The Quirks Of New Orleans Culture: Second Lines

Part one in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different.

A Second Line Parade in New Orleans. / wikimedia

[This is part one in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different. The series was originally written during 2016 Mardi Gras. Here is part two, about King Cake; part three, about Mardi Gras Balls; and part four, about “everything else“.]

New Orleans, LA—There are certain commentators who will argue that, thanks to gentrification, corporatism, and globalization, U.S. cities are losing their cultural distinctiveness. These people should really try leaving their rooms more often. One thing I’ve noticed while traveling is that cultural differences, in fact, remain alive and well in America. And nowhere is this more evident than New Orleans, where I’ve been living since around Christmas until Mardi Gras day on February 9. New Orleans may have changed demographically following Hurricane Katrina, but it still maintains the quirkiness that would be familiar to readers of the 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces. While other cities have campaigns to keep themselves “weird,” New Orleans actually is weird, marked by strange people, accents, music, food, buildings, parades, and rituals, all of which are bolstered by a tenacious party culture. This has helped New Orleans’ bottom line, as people flock to live in and visit the city. From now until the end of Mardi Gras, I will cover some of these idiosyncrasies in a 4-part series, beginning with the phenomenon known as Second Lines.

Second Lines are street parades thrown, sometimes on a whim, throughout New Orleans. They begin when a brass band–which, in this city, is a smaller, funkier, more ragtag version of a marching band–plays music while walking down the street. Those accompanying the band will dance around it, together forming what is called a “main line.” Then random strangers will follow along, forming the “second line.”

Like so many other New Orleans traits, second lines are rooted in black culture, beginning in the 19th century as “jazz funerals.” Slaves who had been brought over from Haiti and Africa had a history of incorporating music into funeral processions, as a way to celebrate the lives of the deceased and ward off negative spirits. So they formed social clubs that played music during burials, and the concept has stuck.

In a typical jazz funeral, the casket is carried out following the church ceremony, and transported to the cemetery, as a brass band surrounds it playing somber music. Once the body is entombed, the band changes tenor, breaking out hot, pulsating rhythms. The second line follows while waving handkerchiefs, dancing, and even rolling on the ground.

While New Orleans still has jazz funerals, the second line concept has broadened. Particularly in black neighborhoods, parades have become a way to celebrate any big event, such as holidays or a Saints victory. After David Bowie died, for example, the band Arcade Fire hosted a second line in the French Quarter.

Second lines have also become a for-hire concept, with people paying brass bands hundreds or even thousands of dollars to perform at birthdays, weddings and corporate events. During these parades, vendors will set up along the sidewalks selling jambalaya and other goods. Parades are performed by the city’s multitude of small brass bands, including the Rebirth Brass Band, the Hot 8 Brass Band, and the Free Spirit Brass Band. Typical band sizes hover near a dozen members, but can be far bigger depending on the event. Instruments include trumpets, saxophones, trombones, clarinets, sousaphones, snare drums, base drums, cymbals, whistles and more. Along with the French Quarter, they occur in other musically-oriented neighborhoods like Treme and Faubourg Marigny.

In late December, I attended my first second line parade, after a woman invited me to one she was throwing for her friend’s 40th birthday. It began at the eastern end of the French Quarter, when a motorcycle policeman–which must navigate in front of bands–set off his warning siren for a couple seconds. He was then followed by the Legacy Brass Band, which had agreed to perform for $500. The band blared music while moving west down Royal Street, on its way to Canal. As sound echoed from the walls of the Quarter’s narrow streets, crowds began gathering along the sidewalks to take pictures. And then, of course, they followed.

After ten minutes, our second line had accumulated well over a hundred people. The band’s final stop was in front of the Hotel Monteleone, where it played for another 10 minutes, as a dance party grew around them. When they finished, the crowd applauded–and then flooded into the hotel bar to drink.

As New Orleans changes following Hurricane Katrina, one may question the long-term endurance of Second Lines. The city has lost 100,000 black residents since then, and it hasn’t helped that the government, citing noise and safety concerns, often discourages such parades. Particularly in the first few years after the hurricane, the city arrested certain musicians for playing too loud, and raised permit fees. But as anyone who has walked the city at night or attended a Mardi Gras event knows, there is still an abundance of brass bands here, and people who want to listen to them. As long as the market is allowed to work, this New Orleans cultural quirk likely isn’t going anywhere.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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