A Second-Line Revival
"In this place, there's a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful 'second line,' symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line." --George W. Bush, September 15, 2005
Word spread in bars, coffee shops and by way of New Orleans' independent radio station, WWOZ, that there was going to be a second line at 10 Saturday morning starting at Sweet Loraine's on Saint Claude Avenue. The parade was with the Black Men of Labor, who second-line annually on Labor Day. There were to be two brass bands, The Hot 8 and To Be Continued, a group of teenage musicians.
By the time I arrived at the closed bar, an odd assortment of recently returned city residents were milling about on the sidewalk and the trash-strewn neutral ground. Amid duct-taped refrigerators and piles of moldy sheetrock, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods where the second-line culture has lived for generations watched with anticipation as the pre-parade drama unfolded. Gutter punks, their faces tattooed and pierced, were dressed for a postapocalyptic ball, with girls in tutus and dresses and men in top hats. Middle-aged music aficionados were also mixed into the crowd, wearing vintage "Jazzfest 88" T-shirts that testified to their authentic love of New Orleans' music. The whole scene was under the magnifying glass of 100 cameras and a dozen video cameras, recording the moment for posterity.
One documentarian, in a Yankees hat and with a large movie crew, was especially conspicuous. The storm had blown in Spike Lee, a genuine national celebrity. In a city that is just as eager to revere its own local celebrities--like Mister Quintron, an indie musician and inventor of the Drum Buddy; rock-star celebrity chef Susan Spicer; and the late Ernie K-Doe, singer of the 1960s R&B classic "Mother-in-Law" and self-proclaimed "emperor of the world"--Spike Lee attracted little more attention than the rest of the many cameramen as he worked on his new documentary, When the Levees Broke. No one had come to Sweet Loraine's to gawk at stars other than the dozen or so men in yellow shirts who were set to perform their distinctive dance up and down New Orleans' streets.
As we waited for the parade to start, an off-the-cuff press conference began, with cameras converging around the dapper men and people asking questions about the meaning of the second line after the storm. As New Orleanians are rarely at a loss for words these days in explaining their plight and the significance of their lives and culture (nothing like being left for dead by the rest of your country to make you realize that you have to speak up for yourself), Fred Johnson, one of the founders of the thirteen-year-old Second-Line Club, wearing a black fedora and dark glasses, responded at length, linking New Orleans' black cultural traditions to those of his ancestors, who were slaves in Louisiana. "Slaves created gumbo from the scraps off the table out of what no one else wanted," he said. "The big house didn't know what the little house was doin', but when they found out, it became a cuisine." He enunciated "cuisine" with slight mockery and derision but also with understanding--as, of course, who wouldn't want gumbo?
Not everyone was eager to listen to talking, though. Interrupting the monologue, a lanky middle-aged black man announced, "I came here to dance! Where's the music at?" He was soon placated by the booming moan of Bennie "Big Peter" Pete tuning his tuba. A heavy black woman with a tiny Nike backpack and big gold earrings, with a faint tattoo of an M on her hand, was ecstatic at the sound: "Bring me back home. Waah, waaah, waah, waaah. I been waiting to hear that. I been hearing it in my sleep."
As The Hot 8 tuned up, the Black Men of Labor disappeared into Sweet Loraine's, and the excitement of the promise of real New Orleans culture after months in the monoculture of Jackson, Houston and Pensacola spread among the crowd.
The Hot 8 began playing "E Flat Blues," and tears came to people's eyes as they gathered around outside, waiting for the second-liners to emerge from Sweet Loraine's. Then each player burst through the doors, one by one, like the hometown team coming onto the basketball court at the beginning of the game. Each man, dressed in the same yellow-and-black outfit, expressed an individual character coming through the darkened doors. Some sauntered, some strutted, and one particularly inspired dancer walked and danced in a squat with his butt almost on the sidewalk. Cheers for each of them were barely discernible over the loud brass.