So I woke up to the sound of drumming in the distance. Being the extravagant morning person that all bartenders are, it took me a second for the epiphany to surmise. A second line! Much like as a child, when I would hear a basketball being dribbled down the street and know that the neighborhood game has started, so it was time to go outside, I knew the sound of drums and horns was a call to the neighborhood to come out and second line with us.
I was introduced to second lines like most people who are not from New Orleans, through the season premiere of Treme, as well as unknowingly being shown icons. The one I remember the most, was the Chris Paul commercial where he states how you the viewer should "Come to New Orleans", the commercial ending with him holding an umbrella and a "parade" of people behind him.
My first second line was a little thing that was concocted by some of us at a Frenchmen street club after-hours, when our friend recently passed away. I didn't know why it felt so poignant, I didn't know why some people didn't go to the funeral but went to this, I didn't understand how people came from the funeral, and were able to sing and dance and muster a smile. I was shocked at how quickly we filled a Lower Decatur Street bar on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, or how transplants and locals alike joined us, whether they knew our friend or not, for that's how it was supposed to be, and it was understood. It was a previously unknown phenomenon to me.
I decided to start with the origin of the second line, figuring that if we worked our way from the starting point, that we can see what it has grown into. I got a bit of a direction when talking to Big Red, a waitress at the Marigny Brasserie, who bleeds New Orleans. She lent me a documentary Always for Pleasure, a Les Blank film, that starts off with footage of a jazz funeral, and an Allen Toussaint quote. Toussaint says "The second line bands, the bands that march in the street, initially stem from funerals. Maybe even before that it stands for something else, but for as long as we can talk about it, they would march real slow on their way to the funeral, and cut up on the way back, with a band, and you take them on down and boogie back, and the people that are behind the band, doing their things, is the second line." I found that the Toussaint quote did two things. First, it established his belief that the second line was named after the people who followed the band. The second thing that quote did is establish that even Allen Toussaint had no idea as to where the second line derived from. Or more importantly, that it didn't matter what it meant before, for it's become this.
A former professor who would rather not be named, but for brevity purposes, will be referred to as Jack, told me how he thought it relates back to Irish funerals. By the time he had told me this, I had already read about Cuba's Rumba, old African traditions, and been told about the Haitian Rara and Brazilian Carnival's influences. Jack tried looking it up online, but the internet may be the only place that convolutes its empirical data more than New Orleanians. The next time I saw Jack, he cemented the revelation that Toussaint hinted at when he said "maybe you should say it's something exclusive to New Orleans, with the drinking, and the music, think about it."
So let's say we look at this as a strictly New Orleanian concept. Then the question shifts to, "What is a second line?"
One of the books Big Red had turned me onto was, "The Year Before the Flood," by Ned Sublette. In this book, Sublette writes about the energy involved in a second line. How his wife, Constance, had a bad back, and how he worried for her, but how she kept smiling and singing. Her ails and his worries dissipated in the same wind that carried the notes from the brass band to the people.
Sublette wrote about how he went to neighborhoods he had never been to before, and would never dare go to in other circumstances. How the energy from the second line changed his perception of those very same streets. These broken-down houses no longer symbolized the ghetto.They were now just barriers that reflected the echoes of the notes being played right back to the second line. He recalls walking past the Irish Channel, quotes from old jazz musicians that once occupied his head on the dangers of the hood were now being drowned out by the brass bands that had taken over the streets, even for just a few hours at a time.
So after doing this reading, I decided to attend a second line, for an armchair anthropologist in this town is just as scholarly as a hand grenade wielding tourist. My original plan was to show up, and take notes, but it didn't take long for me to succumb to the experience of the second line. Why be an umpire when you can play the game?
