If you grew up in New Orleans, a second line is second nature, a near-weekly event. The “first line” of any parade consists of a brass band and the primary paraders (in a funeral procession this would include the family). The “second line” is anyone who follows the parade along its route. The bopping strut dance that paraders employ is also called the “second line.” The parades are generally not connected to any particular event. It’s parading for parading’s sake.
Many second lines are sponsored by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (S & P’s). S & P’s began in the 1800’s when the end of slavery necessitated banding together to create a version of insurance. Members of the S & P would pay dues and the S & P would pay out for medical emergencies, loans, education and funerals. The S & P’s began parading through neighborhoods to advertise their services or honor their club member deaths. The tradition lives on even as the duties of the clubs have evolved away from insurance and toward community unification and cultural pride.
While parading, the members of the S & P wear fancy suits and carry large plumed fans. A second line traditionally begins with the “coming out the door.” During the “coming out the door,” they strut out one by one, showing off their moves like a NOLA version of the line dancers on Soul Train. Though I didn’t arrive in time to see the Treme Sidewalk Steppers S & P coming out the door last Sunday, here is a video from 2010 where the theme appears to have been rodeo-related.
Floats carry the royal court and the S & P follows in a roped off area with the band just behind them. The music is funky NOLA brass full of improvisation and audience call-backs and sing-a-longs. My favorite brass band, Rebirth, provided the beat for last Sunday’s parade. I’ve seen Rebirth Brass Band many times, many ways, but a second line may be the only way to get 4 straight hours of Rebirth. They played many favorites like Let’s Go Get ‘Em, Part Time Lover, and Rebirth Got Fire (though we sing it “Rebirth got fiyo“). It was Super Bowl Sunday, so we optimistic Saints fans (looking forward to next year’s win here at home – Who Dat!) loved dancing and singing to Casanova, the song that plays at the Superdome after every home game.
Once the first line gets rolling on the street, anyone is welcome to join in and follow the parade through the many neighborhoods of New Orleans. Last Sunday’s parade started in the Treme and wound its way through the 7th Ward. There are predetermined stops in front of bars and businesses where it becomes more obvious what a second line really is – a mobile block party. As a kid in the suburbs of Maryland, during the summer the neighborhood would block off a cul-de-sac and set up tables and grills. It was a chance for neighbors to say more than greetings. They could eat, drink and be merry together, creating a sense of community unity. A second line is all of that and a bag of chips.
Like block parties, there are coolers full of beer and grills covered in meats, but the coolers roll along with the parade and their contents are available for purchase. Their are people walking with baskets of corn bread or pralines for sale. I even saw a man selling walking canes for $5. At each stop, there are vendors with cotton candy and popcorn and pick-up trucks set up with full bars on display. As the parade descends on each location, we finish dancing to whatever song is playing then visit, rest and eat while the band takes a short break.
Babies on shoulders and people in wheelchairs and on bikes roll along as the crowd grows exponentially, passing dancing neighbors on porches and making it’s way to the final stop. Once there, a member of the S & P climbs on the roof and dances while cutting his suit and hat, then throws the pieces to the crowd below.
We originally went to cheer on a friend from Raintree Children and Family Services (a non-profiting primarily serving foster children) who was in the royal court. While there, I also ran into second-liner extraordinaire, DancingMan504, and the amazing singer/musician Jon Cleary. I even spotted Kermit Ruffins in his Sunday best, recording the parade on his iPad.
Like so many things here, a second line has to be experienced to fully be understood, but I hope these photos and video help put you there. If you watch the entire video, you’ll see just about everything and everyone I mentioned. Oh, and a small word of warning for those with virgin ears – some of our call-backs include the F-word.