End of an Era: Reflections on the Passing of Uncle Lionel

Now that Uncle Lionel is in the ground I feel like I can finally talk about an issue that disturbed me greatly during the roughly two weeks of celebrations, some planned and some spontaneous, of his remarkable life. Blog, twitter and facebook wars raged about the propriety of the celebrations, with complaints ranging from the exploitation of Mr. Batiste’s name and likeness to the controversy over postings of photos of his embalmed body in a standing position at the wake. In an absurd landscape worthy of Sartre the internet went viral over the subject of the internet going viral about Uncle Lionel. I unfortunately got caught up in it myself, which felt like a disservice to him. I stopped talking about it online but now I feel I can say my piece.

Uncle Lionel Batiste at Mardi Gras

Uncle Lionel Batiste at Mardi Gras, credit Wikimedia Commons

First of all, aside from the wishes of the immediate family which should always be considered and which I think were ultimately served in this case, I have to say that anyone who objects to anyone else taking a picture of Uncle Lionel or taking a picture of other people with or around Uncle Lionel is a little late to the game because nobody I’ve ever known enjoyed his picture being taken more than Uncle Lionel.

Some took the second lines celebrating his death as an opportunity to question the validity of second lines in general. Certainly the solemn decorum of the funeral procession that preceeds the second line has changed somewhat over the years, although there’s a clear difference between a second line to celebrate someone’s memory and the actual funeral procession, in which traditional decorum is still observed. Inevitably, the question of who does and does not belong in second lines becomes tied up with the tricky question of identity in New Orleans.

I think the hard proof of this fact can be determined by comparing the reaction to Coco Robicheaux’s death with Uncle Lionel’s. Both were fixtures on Frenchmen Street who were loved by many locals yet especially by the tourists who they always had time for. Coco didn’t inspire the large number of impromptu second lines that took place for Uncle Lionel, but Coco’s roots in the community didn’t go as deep as the man whose family has been at the center of funeral parades and second lines for generations. Coco’s official second line was a wild event that basically took over the French Quarter on the afternoon it was held. There was plenty of home video being made on hand held devices and absolutely no question that many of the people marching that day were there for the party and not necessarily because they knew Coco. Everybody had a good time and that was enough. Still, it was a party; however there was no controversy about that event.

The Uncle Lionel second line through Treme and down North Rampart Street on Friday July 13 was every bit as joyous. People smiled and hugged each other. Brass bands played and everyone danced. I saw many friends, hugged and greeted them. But people I didn’t know also willingly shared the moment with me, shaking hands, fist bumping and generally agreeing on how good it was to see it happening. Then, after it was over, criticism arose, filling up the landscape with the stealthy inevitability of a failed levee system. The root of the criticism seemed to be that certain people at the event didn’t belong there. It’s an easily defensible position because it immediately dovetails with the important and very real discussion of gentrification in New Orleans. In some instances the conversation was fueled by people’s grief over the hard fact that Uncle Lionel will no longer be around to brighten our lives. I also think the fact that Uncle Lionel passed within a year of Coco’s departure compounded the sense that a glorious era of New Orleans history when Frenchmen Street became the place to be had ended. There’s no arguing that that Frenchmen Street will never be the same. More importantly, Uncle Lionel was one of the last links to the early days of New Orleans jazz. Though he was a generation younger than the music’s founders, he knew and played with many of them. It’s no wonder there was an undercurrent of inconsolable loss just beneath the surface of the celebration.

  • Patrick

    Hello John–I think you spoke to the issue in a way which resonates with me. I am a New Orleans musician who has only lived here for a year. I did attend Coco’s second line although I had never met the man and I had mixed feelings about how it went down. I of course knew of Uncle Lionel’s iconic status in the music community here, but had never met the man in person as well. I decided to not attend Uncle Lionel’s second line(s) because it didn’t feel right to me. I try to make no judgments as to the motives of those who did attend. My desire is to honor the memory of Uncle Lionel by being a joyful representative in my own way of the New Orleans Music Community. All the best to Uncle Lionel’s family and friends.         

