To Face The Music

A month after I moved to New Orleans in summer 2003 for a job at Tulane, a new friend who had become my local emissary brought me to my first second line. A second line parade is a weekly celebration of life and local black culture, a platform for self- and collective expression, a walkabout for urbanites. By the end of the first hour on that beautiful sunny Sunday September afternoon I was buzzed and happy and dancing next to the tubas. I'd already heard the brass band drop into the dirge "A Closer Walk With Thee" and re-boot with "I'll Fly Away." That's what happens at jazz funerals but this was a second line:  as a jazz scholar and English professor, I had to find out how this weekly ritual had come to exist here under the radar. The answer turned out to be pretty straightforward. Despite the familiar ring of the phrase "second-line" and a century-long tradition in working-class African-American neighborhoods, most white New Orleanians have never even seen a second-line and the police chronically treat them as hostile street actions.

At that first parade, there was a sprinkling of white participants, mostly hipsters, scholars, local musicians, and a few tourists. Since Katrina, there's been an uptick in middle-class interest and a given second-line may be nearly 20% white. Still, few of the white onlookers enter the parade —chant, dance, rock their bodies, shake their booties—although participation is encouraged, if only by example.

Some people just walk along and enjoy the rolling block party as a tourist attraction, but some have a second-line conversion experience. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, had one, and that seed is currently bearing fruit as Treme, the show he's currently filming in town. "I remember stumbling into my first second-line parade maybe 20 years ago," he said. "The Treme Brass Band went up Orleans Avenue to Claiborne Avenue, then stopped under the I-10 bridge. The echo was fantastic. They went past the Lafitte projects and people came out of their homes to join in. I was all the way up in Mid-City before I realized I'd walked 30 blocks and would have to walk all the way back. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I was hooked."

And the beat goes on. Every Sunday the band lays down the jazz, funk, and hiphop rhythms for the resplendent club members inside the ropes to lead the celebration. Neighbors stand on their porches or come out onto the so-called "neutral ground" (i.e., the commons) to wave, dance, and watch the parade go by, or to roll wid it awhile. At four or five stops at bars, the band and clubbers wet their whistles while tailgate grills smoke the scene with the tender mercies of street-pork, make-shift bars on truck cabs grease the human wheels, and the Pie Lady and Fruit Guy circulate to sweeten the breaks. Then it's back to livening up the otherwise grim city streets.

Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)