Handkerchiefs and parasols are waving in the air. A brass band is blaring out classic New Orleans tunes, and men in colorful suits are waving feathered fans and buck-jumping. The entire neighborhood is standing on porches, cheering along the foot parade, joining in and singing along as the stream of people weaves up and down the side streets.
This is a New Orleans Second Line, one of the city's iconic cultural institutions. It's a cornerstone of social life for locals, particularly the African-American community, from which the tradition sprung.
If you're in New Orleans and you see one of these exuberant parades marching by, understand that, yes, you can certainly join in. Heck, you can even seek one out and join up from the start. Here's what they're all about.
Learn the Significance of the Second Line
Simply put, in a New Orleans street parade, whether it be for the occasion of a funeral or a celebration, the group leading the parade and the brass band that accompanies them are considered the parade's "Main Line."
The large group of revelers and onlookers who invariably follow along behind, enjoying the music and the social scene, are the "Second Line." Traditionally, Second Lines formed organically and without planning whenever a procession took place. Nowadays, the routes and bands are generally announced to the neighborhood in advance so people can plan.
In New Orleans African-American Creole culture, Second Lines are the community event of the week. They take place on most Sunday afternoons throughout the year (minus major holidays and the hottest part of summer), and they allow the community to congregate and celebrate.
You'll usually find food vendors along the route, and most Second Lines also start and end at neighborhood bars (and sometimes visit a few along the way), so libations are plentiful.
Know Your History
The earliest Second Lines seem to have taken place after funerals. The merging of European and African customs led to early forms of what is commonly known as "jazz funerals." (Naturally, they weren't called that before jazz was invented, they were just called funerals.)
The format was one you might recognize from movies or television, though: A band accompanies a hearse and mourners to the cemetery, playing dirges along the way. After the body is interred, the procession leaves the cemetery with the band playing happy tunes, looking back with joy at the life of the deceased and celebrating the fact that the revelers are still alive.
The funerary history intermingles with the story of New Orleans' famous Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Benevolent Societies, which were largely founded as community-based health and funeral insurance co-ops.
Members would pay into a pot, which assured that their family would be cared for financially in the case of illness or death. The clubs eventually morphed into community hubs, throwing celebrations, coordinating funerals, and performing charitable works.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs still exist, though their function is mostly ceremonial and communal (rather than financial). It's these groups that throw the majority of public Second Lines. You can always identify the club members easily; they're the ones in vibrant matching outfits marching with the Main Line of the parade.
Second Lines also form when Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets, as well as at weddings and other celebrations around the city. They're also still standard after traditional brass-band-led funerals.
Be a Good Guest
Second Lines are generally open to all, regardless of color, creed or place of origin, but out-of-towners, in particular, should make sure to be respectful. This is a cultural tradition that has bound a community together through rougher times than most will ever see, so even though the scene tends to be lighthearted, there are important things going on here. It's an honor to be able to witness it, so be reverential and appreciative. Basic rules of politeness apply. Follow suit with what the locals are doing and don't be exceptionally drunk and obnoxious and you'll be fine.
Do patronize businesses on the route, both official (bars and groceries) and unofficial (nice old ladies selling yaka mein and jambalaya out of the beds of their trucks, it'll be cheap and safe and the closest to local home cookin' that most tourists will ever see, so eat up). And if a collection is taken up at the beginning or end of the parade, throw in a few bucks.
The exception: If you come across a Second Line that's following a funeral procession or recession, just stand by and watch. Though some locals might join in the Second Line even if they didn't know the deceased, it's iffy territory for a tourist. For decency's sake, it's best to just observe. At a wedding Second Line, on the other hand (usually seen in the French Quarter), jump right in.
Know Where to Find One
The New Orleans radio station WWOZ publishes a detailed list of upcoming Second Lines, including their specific routes. They also publish photo galleries of recent Second Lines and a free podcast of "Takin' It to the Streets," a weekly show that celebrates the Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian traditions and interviews major players in the scene.
If you're less sure about attending one of the traditional neighborhood-based Second Lines, most of the larger festivals in town throw them as part of their festivities. This includes Jazz Fest, where Second Lines take place daily, often featuring brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid and Pleasure Club members all in one.
Second Lines are largely safe and are always accompanied by a group of police officers to keep the peace, but like any large community gatherings (block parties, street festivals) the parades can attract a negative element.
This alone should not be a reason to avoid them entirely but keep your wits about you if you attend. Odds are excellent that everything will be fine, but if a fight or other drama breaks out, do not intervene, just keep away and alert the police.
Otherwise, basic rules of safety and comfort apply: Hydrate well, wear comfortable shoes, don't forget sunscreen, carry a backpack with snacks and water (you might find yourself walking pretty far away from your car), lock your vehicle and don't bring anything of value along. And bring a camera, but don't spend your entire day on it. Participating is what you're there for.