The Wisdom of the Second Line

Nick Spitzer - photo by Kate Ellis

New Orleanians of many backgrounds are working with heart, head, and hand to rebuild the cityscape. It's hard work with uncertain outcomes, and a lot of waiting for things to happen: the Road Home finance, delayed or denied insurance settlements, no-show city inspections, the days late arrival of the carpenter. Luckily there is a longstanding positive example in our midst of how to move forward together helping each other, accepting both our differences and what we share as diverse people of this great cultural city and region. The traditional Afro-Creole and African-American neighborhood-based jazz parades called "second lines" are communities in motion of music and dance, celebration and social commentary. The second lines go back at least to the 1880s, the end of Reconstruction, a time of increasing clamp down on human rights in the Jim Crow era that followed. By the turn of the century, jazz would emerge as the musical accompaniment of the second lines.

The second line is literally those people parading behind a first line of musicians, the mourners of a jazz funeral, or the leaders of a social aid and pleasure club sponsoring the parade. These clubs and related benevolent societies were formed in the downtown and central city neighborhoods of New Orleans to give access to medical treatment, insurance, schooling, and decent burial in a social order where basic freedoms were not provided for or protected by government and business interests. Over the years, the names of clubs and voluntary self-help associations like Young Men's Olympians and Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club have evolved to include relatively recent groups like Tambourine and Fan and Black Men of Labor.

The second lines represent a fusion of cultural styles from French and American military parades, West-African performances that follow the sound of a "big drum," and the walking or rolling floats of Carnival krewes throughout New World Afro-Latin regions and cities. In New Orleans and African-diaspora communities in parallel post-colonial places from Bahia in Brazil to Port of Spain in Trinidad, the gatherings of benevolent and cooperative labor societies reaffirm their own culture in a collective celebratory way while offering criticism of the excessive rule of elites, inaction of governments and problems associated with racism and economic marginalization.

In New Orleans, the characters on display at a second line may range from a somber Grand Marshal of a jazz funeral to the Big Shot of a Sunday parade, a uniformed marching band with caps and ties to the street dancing "Money Wasters" and "Sidewalk Steppers" in matching suits and fancy shoes, under umbrellas covered with streamers and white birds. The cast of marshals and players, dancers and musicians create artistic tension between dignity and flamboyance, order and chaos, solemnity and joie de vivre. The clubs also recall their social aid to the community by honoring workers, motherhood, saints and, at a jazz funeral, the souls of the dearly departed. At the same time, the second liners in high style dress and demeanor, a street full of dancing singing celebrants, remind all comers that life without pleasure is hardly a life.

Out on the second line, one senses that for every Saint who marches in, there is a Sinner within, or at least occupying the next pair of shoes. In a city where the song about "Saints" can be at times reduced to a tourist cliché or faith in a miracle football team of mostly non-natives, the neighborhood parades remind us of the deep need to be "in that number" of humanity with all its sorrows and joys, mourning and celebration of life. The second lines look back in time with old styles of dress and images of ancestors and heroes on fans and buttons. They address the present by insisting not only on the right to parade at reasonable cost for a permit, but especially to comment on social conditions they see while dancing through the streets of the city: Why hasn't the Lafitte public housing project been reopened? When will the trash on Orleans Avenue be picked up? Does the Rebirth Brass band have all their members back? Is the electric power back on Dourgenois Street? Will McDonough 35 High School be repaired in time for the fall semester?

In a broader sense the second line also raises questions about its own and the city's future. Tuba player and co-leader Philip Frazier sees the return of paraders as a human measure of the recovery and as a cultural means to bring people home.

"Last year," says Frazier, "there wasn't that many parades. This year, I think there's more. More clubs done came back, and you got people traveling all the way from Houston, and Arkansas, and Atlanta coming back down just to parade 'cause they love it so much. The only thing I'm worried about, we have the bands growing, but the Social and Pleasure clubs, I haven't really been seeing any young people. That's the scary thing. We gotta get the young people back involved with the clubs because that's been going on for years and years and years. We can't let that culture die no matter what."

At a practical level, the model of the second line has been repeated by other New Orleans institutions. A noted Uptown nightclub like Tipitinas' long offered a place for old-school musicians to play, and now post-catastrophe it has raised money to feed and house these players, while providing new instruments and career guidance for younger musicians. A campaign called Silence is Violence uses evening marches across the city to demand police and judicial attention in neighborhoods wracked by violence. Groups sponsoring "voluntourism," encourage visitors to the city to pitch in with house repair and neighborhood clean-up by day (social aid) while they go to music clubs and restaurants by night (and pleasure). New Orleans brass bands that lead the second lines have often acted as musical ambassadors to carry the word of the need back home to far flung concerts, festivals and fundraisers like Big Apple for the Big Easy at Madison Square Garden in fall 2005 or nearby visits for displaced people in FEMA camps across the region.

Barely three weeks after Katrina, Gregory Davis, the trumpet player and soothsayer of the venerable Dirty Dozen, projected his dream of the second line's return as a regular event in the city.

"New Orleans has a certain feel, a certain flavor that cannot be duplicated," says Davis. "I want to see a second line with the guys sweating it out and just jumping in the street like they always do. I want to see the women in their big hats and their dress. That is what I want to see, with the sashes and the umbrellas that the guys make for themselves. I want to see a real parade with just that tension that exists from being in a crowd that is too crowded. You don't have enough room to move, everybody is jumping, but it's real peaceful. That is what I want to see."

The second line as a kind of urban village afoot honors and recalls the grand public nature of many New Orleans traditions from the venerable Mardi Gras to the much younger annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. It reclaims the city's familiar spaces for returning dwellers, and like jazz itself, helps balance the needs and talents of individual players with the larger group. The intermingled values of social aid and pleasure are what all New Orleanians can draw on to collectively self-author their future. That future at its best suggests crossing of the traditional boundaries of race and neighborhood, culture and class more than before according to Ed Buckner, president of the Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

Buckner says that since Katrina, "the crowd has changed. It's very diverse now - the parades in this town. It's white and black alike. We all love the parades and we get along very well at them. You know, the blacks would be at parades and the whites would be in the clubs with the bands. So eventually the whites came out of the clubs and decided to join the blacks on the street, and now we've been having this great intellectual thing that's going on with race. At the second line we find out that we like the same thing."

One lesson learned from the mostly man-made floods that took lives, homes and livelihoods is that there is no waterline on the soul and the spirit, or on one's ability to play music and dance in the street. The people creating each of the hundreds of second lines each year in New Orleans are of our greatest asset as they carry on knowledge of culture and the ability to perform it. "Walkin' to" and through "New Orleans" in a second line is the diaspora in reverse; It's our unofficial artistic, social and emotional road home program. It may be our best way to march together into a renewed city connected to the best of its past.

Nick Spitzer is creator and host of American Routes the public radio program produced in New Orleans. He is also professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans.

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