Like the recovering alcoholic after his first drink dominoes him down, my memory of the experience consists mostly of storyboard images of the hours I danced away. I remember seeing someone they call spider man dancing on a Church's sign. I remember a tall man, who I'd never met before, nod and give me a hug, I remember bumping into the talented and beautiful Elsie Semmes as I was walking back to my car. One scene that stuck out to me was a woman I met at one of the stops. I was sitting at a bar, drinking an early-afternoon beer after second lining for quite some time, when I saw them walk up to the bar. They asked the bartender a question, which seemed to end in a "No," smiled and walked out. When I bumped into them outside of the bar, I asked what their question was. They had asked for water. These women had been second lining from the start. They were driving around when they saw the second line, jumped out of their car, with no wallet or shoes (the sandals seemed to be cutting up their heels) and joined the second line. They had no idea where they were going, or how long it would last, but joined in anyway. But now, they were thirsty. I gladly bought them water, feeding off the energy that these two ladies gave me, for they helped validate that second lines were more than just some romanticization of writers on Monday morning about what happened on Sunday.
But I still needed the voice of someone who works and lives the second lines. No one I've met breathes second lines more than Darryl "Dancing Man 504" Young. I met Darryl when we were gathering people at the bar the morning of that second line.He joined us, dancing with us, for our friend. Darryl runs a charity, called Heal2Toe, which teaches children how to second line. Darryl has been on the cover of Data News Weekly, and he will be the logo for jazz fest this year.
Darryl's definition of what a second line is differs from what Toussaint and Sublette subscribed to. Darryl saw second lines as a progression of a first line. See to Darryl, a first line is the jazz funeral, a solemn march for an entity that has passed. A second line is the celebration afterwards. Though there was something about making the second line named after the group of people that weren't the band, (and the fact that Allen Toussaint makes everything sound cool, jazz's version of Morgan Freeman) Darryl's definition of a second line struck a greater chord with me due to the fact that it shows how second lines transform not just everything around them, but itself as well.
Maybe nothing displays the transformation of the first line to the second line more than the changing meanings of the icons. During the first line, the handkerchiefs were originally brought to wipe the tears. Umbrellas also stemmed from old first line tradition. It is believed that when the soul leaves this earth and reaches the heavens, that it will rain. Once the first line transitions to the second line, these icons take on a whole new meaning. The handkerchiefs are waved in the air, used more for wiping more sweat than tears. The umbrellas change from covering you from rain to covering you from the sun, both of these icons becoming more iconic for the dance moves they've been incorporated in than any other practical application. New Orleans has made an art out of deconstructing what is powerful to them. It's the city that makes you pay for your drinks but not your red beans and rice on Mondays. It's the city where some of the most revered players play in shitty dive bars or on the streets. Where headlining acts cook you barbecue before the show.
Darryl talked about how the second liners energy transcends the players, the walkers, the vendors. Everyone is connected through the energy, even those who watch from their porches as the second line passes them by. Darryl mentions how people "who are limping, stop limping." How no matter what atrocities are happening to you, or your neighborhood or town, or our world, that "today is a good day, for there was a second line today."
See to Darryl, nothing is more New Orleans than a second line. No matter what signifies New Orleans to you the most, whether it be the food, the music, the to-go cup, it is prevalent in the second line. Dancing man even went as far to say that second lining is not so much a dance as it is a regurgitation of what you hear, see, feel in New Orleans. As he tells his Heal2Toe students, "Don't do what I'm doing, do like I'm doing, but how you do."
After the storm, the media wanted to portray second lines as being "ghetto." But Darryl says "It was in the ghetto, but it's not ghetto. It's what made you feel better in the ghetto." See there's something to be said about celebrating your losses as much as your gains. This is a town that after the second line for the Saints' Super Bowl win, had cops dancing on top of their patrol cars. That after Coco Rochibeaux died, second lined from Apple Barrel straight through the Quarter, shutting down businesses like the Beatles last performance on top of Apple building.
So come out and second line with us, dance around the pot holes of your city. Smack the rickety stop signs to make a sound, cherish the echoes that the I-10 gives you as the horn players save their best for it. And enjoy a moment that is as New Orleans as any as I've encountered since living in this city. So be in that number. Dance for your smiles as dance for your cries. And be happy, knowing that you're celebrating your life with a second line in New Orleans, and even if we don't know where it comes from, we know where it lives.