Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade draws thousands to Jackson, and for over 25 years Charly Abraham has played a pivotal role in bringing the spectacular procession to life. In this interview, Abraham shares his insights into the behind-the-scenes happenings that come together to bring about Jackson’s signature annual event.
When do the organizers begin to put the parade together? Is a schedule in place by now?
Not really. Malcolm and I might mention it once or twice from April to December if we happen to see each other. Malcolm usually comes up with a theme and a Grand Marshal before the New Year starts. We really try to have everything as far as the public is concerned (theme, Grand Marshal, application, route) in place by the second week of January. The smaller details are covered as we can find the time. Remember that this event isn’t anyone’s main job; we do it because we love it. By the way, the official trademarked name of the event is “Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade”. I see it called every possible variation, but it actually does have its own title.
Who are the primary people involved in the actual development and eventual operation of the parade?
Keep in mind that the parade is a multi-legged creature, with the big parade, the race, all the children and family events and the post-parade street dance. For 20 years or so, I pretty much ran it all. Since I am no longer at Hal & Mal’s (or in Jackson for that matter), my role has gradually diminished, a change that makes me happy. My life at Delta State University is so busy I have minimal time for anything else – particularly since the parade doesn’t fall on spring break week any more. As it stands now, I run everything from 7:00 a.m. until the end of the parade. My staff consists of Bob McFarland, who runs all of the kids’ events, Elton Moore, who handles all vendors, and Chuck Bryan, who handles float lineup. Captain Steve Bailey with the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office oversees security in the lineup area and at Hal & Mal’s. Of course, the Batson folks at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children handle the parade registration, and are there to check in participants as they arrive. All of these people have all been with this thing as long as I have, so they know their jobs extremely well. In fact, if we all do our jobs right in the planning stage, everything runs like clockwork. I don’t actually do much on parade day except handle the few problems that arise and make a few command decisions. I like to go watch the pet parade at 10:00 a.m.; it’s my favorite part of the whole event. Since I no longer work at Hal & Mal’s, when the parade is over, my role is over, and everything switches to Commerce Street. For the last couple of years, Arden Barnett has booked the street dance, and the folks at H&M’s handle all the logistics of the post-parade events. Hal & Mal’s is also in charge of the Friday night parade, which has never been my responsibility.
Any parade in any municipality requires the cooperation of local authorities, notably law enforcement and sanitation. As Mal’s St. Paddy’s parade has grown, how have the organizers’ relationships with the city of Jackson developed?
We have a great relationship with the city. Henry Brown is the special events coordinator with the Jackson Police Department and the city. I’ll chat with him several times by phone starting around October and meet once with the city special events committee. The city folks pretty much know their job, which is huge, and they handle it well. They seal off the city to most traffic early in the morning and handle traffic control all day. Once the parade leaves the lineup area, it is completely in the control of JPD; it is no longer our event. They secure the parade route to protect participants and observers. In addition to JPD, City Services puts out a mile of barricades, and Sanitation starts sweeping the streets as soon as the last float leaves. Trustees from the County Farm come in early on Sunday morning and clean the area around Hal & Mal’s and the Fairgrounds. We also hire an independent cleanup crew to hit any hot spots. It is important that every trace of the parade be gone by noon Sunday.
What are the biggest headaches year-to-year, and how do you deal with them?
The biggest headache without a doubt, year in and year out, is insurance. Fewer and fewer companies write event insurance, and the price is astronomical.
How many krewes are involved in the parade? Are most of them associated with businesses or are they private groups? Where are they from?
The parade is limited to 50 floats, and we usually end up with about 47. I guess you can call them all krewes. There are also the marching krewes that have been with us forever: the O’Tux Society, which is Malcolm’s krewe, is the only local men’s marching krewe. Some years an all-male krewe from the Gulf Coast shows up. There are mostly female marching krewes; the oldest is Krewe of Kazoo, then the Green Ladies, and a recent addition, nugget league of mayhem (lower case correct). A few are businesses, but most are just groups of people having fun. Almost all are from the Jackson area. In election years, there are usually several political candidates. Governor Barbour used to bring his horse group. That was actually kind of cool. I should also mention the Knights of Columbus Color Guard; they aren’t exactly a “krewe,” but they have been in front of the parade for as long as I have been around.
How do the representatives of the parade krewes work with the organizers? Is there a set marching order for the krewes or is that order determined on a year-to-year basis?
We have one “float” meeting every year that I conduct about a month before the parade. Every krewe is required to have at least one representative there. I go over basic rules, particularly any new rules, discuss problems of the previous year and try to answer questions new krewes may have. Most of the krewes have been around so long they can answer the questions better than I can. As far as parade order, only the color guard, bands, Grand Marshal and marching groups at the very front are pre-programmed. Otherwise, the float order depends on arrival time: the earlier you get there, the closer to the front you are.
Have the specifications for the size of floats, personnel and vehicles been hammered out?
Absolutely – many years ago. The rules and regulations and the parade application are all included in a package available at Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade and at various other places around the ‘Net. I post it on Facebook every year as well. Floats are inspected in the lineup area by representatives of the Jackson Police Department, the Jackson Fire Department and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office. They are checked for safety violations, skirting, fire extinguishers, driver’s licenses, insurance, etc.
What role do the people at Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children play?
