New Orleans second lines continue their traditions
New Orleans second lines are moveable feasts of music, dancing, rhythm and community. They are also known for their inclusiveness, sweatiness, and too often, violence.
Their roots can be traced back to 19th century fraternal black neighborhood benevolent societies, eventually called social aid and pleasure clubs, that were created to provide life insurance and burial services to members who were not able to obtain them otherwise. The first of these was the New Orleans Freedmen’s Aid Association, founded shortly after the end of the Civil War specifically for freed slaves. Soon after their creation, those organizations began to host parades in their neighborhoods to honor members who had died, and to promote their services.
The jazz funerals hosted by these organizations may have begun in the tradition of West African circle dances, straightening into lines because of the restrictions city streets placed on the processions. These always included a band that played dirges from the church to the cemetery, switching to more joyful music for the turn back to the church.
The family and neighborhood social aid and pleasure club that sponsored the funeral or party is known as the “main line,” with those who fall in behind them – just spectators in other cities – known as the “second line.”
Second lines tend to begin at the clubhouse of the club that sponsors the parade, moving on to houses of members who have passed – and playing dirges there in their memories – and stopping at popular bars along the way that usually have ties to the club.
As the parade moves, so do the vendors. Both bars, the most famous of which occupies the top and the back of a white pickup truck, and food vendors, often selling barbecue and ya ka mein, can be seen along many second line routes catering to those who are farther back in the parade who may not be able to get into the bars before the parade passes them by.
Since for the members of these clubs and their families the club’s annual second line is an occasion that cannot be missed, it has also often been a time of violence. Several years ago, the city raised marching club security fees so high – sometimes as much as 10 times the old rate – that it seemed that second lines and other working-class parades might have to end in the face of costs they couldn’t afford.
The most recent and memorable moment of violence was the Mother’s Day 2013 second line held by the Original Big 7. Only 20 minutes into the celebration, a 19-year-old man identified by police as Akein Scott fired into the crowd. According to the NOPD, 20 people sustained gunshot wounds –three of them left in critical condition. One of those was blogger and journalist Red Cotton.
On June 14, 2013, Cotton published a piece in The Lens from her bed in the intensive care unit of University Hospital on her reflections on the parade, the shooting and what she and the city was going through. It included her thoughts on her shooter: “What should happen to the one who shot me? I don’t know. Maybe it’s too late for him. He’ll probably get a lot of time. Maybe most of his life will be spent in jail. I would like to meet him, talk to him, connect with him some kind of way. I feel bad for him throwing his life away like that over a momentary bad decision.”
This time the city reacted differently to the violence. Both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas made certain to separate the shooting from the celebration that it ruined in their statements. The NOPD soon arrested Akein Scott and his brother Shawn Scott for 20 counts of second-degree murder.
Two weeks after the violence, the Original Big 7 held a “Redo” parade as a statement against the gun violence prevalent in the 7th Ward, where the club is based. The celebration included all three bands that were present at the original celebration and followed the same route. More than 500 people attended the boisterous and nonviolent parade, and even a momentary drizzle couldn’t subdue the crowd’s jubilant spirit.
This year the majority of the second line season has already passed without headline violence, and the anniversary of the Mother’s Day shooting is upon us. I have personally seen New Orleanians and visitors alike from myriad backgrounds, social standings, tax brackets, races, religions and beliefs dance together to “Little Liza Jane” behind brass bands until they had to pass each other handkerchiefs to wipe at dripping sweat beads that reflected the happiness of that moment. Join in the celebrations, but please, leave the violence – and guns – at home.
Second Line Caledar
Sun., May 11, 1 p.m.: Original Big 7 Parade. Begins at their headquarters located at 1825 Elysian Fields Ave.
Sun., May 11, 1 p.m.: Circle of Chiefs annual Downtown Super Sunday Indian Cha Wa Parade. Begins on Orleans Avenue at Bayou St. John at Moss Street; ends at Hardin Park.
Sun., May 18, 1 p.m.: Divine Ladies Parade
Sun., May 25, 1 p.m.: Money Wasters Parade
Sun., June 15, 1 p.m.: Perfect Gentlemen Father’s Day Parade
The Original Big 7 and The Red Flame Hunters
Started September 1995 in the St. Bernard Housing Development, the Original Big 7 has been second-lining through the 7th Ward on Mother’s Day since 2001.
In the interest of supporting their neighborhood’s history, they began the Original Big 7 Culture and Heritage Division, which sets out to “celebrate the culture of New Orleans and pass it on to the next generation.”
In the spirit of that mission, they are raising funds for, supporting and nurturing the Red Flame Hunters, the “first and only all-kids Mardi Gras Indian Tribe.” Each member designs, sews and performs in their own suits, which require hours of planning, hand-sewing, beading, adding feathers and practicing. For the past three years Justin “Tugga” Cloud, a student at McDonogh 35 Senior High School, has led the tribe.
To learn more about the Original Big 7 Culture and Heritage Division and the Red Flame Hunters, and to donate to their cause, visit RedFlameHunters.com.