I think if you asked me what my idea of pure joy is, I would have to say being swept up in the middle of a second line, sun and trumpets blaring. No second line is complete for me without my camera, so I hope you don’t mind if I share just a fraction of the photos I’ve captured at second lines in New Orleans over the years.
What is a second line anyway? At their core second lines are brass band parades. The parade or “first line” is made up of the band, or the social aid and pleasure club organizing the parade. If it’s for a wedding or funeral, the procession is led by the happy couple, or the casket. The second line? Well, that’s everybody else. Spectators are encouraged to join in and march, dance, high step and strut with the first line to their final destination.
In the period following the Civil War, Black citizens struggled to attain proper governmental support and insurance, so communal societies or co-ops sprung up that would provide “social aid” for their members. Their members would be charged dues which would contribute to a fund used for basic health and funeral insurance, among other things.
In his autobiography, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” Louis Armstrong wrote that when he was a child, “To watch those clubs parade was an irresistible and absolutely unique experience … Every time one of those clubs paraded I could second line with them all day long.” And in 1949, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club asked Pops to reign as King in the Zulu parade.
These clubs often hosted parades and block parties to advertise their services as well as celebrate and honour members when they died. These celebrations coincided with jazz funerals and together evolved into what we now recognize as second lines. There are still over 70 social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans today, serving not just as culture bearers, but doing great work to unify the community as well.
You’d be hard-pressed not to run into a second line pretty much any Sunday in New Orleans…and a lot of other days of the week too! If you’re new to the city, it’s a great way for locals and tourists to mix and for you to get the lay of the land.
Like so much of New Orleans culture the second line is pure exuberance, an unmitigated explosion of artistic expression, community and joy that is deeply rooted in West African traditions, slavery and Jim Crow. As an outsider it can be hard to reconcile these dark beginnings with the bright present…simply another reminder of how good can coexist next to evil and how resilient the people of New Orleans truly are.
A reminder that even in the midst of unfathomable struggle, sometimes, you just need to dance it out.
So, this Mardi Gras day, as we all sit isolated due to this pandemic I want to encourage you…if you EVER have the opportunity to jump in that second line, don’t even think twice! Maybe, just maybe, you’ll take a little bit of that abandon and joy into other areas or your life too!