History of the Second Line

It is no secret that New Orleans like to have a good time.  Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest are just some of the epic parties the city throws each year.  In between, however, we do not sit around, we still like to socialize. One of the ways we celebrate life is a season that runs through the fall and spring and usually happens on Sunday:  the Second Line parade season.

A group of ladies all dressed in blue are dancing in the street. There are others also in the precession carrying a fan of blue feathers. They are doing the second line .

Photo by Judy Cooper

Second lines are a tradition going back at least the late 1800’s, combining african rhythms, dance, military marching drums , funk and dance of the times mixed in for flavor.  Some think the second lines evolved as the extension of jazz funerals. The band would march in front of the casket, with a grand marshall leading the way and clearing the streets so the procession could keep moving The band would play dirges, blues and gospel numbers all the way to the grave. Marching back however, the band would play lively songs celebrating the good deeds of the person who had passed. As the band marched through the neighborhoods, folks would step outside to listen to the music and begin following the band dancing behind and enjoying the songs, the “Second Line,” and the style of dance that began and is continuing today is known as second line dancing.  

After the civil war in an effort to become citizens and celebrate life as they saw fit,  many African Americans formed Social aid and Pleasure Clubs. Groups that would help folks out in times of trouble and as a social gathering for African Americans to live life on their terms.  These clubs took the second line idea and along with the brass band music (evolving from military marching bands) created and art form so beautiful, celebrating the people of New Orleans and is a unique party unlike anywhere else.

The Second line parade season today runs from Fall through spring until the weather gets too hot.  The Social aid and Pleasure Clubs are still in existence, 70 total, and they are the sponsors, and the movers of the party.   With names like Golden Trumpets Social & Pleasure Club, The Money Wasters Social & Pleasure Club, The New Orleans Men Buck Jumpers and The Devastating Ladies, the members are the dancers, grand marshall, the rope walkers(keeping folks out of the way and the parade moving.)  The Second Line parades usually run on Sundays and start in the early afternoon and meander their way through the various neighborhoods of New Orleans.  Dancers and jumpers in beautiful suits and outfits and parasols and sashes dance and jump and groove for hours to the infectious, super up-tempo grooves by one of the  brass bands, (Rebirth, TBC, Hot 8) These parades are walking parades, no floats or vehicles and anyone is free to join and get into the feel of the second line. 

The parade will stop at various bars along the way so the dancers and musicians can take a break and relax for a moment. All the while folks are selling BBQ, Yak a Mein, and cold drinks so everyone can stay fueled and feeling the party.  

The local radio station WWOZ has a show and podcast called “In to the Streets,” hosted by Action Jackson, and each week lets folks know where the second line is happening, which club is hosting and what the route will be.  So it you want get deep into the soul of New Orleans, go find your self a second line and become immersed in the magic of New Orleans.




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