Cicero, the Roman author and philosopher (106 – 43 B.C) noted: “No sober person dances.”
Cicero would have been right at home in Mobile, where, at certain times and places, there seem to be no sober persons. This old town has a long history of a swig and a jig. As early as the 1690s, the French explorer André Pénicault recorded “boy and girl dances” among local Indian tribes. Sometimes the partying, with breaks for rest and romance, lasted for weeks.
One could argue, the tradition of celebrating has never, ever ended here.
The Rise of a European Tradition
In the Colonial Era, the French (1703 – 1765) danced the cotillion, the quadrille and, perhaps even the scandalous waltz. The cotillion was an elaborate dance with frequent changing of partners carried out under the leadership of one couple at formal balls, and the similar quadrille was an early ancestor of the square dance. Music for those occasions would have been provided by guitar or flute, along with some form of percussion instrument.
The Spanish (1780 – 1813) were fond of the Mexican version of the quadrille and the fandango, which was an energetic triple-time jig, as well as the earlier French dances.
The New American Venues
Early American Mobile was a place to make your fortune, and while dancing was no way to do that, trading cotton was, and the city grew rapidly as a major exporter. By the 1830s, wealthy cotton merchants began building gracious homes, some large enough to accommodate dancing. Today, we can still see an example of an elegant ballroom in Stewartfield (circa 1850) on the Spring Hill College campus. (For photos inside the exquisite historic room, click here.)
In 1839, antebellum Mobile also kicked up the fun when The Alhambra opened at 52 Dauphin and Royal streets, in the middle of the block bounded by Royal, Conti, St. Emanuel and Dauphin streets. It had an ample bar, and, most importantly, a large ballroom on the second floor. There Mobilians hosted dances, with music provided by “colored musicians” dressed in “Moorish costumes.” The Alhambra later became The Corinthian, and finally the Mammoth Hall. (A fire destroyed it in 1869.) The Alhambra crowd also gathered at the various fire companies where balls were held for members and guests. The oldest of these was The Creole Fire Company, founded in 1819 by Mobile’s Creole community.
For the less well-heeled and respectable, the grog shops and Spanish Alley businesses downtown were where seamen and laborers enjoyed raucous times.
During the 19th century, Mobilians danced several varieties of the waltz, the Virginia reel, schottische, and the two-step. Society leader Octavia LeVert taught her friends the polka, and it became popular before the Civil War.
Civil War to the Turn of the Century
During the war and later in Reconstruction, Mobile tried to retain its sociable character. Dancing barely paused. Indeed, the frequent balls, were viewed as a good way to raise money for wounded Confederate soldiers recuperating in city hospitals. The festivities were sober affairs, however. Alcoholic beverages were early casualities of the war, and the dry spell continued for four long years.
In 1867, during the Reconstruction period, Joe Cain, dressed as Chief Slacabamarinico, rekindled a celebratory spirit in Mobile as he paraded through the streets. Within just over a decade, new societies were holding parades and balls in the Mardi Gras season.
The celebrations of Twelfth Night (Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6), involved merry balls as well, especially on New Year’s Eve. (Eventually, only the Strikers continued the tradition of a New Year’s Eve formal ball.)
More opportunities to dance gave rise to more places to entertain the revelers. The German Relief Hall (1896), a popular venue, was built on the corner of Conti and St. Emmanuel streets. The Fidelia Club, on Government Street, where the city county building now stands, opened in 1900.
A Favorite Pastime Modernizes
Late in the 19th century, as dance styles became less formal and more accessible to the masses, dances were held at Monroe and Dixie parks. The former was for whites, the latter for blacks. There were new bands to play the music: the Drago Band at Monroe and members of the Excelsior Band and other groups at Dixie, which was located north of Davis Avenue (MLK) at Three Mile Creek. There were also dance parties at the casino in Fairhope, and sometimes on the bay boats themselves on the way across. Prohibition in the early 20th century put a damper on drinking (and dancing) in Mobile, but the city was never to be thirsty for long, thanks to well-organized bootleggers!
After World War I, there were late afternoon tea dances held at the Cawthon Hotel, a quite respectable venue. The 20th century also saw the creation of orchestras, instead of marching bands. Bill Lagman’s Crescent City Orchestra was the most popular, playing jazz and ragtime in the ’20s and big band music starting in the ’30s. The group played for 50 years. (Lagman died in 1976.) In the 1950s, Bob Schultz and E.B. Coleman organized big band musicians.
But the young people of the 1950s were also listening to Top 40 rock ’n’ roll music, chosen by popular local DJs such as Jimmy Morris on WKRG-AM radio. Gradually, small bands edged out the old orchestras, even at Mardi Gras balls. As the color bar was dropped in the 1960s and after, black clubs suffered as their patrons began to party at the bars along Dauphin Street. One very notable exception was the Harlem Duke Social Club, located in Bull’s Head on St. Stephens Road. Opened in the 1950s, it brought the African American stars of jazz and rhythm and blues, such as B.B. King, Ray Charles and James Brown, to the area. Owned by Ethel and Tom Couch, it had a bar and served food. On their sawdust floor, folks could dance the modern swing-style, acrobatic jitterbug or still popular Lindy Hop, named for Charles Lindbergh’s “hop” over the Atlantic. Though it was considered a black club, whites came to sample the “forbidden” music. The incomparable club closed in 1987 and burned down in the last year.
Today, there are many places to dance to live and recorded music of any genre while enjoying an adult beverage. Perhaps, this Mardi Gras season, you’ll cut a rug too at one of the many Carnival organizations’ formal affairs. Cicero would certainly recognize this town, even if he didn’t know our music.
text by Michael Thomason