The Black Men of Labor
Syndey Byrd photograph
Stepping out dressed in finery as a member of a social aid and pleasure club has been described as “Cinderella Day.” It is a day of transformation when a club rules the streets as its members dance with attitude and abandon, waving decorated fans and umbrellas as family, friends and second-line followers look on with admiration.
Besides Bucket – whose nickname refers to both his participation in basketball as a youth as well as, he’s not hesitant to explain, the shape of his head – there are only a handful of men who can boast of such an extensive amount of time parading. Yet, even the younger members of this city’s some 40 social aid and pleasure clubs share his enthusiasm not only for the fun they have at their yearly anniversary processions but also for the sense of fraternity they offer.
Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association
Sylvester Francis, the founder and curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which specializes in social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indians, calls it “familyhood.” “A club is like sisters and brothers – they’re going to step up,” he says.
Another important aspect for the clubs is the continuation of a black cultural tradition that, according to a study by the Jean Lafitte National Park, began in 1783. Originally, the mutual aid societies were established to provide a type of insurance to assist those in the black community with health care and funeral expenses through dues and fundraising activities. The colorful brass band parades were a form of advertising to promote membership in the organizations. Since the societies were often responsible for jazz funerals, it was a way for them to say, “Hey, look at us! Join our club!”
The social aid and pleasure clubs have maintained self-reliance and sense of community though they often found little respect from the powers that be. Francis believes that the club’s determination to keep the tradition alive comes from within.
“They are really trying to keep it going for their ancestors so when they look back they can say ‘My mama did this or my daddy did this,’” he explains. “That’s more important than New Orleans, because New Orleans doesn’t really give a damn about it.”
The Valley of the Silent Men (VOSM) Social Aid & Pleasure Club kicked off the 2007-‘08 second-line season in late August, celebrating its 22nd anniversary. Folks were glad to see the veterans back – the group’s last scheduled parade was Sun., Aug. 28, ‘05, which was, of course, cancelled. Strutting to the traditional sounds of the Tornado Brass Band, the VOSM paraded Uptown, stopping at regular spots like Bean Bros. on Danneel Street and Louisiana Avenue’s Sandpiper Lounge.
As always, these “stops” were mapped out on a “route sheet”: a flier showing the date, location and time a parade starts, travels and ends. The fliers are often distributed at the parades or found in local barrooms. Information announcing the parades is rarely announced in the mainstream media. Presently, the city limits the parades to four hours but Bucket remembers the days when the Young Men Olympian would head out at 11 a.m. and not end until 6 p.m.
“A long time ago, we used to go downtown and come back up because we had a lot of time,” he says, “but now we always stay in our district. We’ve always been a dancing club so we don’t want nobody to rush us. We put out a lot, a lot of money, so we’re going to enjoy ourselves and have our fun because [by doing so] we’ve already said it.”
While the duration of the parades has shortened, the second-line “season” has expanded considerably, mostly due to the increased number of social aid and pleasure clubs. Bucket recalls when anniversary parades were held only in August and September – considered the city’s “off season” – and were presented by just a few clubs including the Young Men Olympian, the Square Deals, the Prince of Wales, the Jolly Bunch and the Treme Sport. As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, the “season” lasted only through the fall, from August until December. Now, it goes on – with breaks during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and a scattering of other dates – until Father’s Day, when the Perfect Gentlemen Social Aid & Pleasure Club caps off the season.
Each club determines its own route with many stepping out of a barroom “headquarters” that often becomes a part of their identity. For instance, the Black Men of Labor, which traditionally rolls on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, comes out of Sweet Lorraine’s. It also holds its organizational meetings there and prior to the second-line, the St. Claude Avenue jazz club is draped with cloth that matches the members’ outfits. Similarly, the now-defunct Joe’s Cozy Corner was known as the “Home of the Sidewalk Steppers” and the Prince of Wales calls Tchoupitoulas Street’s Rock Bottom Lounge its home base. The Young Men Olympian and the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club both own their own, self-titled spots on Liberty and Broad streets, respectively.
To the outside observer, some of the parade routes might appear convoluted as they weave primarily through the city’s black neighborhoods. However, much consideration is given to the routes. For instance, the objective of what may seem a curious detour or stop might be to pay a short visit to a previous member or follower who is ailing and would otherwise miss the fun. The clubs often pass by a deceased member’s or musician’s home to pay tribute to them with a slow dirge.
“These clubs were made for the community to help the community,” says Francis, adding that the parade days are often a bar’s most profitable times.
The Big Nine’s parade route held special significance in 2006. It began in the Lower 9th Ward at Mickey’s Bar on St. Claude Avenue, went out to North Claiborne Avenue for a memorial near where the levee broke, circled back and, with much fervor, crossed the St. Claude Avenue bridge.
Ronald Lewis, the president and co-founder of the club explains: “When we decided to parade in 2006 and bring our parade from the Lower 9th Ward to the interior of the city – up into the 7th Ward – that was to show the spirit of the people of our community, that even though we took all this devastation and took all this hardship that we’re not going to just pass it off. We are a part of the city of New Orleans and we’re going to continue to be a part of it.”
