If you’re looking for a genuine, joyous New Orleans experience, it’s pretty hard to beat a Second Line parade — an exuberant group of locals literally stopping traffic as they dance through the streets, with strangers welcome to join them along the way. Being swept up in that is a beautiful, powerful thing, and if there’s a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the city — or anywhere else, for that matter — I’m not aware of it.
A bit like a miniature, roving version of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, Second Line parades happen almost every week and involve carousing through several of New Orleans’ historic black neighborhoods, following a brass band in the company of a couple of thousand Crescent City residents. Off-duty police stop traffic to allow the parade to pass, and vendors with wheeled coolers of beer and soda run alongside so revelers can refresh their drinks without breaking stride.
With their roots in jazz funerals, Second Lines are a meaningful part of the city’s cultural heritage. They are also — despite the music, merriment and public assembly permit — a defiant political act. Considering the recent history and demographic changes in New Orleans, there’s a statement being made when a large group of mostly African Americans publicly celebrate their continued presence and their own distinct traditions. None of which diminishes the euphoria you feel while taking part, or the fact that Second Lines are, crucially, parties, and visitors are free to participate.
Attending one of these roving celebrations was a priority when a friend and I visited the city for a long weekend, so our first stop on Saturday was the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from the French Quarter. The museum is a repository of all things Mardi Gras, including a collection of the “suits” that are almost impossible to see except during carnival season. These plumed, beaded costumes take a year to make and are the size (and sometimes the weight) of a man. They are traditionally destroyed after Mardi Gras so no one can accuse their makers of reusing so much as a feather the following year; in New Orleans partying is a serious, competitive business.
The Backstreet isn’t just a museum, it’s also a hub of Second Line activity and the place to pick up a Route Sheet—a photocopied flyer detailing the time and path of the coming event, put together by whichever of the city’s numerous Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs is organizing it. (The Clubs came into being after the Civil War, providing insurance and other financial services for African Americans, and have taken on a more ceremonial function over time.)
At a Second Line, the Pleasure Clubs are celebrating themselves and their community, as well as competing to see who can put together the best parade. Directions on a Route Sheet can seem like code to a newcomer, due to unfamiliar street names and references: it takes some effort to fully decipher something like “Right on A.P. Tureaud to Groove City (Neutral Ground) NINE TIMES S&P CLUB. Tribute to Brother Joshua Blackburn.”
On Sunday at 12.30 p.m., my friend and I hailed a cab and told the driver what we were trying to find. (The Route Sheet claimed things would kick off at noon, but the owner of the Backstreet had warned us not to take times too literally.) Directions in hand, we drove around Treme until we spotted a fair-sized gathering of people and the driver let us out, despite his misgivings about leaving two strangers in an unfamiliar hood. We were actually more concerned that the group was gathered outside an insurance company office—not the most festive location. But then we saw the truck parked alongside, with bottles of liquor displayed on the roof and its bed filled with ice to make a giant cooler. We bought drinks and toasted our map-reading skills, happy to have found the right place.
After a while, the sounds of live music—the sub-bass-like rumble of a tuba; bursts of staccato snare drum hits—started to come from inside the office. Then the door opened and Pleasure Club members burst out in matching, brightly-colored outfits with elaborate hats and head dresses, waving handkerchiefs and banners festooned with feathers, performing twirling, high-stepping dance moves as the crowd parted to make way. They were followed by a bunch of musicians as dressed down (T-shirts, baseball caps, sneakers) as the Club members were dressed up.
This was the Rebirth Brass Band, one of New Orleans’ post-hip hop ensembles, whose sound is informed as much by contemporary music as it is by classic marching band and funk styles. Rebirth play a mix of standards; their own compositions; and instrumental covers of everything from Stevie Wonder to contemporary R&B, with the crowd often providing the vocals.
Soon the Club members and the band took off down the street, forming the parade’s “main line.” After them came the “second line,” which is to say, the rest of us. A clutch of informal percussionists, some with tambourines and shakers, others with beer bottles and sticks, created a constantly morphing layer of polyrhythms.
Behind them, dancers filled the streets as the parade flowed through Treme, gathering ever more in its wake. As the Second Line passed people’s houses many of the residents used their porches as impromptu podiums, gyrating and posing as the parade surged past, then running into the street to join the crowd as it moved through the city like a benevolent conquering army.
As the parade reached its peak, it headed towards a freeway underpass, above which we could see an off-ramp packed with cars waiting for us to go by; not one of them honked in annoyance. The Rebirth crew launched into a version of “Casanova,” an ‘80s R&B hit that has become an anthem for the city’s contemporary brass ensembles.
The lyrics are basically a celebration of being a regular guy, and they seemed to gain weight in their new context. As we marched under the freeway, the band reached the chorus and the whole crowd — the smartly dressed Pleasure Club members and the motley crew behind them — sang along as one, happy to own New Orleans, at least for a while.
Second Line parades take place every Sunday except during the hottest weeks of summer (July and the beginning of August) and the weekends of Mardi Gras and Jazzfest. Some Route Sheets can be found online, although it’s a lot more fun to get them from the Backstreet Cultural Museum. The photographs above were taken during a parade on December 14, 2014.