ever in my life, I let a lady paint a gaudy design on my face. I wandered around the parade’s starting point at the corner of State Street and Court Street, and saw a camel outfitted with green sunglasses and tassels. I saw floats paying tribute to football, grits, and other Southern staples, in keeping with the 2012 parade theme of “That’s What I Like About the South.”

Strikingly dressed women were everywhere, many in various shades of green.  One group,  because of the common color of their outfits, were probably members of a local krewe and reminded me of a big bowl of lime Jello. Many of them wore wide brimmed hats and fabrics that were more sheer than concealing. One of their members, who had a green wet mop wig on her head and green butterfly wings on her back, carried a green water noodle and wore a short skirt with long green-and-white ringed stockings.

When the parade began, I was not certain of the protocol was, but nobody stopped me from joining Raad in the front ranks. He, Bill Nichols, Malcolm White, Malcolm’s brother Hal (the Hal of Hal & Mal’s) and other guys were wearing coats, hats, sashes, shamrock shades, buttons, beads and other regalia befitting their membership in what I later learned was a group called the O’Tux Society. Some of the O’Tuxers moved in time to the music booming from New Orleans’ Young Pinstripe Brass Band, some marched to beats of their own, and many of them handed out paper carnations to onlookers, sometimes getting kisses in exchange. Folks who were on the floats were tossing beads.

Yes, there was a funky, Mardi Gras feeling in the air, and Jackson was clearly enjoying itself. Along much of the parade route, folks were three, four, five deep, or even more numerous, and some onlookers wore outfits that rivaled those of parade participants. Along various stretches, I could see party tent canopies, RVs and office parking lots where folks had been tailgating, and parents holding up small children so they could receive a carnation. Overall, White said later, the turnout was about 70,000.

It was, to put it mildly, a spectacle. And after the parade had ended, the festivities were to continue, on a smaller scale, at hotels, clubs, offices and homes.

A few helpful facts are in order, and some background.

First, the big Saturday throw-down is formally called Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade, and it has an informative website, malsstpaddysparade.com. It is held on the third Saturday in March, and this year’s edition will be on March 16. The parade has had a theme for most of its existence,  and this year’s will be “Waters, Waters, Everywhere,” in honor of Mississippi painter Wyatt Waters, who will be the grand marshal. In addition to the big parade itself, the day’s activities include a road race,  a children’s festival and pet parade, and a street dance/party around Hal & Mal’s. The Alabama Shakes are booked for this year’s gig.

How did this great event come about? And why? Malcolm White, the founder, had an answer that was like a stream fed by many sources. Among them: his love as a native Mississippian for his state’s cultural richness; his desire as a promoter to give it a big stage in Jackson and draw a stew of cash for the local economy, and his motivation, as a citizen, to use part of the parade’s float fees and other proceeds to benefit Batson Children’s Hospital, Mississippi’s only hospital for children. (The Jackson-based hospital and the parade forged an alliance in 1986. Since then, the parade and its related activities have raised about $375,000 for the facility.)

“I’ve always said from the very beginning it was a people’s parade,” White told me late last year, when he was director of the Mississippi Arts Commission and about to become head of the Mississippi Development Authority’s tourism operation. “You did not have to go join an organization or be of a certain status to participate. It was open to the public, the more creative the better,  and so people have taken me up on that. They’ve created their own krewes, their own clubs, their own entries, and their own  ideas. Every year, I suggest a theme and some people just sort of play off of it and others ignore it and that‘s fine.”

White calls the parade “a very wacky” combination of Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, and, especially, the rites of spring.

“People have been cooped up,” White said, “and you know, we’re not the kind of people who are accustomed to being cooped up … and we go through these winters and comes March, you know, and the flowers begin to bloom, the trees bud, and the birds start singing and the sun starts shining and everybody’s real  excited about the coming of spring and summer.

“People here love it because it’s not something we share with Memphis, it’s not something we share with New Orleans, it’s not something we share with Birmingham, it’s not something we share with Little Rock, it’s uniquely Jackson … It’s who we are, it’s what we do, and we make fun of ourselves, we poke fun at politicians,  we laugh, we put on costumes, we drink  a few beers, we invite people to come see us.”

Some of those who were present at the creation recall the first parade as an impromptu, spur of the moment thing. White said it was planned and permitted, just like the much larger event is today, but it took place at an attention-getting time of day.

“It  was a Thursday afternoon during rush hour and I applied for and was granted a permit  to shut downtown Jackson down and parade through rush hour traffic and It caused an enormous stink,” he said. “Everybody had to kinda talk about this parade because of this ‘quote unquote’ snafu of giving me a permit during rush hour during a work day … We were parading through the streets and there were thousands  and thousands of people sort of held hostage, honking their horns, waving at us, and we thought it was admiration. And it turns out they were pissed.”

White, who has a background of promoting and booking bands and shows, said he used the “stink” to give the parade a more palatable scent. He said he began talking about the next year’s edition, and moved it to a Saturday, which is where it has been ever since.

My friend Raad, who has marched in most of the parades, even though most of the time he has been living outside of Jackson, said they never fail to stun him.

“Until you see it, you don’t get it,” he said. “If you want to go to Savannah and march in the parade, I’m  not sure how you do that. If you want to go to Boston and march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, it’s probably pretty complicated.  If you want to come to Jackson and put an outfit of some kind and get out and walk in the parade, come ahead, you know. You can be part of it.”

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