Shortly after Katrina. I was on my way to the 9th ward when I saw the funeral procession of a young woman who died in the toxic aftermath of the storm. I stood a respectful distance away as the hearse and the brass band started the procession. I’m a crier, and the woman was very young, so when the band broke into “I’ll Fly Away,” I burst into tears. A kind lady put her arm around me and asked if I knew the woman well. I confessed that I didn’t know her at all, but was overcome with how sad her death was and how sad everything was in the city. She said “That’s all right darlin’ you just come with me,” and she swept me up with her into the second line.
Second lines were part of funeral processions in the African American community as a unique way of honoring those who passed over. After the church service, the hearse would be followed on foot by the family and a brass band, which started out with a dirge to mark the sadness of the occasion and followed with a joyful song as the spirit was released from its burdens and flew up to heaven. Known to out-of-towners as a jazz funeral, the mourners’ second line tradition continues to this day and has been embraced by the entire city. When Prince and David Bowie died this year, there were huge second lines in their honor. The title of this piece is taken from a song by Juanita Brooks, and you can see her own second line funeral procession here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG6KH905cG
The second line pictured is a different kind altogether. Social aid and pleasure clubs chiefly from Treme and Central City, started as benevolent associations to help community members with funeral expenses and and medical bills. Now these groups produce second lines where they parade to brass band music and display their elegant outfits and fancy second line dancing. While the clubs still engage in charity work of various kinds, one of their greatest contributions to the community and the city are the second lines, which to my mind express the heart and soul of the city better than just about anything else I can think of.
Second lines start off with the club members and the band (the first line) and after they pass by, onlookers join in and follow the parade (the second line). Hungry or thirsty? Parades periodically stop off at bars for refreshments. Outside vendors are plentiful, and some of the best eating in the city comes from people on the street selling local specialties like ya-ka-mein, pralines, and grilled sausage po-boys. An added bonus is that while second lines are well attended, there aren’t anything like the crowds you’ll see at other events or festivals, so there’s plenty of parking on nearby streets or even on the parade route itself. If you go a little ahead of time, you can mingle with the friendly crowds and have a drink or something to eat while you’re waiting for the opening ritual, known as “coming out the door.” You can see the Men and Women of Unity looking fine here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlfb6cU0yU and the Undefeated Divas here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ra0QgBAqZs
You can find a second line every Sunday afternoon except during the hottest months of the year and of course, Mardi Gras. The Backstreet Museum www.backstreetmuseum.org (well worth a visit, by the way) sends emails announcing second lines to their members. More accessible to travelers is the WWOZ website page “Takin’ it to the Streets,” https://www.wwoz.org/programs/inthestreet, which also posts a calendar of second lines occurring in the city. Wear a hat and comfortable shoes and get ready for an authentic New Orleans experience.