Last Saturday morning, upon the invitation of a friend, we attended the funeral for Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson at Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Avenue. Bunchy was a native New Orleanian and well-known in R&B music circles for his accomplished drumming and his “light up the world” smile. He performed with the likes of Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Allen Touissant, the Ellis Marsalis, The Drifters, The Platters, and many more. He also appears in the upcoming pilot episode of the HBO miniseries Tremé, ironically as a member of the Tremé brass band playing a funeral. Bunchy traveled the world, but stayed close to his home, family, and large circle of friends in New Orleans.
We were a little uneasy attending his funeral as bystanders, but the family were gracious and kind to us as we entered the church, welcoming us and asking us to sign the guest book. After the viewing, the service kicked off with a spirited rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” by the Dixie Cups. They had the whole room clapping and singing along, and soon I felt that old gospel feeling that puts my own church-going pedigree to shame for its ability to lift up the spirit and truly feel the power and sacredness of what is happening.
Members of Bunchy’s family got up and read some of his favorite quotes, and his father gave a heartwarming and uplifting speech, telling his son how proud he was of him and how much he would be missed. By the end, with tears in his eyes, he was lifting up his voice like a gospel preacher, filled with joy despite his great loss.
It’s hard to explain the feeling I had, witnessing Bunchy’s family give testament to his life. Gospel funerals are always described as being “celebrations of life” more than observations of death, and I guess the best I can do is to say that that pretty much nails it. It felt like a celebration. Family, friends, members of the extended New Orleans jazz community, and even strangers like us, were invited to take joy in the inspiration that Bunchy gave to others throughout his life, and to give thanks for the sweet gift of life. There is no doubt that grief and suffering were all around, and my heart goes out to his family, his children and grandchildren. He was only 58, which in this day and age seems too young to die. But Bunchy packed a lot of life into those 58 years, and so there was cause for celebration despite the grief.
After the memorial service, Bunchy was given a proper second-line parade, down Jackson Street and back, with members of the Tremé Brass Band playing some of his favorite numbers. A crew of photographers and videographers descended upon the street like paparazzi as the service let out, and I felt a little odd being one of them…I suppose the community is used to it, and the dancers had no qualms playing to the camera, but at the same time it made me wonder what we were all doing there. It’s not just that it was a funeral; it would have seemed just as strange if it were a wedding, or any other celebration, were a flock of strangers to suddenly appear out of nowhere and start taking pictures of the natives and their curious customs.
As my time in New Orleans has lengthened and I have become drawn deeper and deeper into the history, culture, and soul of the city, it is the black traditions and culture that have really resonated with me, and it is those traditions–the second-lines, the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass bands and the jazz musicians, the juke joints, the street vendors, the Skull and Bones, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs–that keep me wanting to dig deeper and learn more. Their histories are so complex and fraught with so much hardship, struggle, violence, and resistance–while at the same time suffused with so much joy, rhythm, and soul–that they make the more mainstream New Orleans celebrations seem frivolous in comparison.
And yet, as an outsider, and, well, as “the white man”, I am aware of the implications of cultural appropriation and possible disrespect that my interest in taking pictures of black New Orleans might convey to those for whom this is simply a way of life, a part of their history and community, and not something to be “taken”, as one “takes” a picture. I have tried as often as possible to make personal contact with people that I photograph, and, wherever possible, send or give them copies of the photos I take, so that I am “giving” photos rather than “taking” them. This, however, sometimes becomes a full-time job in itself, and I have not always been successful. We left Bunchy’s funeral before we were able to get any contact information, so tracking down his family will take a little extra time.
In any event, I hope that some of these photos eventually make their way into the hands of Bunchy’s family, and that I get the opportunity to tell them how privileged I felt to be part of his life celebration.