Dancing in the Streets: A History of the Second Line

Dancing in the Streets: A History of the Second Line

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Aired on April 30, 2022

Whether you’ve been to New Orleans or not, you’ve seen them—the brass band that parades through the streets in a somber march only to erupt in a celebration of music, color and dance. Like the pied piper the band draws crowds who dance through the streets like it’s Mardi Gras.

That is the Second Line.

So what is a Second Line exactly?

Ladies & Men of Unity Second line Stooges Brass Band
Ladies & Men of Unity Secondline Stooges Brass Band. Photo licensed by CC 2.0

In this episode of World Footprints, Tonya and Ian Fitzpatrick visited The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) in the French Quarter to meet with two amazing guests, Judy Cooper and Eric Seiferth, who help us understand the history and traditions of the Second Line.

Judy Cooper is a long-time New Orleanian and second-line photographer who has just created a vibrant photo essay book on the second line entitled, Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans (published by The Historic New Orleans Collection). Judy’s book explores and celebrates the Second Line’s history and practice.

Eric Seiferth is curator and historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection focusing on 20th-century New Orleans and the musical heritage of the city. Eric co-curated the Collection’s “Dancing in the Streets” exhibit which is available online at HNOC.org.

Put on your alligator shoes and Sunday best as we explore the history of the Second Line while we go dancing in the streets of New Orleans.

Ladies & Men of Unity Second line Stooges Brass Band Blue Shoes and Socks
Ladies & Men of Unity Secondline Stooges Brass Band Blue Shoes and Socks. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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Dancing in the Streets book cover
Click image to see on Amazon

Full transcripts are available in the link below.

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Tonya (00:12) Welcome. You’re listening to World Footprints. I’m Tonya Fitzpatrick. Ian (00:17) And I’m Ian Fitzpatrick. On today’s episode, we’re going to dance through the streets of New Orleans as we learn about the history and practices of the second line. Judy (00:27) The first line would be the family, the family themselves and the band. And then the second line was the name for all of the mourners that would follow along behind. And the way the old funeral went was that they played somber dirges and hymns on the way to the Cemetery. And when they got to the Cemetery and after the burial on the way out of the Cemetery, the band would start playing more lively tunes. And the second line folks would start dancing as a celebration of life. Tonya (01:13) You just heard Judy Cooper, a longtime New Orleanian and second line photographer, explain where the term second line came from. Judy recently published an amazing photo essay book about second line history and practice called Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans. Ian (01:35) During a recent visit to New Orleans, we stopped by the historic New Orleans collection in the French Quarter. That’s where we met Judy Cooper and Eric Seiferth, a historian cocurator of the collections Dancing in the Streets exhibit. Tonya (01:50) Judy and Eric, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us on World Footprints. Eric (01:55) Thank you for having me. Judy (01:56) Yes. Tonya (01:58) I love the work that you’ve done about the second lines. And I want to ask, first of all, Judy, what is a second line? Judy (02:07) A second line is a street parade with a brass band. And these are clubs, the social Aid and pleasure clubs. They call themselves in the city. There are about 50 of them, and each one parades once a year on a set date. Tonya (02:30) I think a lot of people may confuse the second line with Mardi Gras Indians. Are they one in the same, or are they distinct? Judy (02:38) They are totally distinct. Totally distinct. These are as I said, they’re social aid and pleasure clubs, and each one will put on a parade once a year. They get all dressed up. The men wear either very colorful suits or shirts and pants and matching hats and shoes and gloves and carry big fans and other paraphernalia that they wave as they dance through the streets to the music of a brass band. And one of the unique things about the second line parades is that the spectators don’t just stand on the sidewalk and watch them go by. They fall in behind the band and everybody dances through the streets for 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon. Tonya (03:32) I couldn’t imagine standing still. Judy (03:35) The music you can’t even me as a photographer, I couldn’t stand still. Tonya (03:41) So, Eric, what is the back story, the second line? How did they start? Eric (03:45) Well, there’s a long tradition in town of parading and musical processions. It goes back really to the founding of the European city here in the early 18th century. If you fast forward a little bit to the 19th century. There are a lot of different kinds of voluntary organizations specifically for African Americans, Afro Creoles in the city. I say voluntary. These are like benevolent associations or mutual aid associations, meaning they are members provide each other with social services. They meet and have events as well. And they’re also a number of fraternal organizations. These groups continued throughout that century. And after the Civil War, of course, you get an influx of a new population of African Americans in the city, particularly leaving the plantations and coming into urban areas. It happens across the South, and it results in explosion of clubs of this kind. And this is happening in the city among all different types of groups. There are women’s literary clubs and social clubs. There are unions forming. There are all kinds of fraternal organizations. We think by around 1900 there’s something in the order of 200 to 300, specifically black clubs made up of Afro Creoles and African Americans in the city. Eric (05:26) And a lot of them start parading as one of their events, whether it be an annual parade. They may put on funeral parades when somebody passes away. We know, for example, one of the oldest current club that still practices Young Man Olympians Junior. They date to the 1880s, and their founder tells us that their parading tradition started with funeral parades put on for the musicians in the club. And after a while, they embraced having annual anniversary parades to celebrate the anniversary of the founding club. Another example from that period comes from economy hall. And I know you’ve talked with Fatima and I don’t know if she mentioned this, but in the club minutes that she has in the 1870s, you can see in French them talking about having an annual parade is one of their main events. And they say, well, what kind of music should we have for the par