We’d walked maybe a couple of miles under the ever-thickening gray clouds, bouncing slightly to the barely audible rhythm of the brass band that drifted from somewhere out in front of us and trying desperately to stay ahead of the mounted police or, better said, their horses—the horses that, unsympathetic to the slow pace of the throngs, plodded tirelessly on our heels and breathed puffs of hot air down our necks.
“Ice cold water, ice cold beer, only a dollar!” sang out vendors as they passed out drinks from their truckbeds to outstretched hands, and others wheeled their wares right along with the rest of the walkers. Never too old for a good time, even some of the ancient twisted oaks were decked out with shiny loops of beads. Onlookers leaned against the bright pink walls of iconic Esplanade Pharmacy or lounged on cement porches watching the goings-on in the busy street.
I had followed parades before, treading tirelessly behind elementary school bands as they marched down a rural road for the better part of a day, little girls twirling their batons and bigger boys striking their drums to celebrate Independence Day. I usually found it an exhausting responsibility. Here, though, I was determined to enjoy myself. I stepped in time to the music, bopping slightly like every good former-member of an a capella group. I looked eagerly around, soaking in the novelty of this hodge-podge of people who seemed to be from all walks of life: the members of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club, hosts of the second line and men of the hour, in their pink or green flowered suits with their colorful feather-tufted umbrellas; the girls in skinny jeans and bedazzled shirts with neon sneakers; the free-spirits in earth tones, sandals, and jauntily cocked straw hats; the men in ragged T-shirts and worn jeans. Some older men free-styled through the line, stepping low and leaning out, smiling quietly to themselves. They seemed to be somewhere far, far away. I longed to join them, but something, a wall of self-consciousness, of not quite being “in,” held me back.
The second line, as these distinctly New Orleanian parades are called, refers to the crowd that follows behind the main line of hosts and brass bands, dancing and marching along with the music. As a newcomer to this land, I run the ever present risk of telling a history or tradition and “Not getting it right.” As the woman checking me out at the library explained, it’s different if you’re from here, you grow up here. You have it in your bones, it’s part of your everyday life. Still, because the history is too good to miss, I’ll do my best.
The tradition of the second line originates from the Jazz Funeral, an African slave religious practice. After the service for someone who had passed away, the casket’s journey to the cemetery was accompanied by family, friends, and, when instruments became more widely available after the Civil War, the slow mournful dirges (hymns) of a brass band. After the burial, the music and dancing became joyous as families celebrated the release of the soul to the heavens. However, as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs transitioned from early safety-net providers to community brotherhoods (and, more recently, sisterhoods), the tradition of second lines expanded beyond funerals. Now, most Sundays of the year there is a second line somewhere in the city, hosted by a club purely for the sake of second lining. Even protests here include a brass band and a second line.
Still, the spiritual roots are there. As Uncle Larry put it in Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, “This second line thing is spiritual. . . We got this mixture of people and spirituality here. You feel it.” Just as the parades can be hard to find—they don’t advertise dates or routes—the culture and feel of the second line isn’t always obvious to outsiders. “It’s hard for people who don’t see it or feel it to say, ‘Well, what’s that about?’ My mother being a country girl, she didn’t really understand that kind of culture. . . My dad was from uptown in the Third Ward. He understood it.”
We had walked for a few hours already, but I didn’t get it. I was smiling, bopping, people-watching. But I didn’t get it. More and more, men and women and children around us found that secret place where their inner rhythm resides and danced down the street, stepping, swiveling, and swaying to the swinging notes of the brass band. A few pulled us in to join their steps, laughing and exchanging words without saying much of anything. After all, we had been walking together along this same path for a while now.
Then we turned the corner onto Claiborne and everything seemed to open up. The road widened. The soulful notes of the band expanded, filled with energy and joy, then swooped down into mournful, exaggerated tones of the funeral march, then rose again to celebrate the joy of the living. The Black Men of Labor spun and danced and kicked, but we hardly noticed. Everyone following the parade suddenly became his or her own performer, moving totally freely to the soaring notes. Even along the sidewalks, and up higher on the edge of the freeway ramp, men formed lines and wove through the rest of us. They stepped together, turned together, leaned together, dressy and T-shirted somehow equalized by the sweat that stuck them to their clothes. Even the skies opened up, loosing a light dusting of rain on the jubilant bodies filling the street. We danced through the pillars beneath the freeway, pillars painted with swirling oak branches and the faces of leading lights of black society. Paintings, all that was left to represent the oak-lined center of black society that this famous shopping district had been before the trees and shops were demolished in the 1960s to build the freeway. And as we curled through those pillars, smiling, old and young, white and black, dancing together, one of the men we had been walking with turned to me and smiled.
“It’s nice to be happy, isn’t it?”
And I got it. I got why Uncle Larry wrote, quoting his sister, “Hey, I feel this in my soul. I don’t care if I’m a girl. I’m getting out there.” I got why people will spend a large portion of their income to, as our landlord put it, throw a party for their neighborhood. I got why it was not about dancing the same way, it was about dancing together, letting each person’s expression add to the fabric of the whole. I got what it meant to love the people around you, without knowing the slightest bit of their life stories, their opinions, their tastes. After all, we are all walking along this path together, and for a long while. No one walks for hours with a Second Line with the aim of arriving at a certain stop, or at the end. We might as well enjoy each other, dance together along the way. And everyone has to dance.