  • Gary

    Hey John, Your clever and well thought out comparison of Coco’s second line and Uncle Lionel’s rainsoaked parade does sort of “tie it all together.” Unc never denied a picture. I was too jet lagged to make the wake. I was at the Theater for the funeral. I sat next to Al “CT” Johnson. Al’s thoughts were about the same as yours: End of an era! I took no pictures. My friend, J R Thomason was running the video camera, I assume for the family.  Deacon John was magnificent. Kermit Ruffins and the band were totally locked in to the moment. So many things were “over the top” except the funeral director interrupting to remind folks to refrain from photography. I didn’t see Mr. Henry Youngblood, I assume that he was there. Kenny Terry of the Treme Brass Band was pushing to have the second line, rain be damned. To those musicians and friends, it was an obligation to give Lionel the tribute that he would have been part of if it were another musician’s funeral. 

  • Gary

    Hey John, Your clever and well thought out comparison of Coco’s second line and Uncle Lionel’s rainsoaked parade does sort of “tie it all together.” Unc never denied a picture. I was too jet lagged to make the wake. I was at the Theater for the funeral. I sat next to Al “CT” Johnson. Al’s thoughts were about the same as yours: End of an era! I took no pictures. My friend, J R Thomason was running the video camera, I assume for the family.  Deacon John was magnificent. Kermit Ruffins and the band were totally locked in to the moment. So many things were “over the top” except the funeral director interrupting to remind folks to refrain from photography. I didn’t see Mr. Henry Youngblood, I assume that he was there. Kenny Terry of the Treme Brass Band was pushing to have the second line, rain be damned. To those musicians and friends, it was an obligation to give Lionel the tribute that he would have been part of if it were another musician’s funeral. 

  • Anonymous

    Trying to regulate who attends and participates is impossible, and contrary to the open and inclusive spirit of New Orleans. We can only hope, and all try to convey, that someone’s death, while a good reason to celebrate, should be more than just an excuse to party, particularly for folks who had no personal connection to the deceased or their family. The hangers on at Uncle Lionel’s parades just reflect the times, with lots of rootless, disconnected people, especially we who have white skin and can at times be incredibly clueless. But then again, what better opportunity for such people to learn?

  • Kmsoap

    Uncle Lionel had one foot in Tremé and the other in the Marigny, and was adored in both neighborhoods.  Any of the confusion that arose in terms of the appropriateness of attendees is likely rooted there.  

    As it did for many of us, the storm changed his residence and surroundings, but did not change Uncle Lionel, who always had a kind word and a story for anyone fortunate enough to cross his elegant path.  His reach extended beyond our city, to Paris, to Norway and other nations.  Filmmakers from Spike Lee to David Simon tapped him as an authentic representative of New Orleans culture.
    The passing of Uncle Lionel and Coco Robicheaux, along with other physical loss of places such as the old Hubig’s Pie Factory today, all chip away at our unique and ever evolving culture.  If we are to sustain it, we have to forever expand our reach, much as Uncle Lionel did.

  • Bedico

    I was awakened by the Hubig’s Pie building fire at 4:30am. I watched it blaze up and finally contained. Luckily, it seems that the buildings on the other side and in the back were spared. My balcony is about 75 feet from the Hubig side wall. It was very hot. The NW wind blew the heat and smoke away from my building.
    So, there goes another “era” loss. We do  hope that Hubig’s Pie will return to the Marigny.

  • Writemspearl

    WOW ! Well written.Informative and you touched on subjects I didn’t dare mention.
    I went to the first second line but some people were very pushy not wanting others to be there.
    I filmed things I would never show.
    I see it like this I have family members who are jerks everyone does. when the second line got to The Bywater area home of The Black Men Of Labor and other area clubs. No one could keep the people away. I’m 63 and I have never seen a second line where the community was discouraged and I hope I never see that again,It was beautiful tho. I filmed it. I’m one of-the many people photographed with Lionel Batiste.I saw him many times but don’t profess to know his heart but I believe he would have welcomed everyone. I’m so glad I have had  the opportunity to be around people like him Co Co Robichaeux and other talented people. I made some great films of them both.I hope people can appreciate the ones we have left.Go see their performance tip
    and be grateful.I have a art colony and host artists from all over America and the world.
    We are very fortunate to be surrounded by so much talent.
    MS Pearl
     buskersbunkhouse.com
    I have a facebook fan club for them both