Second lining is one of New Orleans’ biggest cultural traditions. In traditional brass band parades, there is the main or first line—consisting of the band and members of the organization or club sponsoring the parade. Then there is everyone else who follows behind just to enjoy the music or the atmosphere—the “second line.” Typically those in the second line wave handkerchiefs or twirl parasols in the air. There is frequently exuberant dancing, drinking, and general jollity. New Orleans also has a tradition of jazz funerals with a band parading through the streets. These, however, are more solemn occasions and feature funeral dirges or hymns rather than the upbeat music common to second lines.
Second lining likely derives its origins from traditional West African circle dances where children formed a circle outside the main circle of adult dancers. As with many West African traditions—like the use of spices in food—this second line tradition came via the Atlantic slave trade. African slaves, during their free time, continued to engage in their cultural traditions. As a result, second lining found its way into funeral processions and other group celebrations. While New Orleans’ various slave codes eventually banned such activities since authorities feared that slaves congregating together might eventually lead to resistance or even outright rebellion.
After the Civil War African and African American musical traditions began to merge with white traditions like the brass brand cultural. This fusion gave birth to jazz, among other things. While emancipation meant the end of slavery, it did not mean equality. As whites denied the formerly enslaved access to cemeteries, churches, and other businesses, African Americans created their own. They organized benevolent organizations and clubs. Membership in these clubs included brass bands for funerals and at least one organizational parade per year. The increasing frequency of these clubs led to the development of the second line tradition.
As a result, second lining is most common in the traditionally African-American neighborhoods of Treme and Central City. They, however, can generally be found all across the city. Jazz Fest features a daily second line to introduce visitors to this quintessentially New Orleans’ tradition. Second lines range in size from a handful of people to hundreds or even thousands. Any occasion featuring a brass brand frequently leads to a second line. The past few years at the DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil has featured a second line. New Orleans, naturally, has a second line season that lasts throughout most of the year. It takes breaks for Mardi Gras—that’s a whole separate parading season—and during the hottest parts of the summer. Some parades are spontaneous and others are planned. Longer parades often make stops, commonly at bars, with food and drinks for members and participants. Most recently, New Orleanians have held second lines in honor of chef Leah Chase and legendary musician Dr. John—both of whom recently passed away.
So the next time you see a second line, join in!