Often seeming to appear out of nowhere and full of vibrant energy, second line parades have been likened to a raucous, moving block party. With roots that span centuries, you’ll find these festive marches that had their birth in New Orleans to be wonderfully spirited processions that are quite the sight to behold (and even more amazing to join).
What exactly makes up a second line parade? Who marches in one? How did they begin and where can you find them today? You’ll find the answers to these questions and other interesting facts when you keep reading below.
What exactly is a second line parade?
Though different aspects of the second line parade may vary slightly or be given unique touches by the creative characters who form it, you’ll always find certain tried and true components in a second line parade.
To begin with, a second line parade would be nothing without a brass band to take the musical lead. You’ll find trumpets or tubas acting as heralds to announce the approach of the procession. Two different kinds of drummers establish the rhythm. The first is usually drumming out a typical marching brass band beat and the other, the snare drummer, adds a more creative element, often improvising patterns and beats on the fly and according to their own unique style.
The music played by the band is in itself a beautiful fusion of traditions and culture. Amidst the inherently jazzy sound, you can hear glimpses of sound that mix standard marching music, African American gospel, and Caribbean rhythms, along with spiritual and secular black slave dances.
The revelers who make up the second line add their own flavor to the parade. They add beats by clapping their hands, bottles, sticks, or anything else they can make into an improvised instrument. This mix of beats and personal stylings lend a one-of-a-kind sound to each parade, making them all distinctive in their own right.
The term “second line” originally referred to those that joined in behind the band, but it has since evolved to really encapsulate the whole event. Though traditionally second line parades honor a specific person, as time passed, the fun could no longer be contained to only specific events, like weddings, corporate events, festivals, and holidays. Many will find that nowadays, a second line parade is not for a particular purpose or tied to an event, but often they are held just for the sheer joy of it.
Who makes up a second line parade?
If there is a second line to the parade, it makes sense that there has to be a first line, doesn’t it? Traditionally, the parade was hosted by a neighborhood organization or social club and usually comprised of multiple generations of family members, friends, and neighbors. These hosts would be in the first line along with the band and headed up by the honoree(s) (such as a bride and groom).
The second line is comprised of pretty much anyone else sporting enough to join the festivities. Second lines are very inclusive and welcome any and all who can’t resist joining in and can keep up with the intense energy. These ones march, dance, and strut in step with the music but behind the honorees, band, and hosts in the first line. Second liners are far from being an unimportant element to the parade as their enthusiastic movements add to the liveliness and fun of the event.
History of the second line parade
Though they are more direct descendants of New Orleans famous jazz funerals (minus the casket and mourners), second line parades have a much longer heritage, incorporating traditions that go back several centuries. In fact, a number of scholars have traced elements of second line parades back to the traditions of West African tribes and Caribbean festival culture. More than just having a good time, these parades are part of a long-standing heritage that has been carried on through the music and dancing of second lines.
In the area where second line parades began, slaves were given more personal freedoms than in other areas. In fact, they often had the weekends off in order to leave the plantation and gather with others. In New Orleans, these gatherings usually took place at Congo Square.
More than just hanging out and socializing, slaves often brought instruments such as drums, banjos, violins, and other instruments. They would play traditional African music while others would perform cultural dances, often with a spiritual undertone.
From this, they were able to build a kind of community that would help preserve their native heritage. In time, support groups were formed (referred to as societies or clubs). One element that all these societies had in common was performing processionals that became the framework of second line parades.
Second line parades emerged close to the same time that brass bands made it to the states—generally somewhere in the earlier to mid-19th century. Brass bands would create a procession (often for a funeral) as they played music through the streets. The African American societies began to adapt their traditional processionals to blend in the music of the European brass bands that had become so popular during the time.
Young African American males began following these processions, adding in their own elements or dramatically mimicking the first line. Danny Barker, an early 20th-century jazz musician, said that these boys were so ‘delighted by the music that they would gather to dance and strut in tempo and emulate the motions of the musicians and Grand Marshal’. In this way, the second line parade became a way for young African Americans to socialize and express their culture.