When the Big Nine presents its annual parade on Dec. 23, 2007, it will reverse the route, starting in the 7th Ward and ending in the Lower 9th. “Now it’s really time for us to bring it to our house,” declares Lewis, a community activist who’s also the Counsel Chief of the Choctaw Hunters Mardi Gras Indians and curator and director of the second-line/Mardi Gras Indian museum – the House of Dance & Feathers, housed in his Lower 9th Ward home.
Naturally, since the storm, the Big Nine’s goal has been the rebuilding of the devastated community. “I am proud that all our core members are back,” Lewis says, adding that the club’s very presence helps assure the people of the neighborhood’s revival. His aim, he says, is to make certain that people are able to see their families and friends again, not as visitors but as neighbors.
Children Carryin’ It On
Bucket was only five years old when he, along with several other children, was recruited into the Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Society. Considering the duration of his tenure in the club, whoever signed him on – he doesn’t remember just who – sure picked the right kid. Unlike many of the youngsters second-lining with the social aid and pleasure clubs, Bucket didn’t have any relatives in the Young Men Olympian. And though his involvement in the social aid and pleasure clubs didn’t exactly run in his family, he did meet both of his wives at the parades.
He remembers the fun he had – and continues to have – at the parades and the parties and the picnics. Also important to him was how the older members stood as role models and tried to keep the young people out of trouble. That tradition continues today.
“We’re a stickler for being father figures particularly for those who don’t have fathers,” Bucket says. “We try to teach them the right way.”
When it comes to children’s behavior, many clubs stand by similar rules and punishments agrees Francis as he acknowledges the importance of their inclusion. If the kids do step out of line and get in trouble, they aren’t allowed to parade. Bucket explains that an offender can continue to come to the meetings but the opportunity and fun of second-lining with the club is suspended.
“It’s a privilege for a child to be a part of our organization,” declares Bucket, who’s highly respected by all and a father, big brother or uncle figure to many. “A lot of them look up to me because of the way I carry myself.”
Some groups have a sprinkling of children second-lining in style while others, like Sudan, which celebrates its anniversary in November, include a kids’ division. These units usually take the lead position in a parade where they’re protected from the crowd and can set the pace. Children are the core of the Tambourine & Fan organization both at its springtime parade and year-round recreational and educational functions.
“It makes the kids proud to be out there where all their little friends can see them,” says Francis. “It gives them a focus on something very good.”
While the children, as well as the women, who parade with the Big Nine aren’t actually members of the club – they can’t vote – they are essential to the organization’s spirit.
“If you don’t bring the youth into it, it will die off,” Lewis concurs. “We let them know that they are doing something special.”
On the flip side in 2004, the Big Nine inaugurated a new element into its procession, a Senior Queen. “We wanted to let them know they’re special, too – they can be queen for a day,” says Lewis. “We are trying to create that family atmosphere.”
Brass Bands Blowin’
Bucket remembers the days when groups like the Eureka, Young Tuxedo, Doc Paulin’s and George Williams’ brass bands reigned on the streets. The first division of the Young Men Olympian parade – Bucket’s division of older gentlemen – maintains the musical styles and attire of the past. The band and the club members wear black and white and avoid the hot, often hip-hop inspired, tunes popular on the streets today.
“My division is strictly traditional. If you want to jump and flip flop and all of that, go to one of the other divisions,” Bucket advises, referring to the back of the parade where you’ll find bands like Hot 8 and ReBirth kicking it hard for the last two units.
The Black Men of Labor (BMOL) share a similar mindset with Bucket and his first division, relying and enjoying a reputation for keeping traditional brass band music on the streets. An expanded version of the Treme Brass Band and the New Birth Brass Band, both of which play in the traditional style, got the call this year. Stepping to tunes such as “Big Fat Woman,” it was no holds barred for the BMOL members who put on quite a show.
“What anybody else does – we have nothing to do with that,” says president and co-founder Fred Johnson. “Everybody likes what they like. We like what we like and in order for us to get what we like we had to put our money where our mouth is.”
Some organizations might balk at hiring the young, up-and-coming bands for their occasions, believing that they don’t come to the parade tradition with the proper background. Lewis sees it differently.
“The Big Nine is an equal opportunity club,” he offers. “We never had a problem hiring start-up bands in our parades. We might have the Hot 8 and a start-up band or the ReBirth and a start-up band. We had to start somewhere to give these young people an opportunity to come out and show their worth, I feel good about that.”
When a Sunday second-line goes “buckjumping” by with trumpets blaring and smiling people dancing, it’s good to remember that these occasions are the result of a full year of planning and work. They also often represent just one aspect of a club that acts as a core and resource for their communities.
“We laugh together, we dance together and we cry together,” says Johnson.
Bucket echoes the sentiment: “We take care of our sick and bury our dead. I’ve had had a good life in second-lines. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”