Hoop Skirts and Jazz

I am clearly on an authenticity jag, and so I must crave your pardon. Here I go some more.

Nancy and I just got back from a brief road trip with some friends, in the course of which we spent some time in New Orleans and some of its environs. Two of the (really cool) places we went raised some very basic authenticity issues. Allow me to explain.

The first event was some really fine jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Here is a picture of the venue below. The music was really good, and the surroundings sure

made it seem like the real deal. Why wouldn’t it be the real deal? Well, because of us.

The next day we went up river a bit to see Oak Alley, an antebellum mansion with 28 oak trees forming a glorious avenue down to the levee. As in, here.


Now I am about to discuss the meaninglessness of the very thing — historical authenticity — that brings hordes of tourists to both places. But in saying this, I am not arguing that the tree at Oak Alley are fake, or that the mansion is. The trees are 300 years old and still going, and they are not striking a pose for the tourists. If you look at the picture again, it does appear that they may be showing off for God, but they did not seem to care that we were there.

And Preservation Hall was not thrown together display in a music museum somewhere. It was right on St. Peter’s Street (I think), and I don’t think they have changed anything much in there. Everything about it appeared authentic in that way.

But at the same time, both places were structured as a three-dimensional, interactive encyclopedia article. You went in, you learned stuff and enjoyed things, and you went out again, just like closing the browser, only cooler. A very nice lady in a hoop skirt explained the history of Oak Alley to us, and mint juleps were for sale right after the tour. They were good, too. Firefox can’t do that yet.

At the same time, both places were completely structured for tourist events, and there is a cultural equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle operating. You can’t step into authentic cultures in the numbers that a tourist industry requires without it skewing everything. So it is a good thing that lots of people are on an authenticity hunt — because although it does not keep cultures alive, it does keep encyclopedia articles alive.

In his marvelous book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter cites the answer of the Pacific Island dancer who said, “Culture? That’s what we do for tourists.”

More later on.