Musician and jazz historian Dr. Michael White said of the earlier second line parades that "the social and spiritual dimensions of the jazz culture became especially evident in processions - parades by benevolent societies (also called 'social and pleasure clubs'), church parades, and jazz funerals - where large segments of the community would gather in an almost religious- like 'celebration' to commemorate special events and occasions (or just to gather in revelry 'for no reason at all')."
As joyous second liners added a more celebratory feel to the processions, they gradually began to move away from a more formal style into one that took on a feel of jubilant fun.
Second Line Parades and Wedding Traditions
Weddings are festive and celebratory, and brides and grooms often choose to express their joy in the form of second line parades held after ceremonies, during receptions, or at the end of the night to help bring a fantastic party to a spectacular close.
The bride and groom are honorees in this case, so they lead the first line along with the brass band. Traditionally they may hold a decorative parasol or umbrella, easily followed as they front the march. Second liners join by forming a line behind the couple, dancing and strutting to the music while waving handkerchiefs or napkins.
Some couples go the extra mile by making personalized handkerchiefs as party favors, used by guests to wave during the procession. Some personalize highly-decorative parasols and canes for the wedding party to use in the march, and others hand out beads and other like favors to help foster the revelry.
For added flair, a newly married couple might hire Mardi Gras Indians to march in their parade. These wear colorful, elaborate costumes and headdresses, turning the second line parade into a living work of art and culture. It also helps in creating some stunning wedding day photos for the bride and groom.
Then there are couples who decide to take their celebration to the streets. It is not uncommon to find a second line wedding parade dancing their way through the streets of New Orleans. Police on motorcycles clear a path on the parade route, blaring their sirens in announcement of the honorees. Tourists and natives—pretty much anyone along the route—are welcome to join in the celebratory march which usually lasts from 5-8 blocks (about 20-30 minutes).
Although the second line parade is seen as a New Orleans tradition, the fun has spread out beyond the boundaries of the city so that second line parades can be enjoyed during wedding festivities in just about any part of the country.
Second Line Parades and Funeral
While we’ve discussed how the second line parade is such a joyful event, it might seem odd to incorporate such a festive event into a funeral. However, the concept of a funeral procession is not new by any means. In fact, it has been a long-standing aspect of burial traditions in many cultures, including the West African cultures that so heavily influenced the characteristics of the second line parades (though it mixes in European and Anglo-American burial traditions as well).
Many view it as a ‘celebration of life at the moment of death’. Traditionally, funeral processions were held for prominent black male members of a community, often times a musician (who was appropriately “buried with music”). Following the adage “solemn music on the way to the grave and happy music on return”, the parade would make its way to the grave with the more typical sounds that would be found in a funeral—those of mourning and grieving.
However, after the body was laid to rest at the grave (or symbolically “cut loose”), the band would begin to play up-tempo music as a celebration of life. As the musical procession left the cemetery, second-liners would join behind and begin to dance to the more festive music, turning the funeral into a street celebration.
The spread and musical evolution of second line parades
With its brass band sounds being so closely tied to jazz and other musical genres that evolved from it (like funk and rock and roll), it is no surprise that there would be a widespread influence. Jazz legend Louie Armstrong and the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown are among the many who have spread the music inherent in second line parades to people around the world. In fact, it’s a fundamental aspect of many international jazz styles today, not to mention the influence it has had on other musical genres.
The 20th century saw a great evolution in its musical landscape, and the second line has adapted accordingly. Its music has seamlessly absorbed the musical genres of the day—be it swing, jump blues, rhythm & blues, or rock and roll—and made it its own. Second line musicians have added their creative twists by mixing genres and boldly experimenting with new styles created from the traditional ones.
In recent years, second lines still have a hold on hearts and minds and have been used to express triumph. One example of this was after the catastrophic devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans rallied in the way they knew best. A mock jazz funeral was organized, complete with a second line, to symbolize the “death” of the hurricane. It was also a call to all who left the city to return to the rich heritage of their home.
Even though second line parades are closely linked to New Orleans and its rather unique traditions, the fun and festive atmosphere that it fosters have universal appeal. People everywhere want to experience the joy and celebration, and second line parades give the freedom to experience it all.