Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Green Street Mortuary Band


Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about them. Novelist Amy Tan's mother was serenaded by them as she lay in state. Muckraker Jessica Mitford's memorial procession was led by them. And more than 300 Chinese families a year hire the Green Street Mortuary Band to give their loved ones a proper and musical send-off through the streets of Chinatown.The band traces its roots back to 1911 and the Cathay Chinese Boys Band, the first marching group in Chinatown. For more than 50 years, this band performed for its community at nearly every big event: Chinese New Year's, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Confucius' Birthday, the 1939 World's Fair and many elaborate funeral processions.In the 1940s, the San Francisco musicians' Local 6 pressed the mortuaries to hire union musicians for the steady work the funeral processions provided. At the same time, the mortuaries of Chinatown began to close and the neighborhood began to take its funerals to Green Street, the Italian funeral parlor in North Beach. The Green Street Mortuary Band was born. Today, the legendary Green Street Band continues to accompany the ritual funeral processions that snake through Chinatown, honoring the dead with Christian hymns, dirges and marches, scaring off evil spirits along the route with crashing cymbals and loud drums, helping families give their loved ones a noisy farewell.


With trumpets and trombones, the Green Street Mortuary Band upholds anancient Chinese tradition in the streets of San Francisco
It is one of the oldest and most visible traditions in San Francisco: a funeral procession right through the heart of Chinatown, led by a brass band playing hymns and dirges.
The band is followed by a Cadillac convertible displaying a large picture of the deceased, by a hearse, by a limousine for the family, then by cars filled with friends, following an honored citizen on his last journey.
A motorcycle escort makes sure all traffic halts. The life of the busiest streets in the city stops for a moment; death is passing by.
The roll of the drums and the music -- hymns set to march time -- echo back from the buildings: ``Remembrance,'' ``Fallen Heroes,'' ``The St. Jude Funeral March.''
The Green Street
Mortuary Band is perhaps the only professional band in the country that does this sort of work. Its members marched at 240 funerals last year, sometimes as many as six a week.
``More than half of the funerals we have ask for the band,'' said Clifford Yee, manager of the Green Street Mortuary, San Francisco's largest Chinese funeral parlor.
All the activity slows for the Chinese ceremony. As the coffin is placed in the hearse, there is a roll of drums, Pollard gives a signal and the band plays ``Amazing Grace'' and then a Chinese popular song called ``Wishing You Happiness.'' The band forms up, and the procession begins. It is formal and stylized.
As the cortege moves around the corner and down Stockton, attendants burn incense and throw paper ``spirit money'' from the funeral vehicles. Sometimes the cortege will stop at the deceased's home or favorite restaurant, so that the dead person's spirit can pay a last visit; similar practices took place in Europe until recent times.
Sometimes the processions are very elaborate and include Chinese music. Sometimes Pollard hires more bands. Sometimes there are professional mourners. Usually though, the cortege is not large, but it always conveys a single message: respect and dignity for one's ancestors.
The Chinese funeral bands are sometimes compared with the jazz bands that play for funerals in the south, but there is no connection.
``Music,'' said Julian Dixon, who plays with Green Street, ``is universal.''
-from the San Francisco Chronicle- for the full text visit

Here is San Francisco poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem about the Green Street Band

The Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
marches right down Green Street
and turns into Columbus Avenue
where all the café sitters at
the sidewalk café tables
sit talking and laughing
and looking right through it
as if it happened every day in
little old wooden North Beach San Francisco
but at the same time feeling thrilled
by the stirring sound of the gallant marching band
as if it were celebrating life and
never heard of death
And right behind it comes the open hearse
with the closed casket and the
big framed picture under glass propped up
showing the patriarch who
has just croaked
And now all seven members of
the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
with the faded gold braid on their
beat-up captains' hats
raise their bent axes and
start blowing all more or less
together and
out comes this Onward Christian Soldiers like
you heard it once upon a time only
much slower with a dead beat
And now you see all the relatives behind the
closed glass windows of the long black cars and
their faces are all shiny like they
been weeping with washcloths and
all super serious
like as if the bottom has just dropped out of
their private markets and
there's the widow all in weeds, and the sister with the
bent frame and the mad brother who never got through school
and Uncle Louie with the wig and there they all are assembled
together and facing each other maybe for the first time in a long
time but their masks and public faces are all in place as they face
outward behind the traveling corpse up ahead and oompah oompah
goes the band very slow with the trombones and the tuba
and the trumpets and the big bass drum and the corpse hears
nothing or everything and it's a glorious autumn day in old
North Beach if only he could have lived to see it Only we
wouldn't have had the band who half an hour later can be seen
straggling back silent along the sidewalks looking like hungover
brokendown Irish bartenders dying for a drink or a last hurrah....

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

1 comment:

Shakti said...

Wow - I didn't know that Ferlinghetti wrote a poem about them. Here's more on the Green Street Mortuary Band: http://bit.ly/SFRIP.

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