A "second line" in New Orleans (with video)

Probably no city in the country loves parades as much as New Orleans. As we all watch the progress of that horrendous oil spill and pray for Louisiana, it seems appropriate to highlight some of the musical aspects of the unique character of that part of the country.

New Orleans was founded as a French city in 1718 and did not become American territory until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Where English-speaking southern governments dating back to colonial times attempted to stamp out all vestiges of African culture among their slave populations, the French did not.

A west-African heritage of tribes looking out for individual members in time of need manifested itself in New Orleans first in some slaves devising ways to earn enough many to buy their freedom, and second, in 1783, in the foundation of the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association.

Hundreds of similar organizations later, newly emancipated slaves founded the New Orleans Freedmen’s Aid Association shortly after the end of the civil war. In part, it became a life insurance arrangement that allowed members to save up money for their funerals.

At this point, the tradition of aid societies among blacks intersected with New Orleans’ long-standing love of parades, especially but certainly not only at Mardi Gras. Although the earliest attested Mardi Gras celebrations there (1730s) did not include parades, a Mardi Gras society at Fort Louis (now Mobile, Alabama) paraded from 1711 through 1861.

New Orleans could not have been far behind. By the nineteenth century, almost any event could include an impromptu parade. Or, if the weather was fine, the many neighborhood bands around town didn’t need an event if they felt like parading.

The “second line” tradition grew out of the funeral processions paid for with savings through the New Orleans Freedmen’s Aid Association and similar organizations. The band plays a dirge from the church to the cemetery and more joyful music back to the church.

Whatever neighborhood social aid or pleasure club sponsors the funeral (or other parade occasion) is known as the “main line.” Unlike more formal parades familiar in most American cities, the spectators do not stand on the sidewalk and watch the parade go by. Instead, they follow along as a “second line.” And so the parades themselves have become known as “second lines.”

Since second lines take place mostly in neighborhoods and seldom have permits that allow them to move along or across major thoroughfares, they are perhaps among the less well-known aspects of New Orleans culture.

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