The Batson folks are wonderful. They play a role in the lives of Mississippians every day. They treat our children in Mississippi for severe illnesses and injuries regardless of the family’s ability to pay. But your question is about the parade. The hospital gang has several roles. Tena McKenzie, who runs the Office of Development there, is the central data center for the parade “Players” list, which is a group of about 40 people who have roles in one way or another. That would include sponsors, media people, all the city services, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Mississippi Museum of Art; the list goes on. We have two luncheons where a great deal of behind-the-scenes work takes place, where we all meet face to face. The hospital, as I mentioned earlier, also handles registration for all krewes. Their people are present bright and early on parade morning and check in participants in the lineup area. They also bring a large group of people to run the “city sweep,” which is maybe the most important part of the parade. The city sweep consists of vehicles, golf carts, radio vans, employees, volunteers, patients, Star Wars characters, and anyone else who wants to play, and leaves the lineup area 30 minutes before the parade starts. They pass the bucket for donations and sell t-shirts, just about anything to raise money. I encourage everyone to take an extra fiver or larger, to drop in the bucket; you can’t beat this cause. The hospital also manages the race, and they are the beneficiary of the event as well.
How is media involved in the development of the parade?
Media is mostly donated. The Clarion Ledger has been a corporate sponsor for many years, so Sherry Lucas always gets first shot at news stories. When they had more people working, they would take an active role in events. Now they really don’t have the personnel to do as much. Radio stations are given access to anything they want. We don’t actually buy radio time, but we welcome their involvement on whatever level they want. Most put vans or other vehicles in the parade or help with the city sweep. The Jackson Free Press always has extensive pre-parade coverage, and Portico Jackson usually has a green-themed issue in March. The local TV stations differ from year to year. Some years they are all over it, some years they don’t seem interested. I suspect that has to do with ever-changing news directors and reporters who aren’t familiar with the event. WAPT has recently been a sponsor for the Children’s Festival.
What lessons in human nature have you learned in your many years of working on the parade?
To be honest, I have had nothing but good experiences working on the parade. Everyone wants it to succeed and remain a part of Jackson’s culture. That includes the city of Jackson’s administration. Everyone comes to have fun, including the parade organizers. Anytime there is a crowd of forty or fifty thousand people in one location there are bound to be a few people misbehaving, but those types of problems seem to be minimal.
The blues have shaped American music for over a century, and many people the world over consider blues music Mississippi’s greatest contribution to global culture.
In recognition of this distinction, the state created the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC) in 2005. Its original charter established a statewide Blues Trail, but it soon became clear that more was needed than just historical sites and signs. As Rep. Willie Bailey explains, “When the Blues Commission started putting up Trail markers across the state we discovered that many grassroots blues pioneers, artists and musicians were experiencing hardships due to misfortune and poverty.”
“The markers allowed the state to profit on tourism from an art form kept alive by these faithful souls,” Bailey said. “But as the Commission carried on its work, there were requests from destitute artists for a little help to get through hard times.” Bailey pointed out that back then there was no legal way for the Blues Commission to respond to their needs, but the Legislature passed the necessary legislation allowing the Commission to act. In 2010, the Mississippi Blues Commission was authorized “to raise and expend grant funds to provide assistance to any blues musician in need.” The Blues Benevolent Committee was created to oversee the distribution of these funds. Now any established blues musician in need can apply for up to $1,000 in a 12-month period.
Dr. Edgar Smith, chairman of the Blues Benevolent Committee, said, “As a son of the Delta, I am keenly aware of the challenges that confront these artists on a daily basis. Many blues musicians, especially the older ones, have no health insurance and no other source of income other than what they get from blues gigs. It’s appropriate for Mississippi to have some mechanism for assisting the people from whom the blues derived. The Benevolence Fund represents the effort of on the part of the Mississippi Blues Commission to address this issue. I envision a future in which this effort will become the major focus of the MBC to the extent that it will approach the scale of the Music Maker Relief Foundation of Hillsborough, NC.”
The Music Maker Relief Foundation, founded in 1994, helps support elder blues and Appalachian artists. Their Musician Sustenance Program provides monthly stipends (typically $50 – $200), grants for emergencies and periodic needs for health care as well as other services. In 2012-13, Music Maker’s budget exceeded $630,000.
The Mississippi Blues Foundation, the fundraising arm of the MBC, spearheads efforts to secure money for the Blues Benevolent Committee’s separate grants fund. Most funds come from private donations, but the sale of car tags and donations from the annual Mississippi Blues Marathon also contribute to the fund. John Noblin, director of the marathon, said that the marathon is on the fast track to help.
“We have included a specific donation option for participants on the registration form because we want to generate money earmarked for the Benevolent Committee,” Noblin said. “In years we’ve made a $10,000 donation to the Mississippi Blues Commission in general. But contributing directly to the Benevolent Committee was the perfect way to tie in with the wellness component and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi’s involvement because it covers financial shortfalls with health-related issues.”
To date, the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Committee has awarded grants totaling $16,000to 18 artists, including James “T-Model” Ford; “Cadillac” John Nolden; Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt; Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry; Jim O’Neal, producer and a co-founder of Living Blues magazine; Duff Dorrough, founding member of The Tangents; and Eddie “Chank” Willis, winner of the 2013 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in music.
Malcolm White, former director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said, “The blues is based on hard times, and for many years the cultural and heritage movements in Mississippi have sought to honor these artists and support them when hard times come back around. Now that the Benevolent Committee has been established under Dr. Smith’s leadership and persistence, we have finally put our money where our mouths are.”
“Helping our native sons and daughters is the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “To come to the aid of suffering blues artists and musicians expresses Mississippi’s appreciation and recognition of their contributions to this native art form. We don’t want them standing on a corner with a cup begging, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’”
“People talk about keeping the blues alive,” Smith said, “but we need to keep these people alive, too.”
(For more information about the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Fund, contact Dr. Edgar Smith at: 601-713-2756)