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The Second Line Parade – The Cultural Exuberance of New Orleans Going Wide

Second lining and second line parades are now spreading to other parts of the country, particularly in the South.

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Humans everywhere have always had rituals and rites to celebrate and commemorate the major events and passages of life – particularly birth, marriage, and death. That’s what the New Orleans-flavored second line parade is.

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There’s just no other city like New Orleans . . . anywhere. Ancient oak trees draped with Spanish moss, mosquitoes and alligators, old streets lined with wrought-iron balconies, the near debauchery of Mardi Gras, a curious Catholic culture, Creole culture with African and Caribbean and French elements, home of jazz, the setting for macabre movies, proud survivor of horrendous natural disasters, below sea level with graves on top of the ground, source and origin of unique cuisine – all that and more makes New Orleans what it is today.

Situated on a prime site at a bend in the Mississippi River and 100 miles above the mouth, New Orleans, since the early eighteenth century, has been the state’s chief city and the Gulf’s busiest northern port. It was founded by French expatriates, then ruled by the Spanish for 40 years, and finally purchased by the United States in 1803, playing a significant role in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. New Orleans is known for its highly distinctive Creole culture along with its vibrant, cluttered history.

And then there’s the peculiarly New Orleans phenomenon of second-line parades.


The City of Diversity and Contrasts

The first inhabitants of the New Orleans area were, of course, Native Americans, primarily the Woodland and Mississippian cultures. European exploring expeditions passed through – De Soto in 1542 and La Salle in 1682 – but there were no permanent white settlers till 1718. Around the middle of that century was when French settlers arrived after their expulsion from much farther north on the continent.

The expulsion of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick occurred between 1755 and 1764. The British deported more than 11,000 of these settlers from their northern home after acquiring control of the region as a result of their military campaign against New France. These French Acadians were deported to various points in the Thirteen Colonies. But many of them found Louisiana, especially the area west of New Orleans, more to their liking and so eventually migrated there. French was the dominant language in the area and the name Acadian was in time corrupted to Cajun.

Then, in 1762 and 1763, France signed treaties that ceded Louisiana to Spain. So New Orleans became a Spanish city engaging in a brisk trade with Cuba and Mexico. An interesting development of Spanish rule was that under Spanish customs and law there was a free class of people of color. And this meant that the area felt a greater influence by people of African origin, including those who came to New Orleans by way of the Caribbean islands.

By 1803 Louisiana had reverted to the French who sold it to the United States in that year as part of the Louisiana purchase. During the first part of the nineteenth century, when most of the residents spoke French, New Orleans was the wealthiest and third-largest city in the nation, shipping vast quantities of goods and produce to Europe, South America, and the Caribbean. Though thousands of slaves were bought and sold there, the free Black community was thriving.

At the beginning of the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy but soon fell to Union troops. After Emancipation, people of color played an important role in political processes until the 1970s.

The twentieth century saw much low-lying swampland reclaimed, along with the advent of the famous electric streetcars and the birth of jazz. After World War II, racial tensions increased, many affluent white citizens fled, and the city was damaged by several hurricanes. But New Orleans survived and thrived to become a major tourist destination – with unique customs and celebrations.

Out of this cultural stew – where seeming contradictions were reconciled and cooked together for a unique, unrepeatable flavor – and an irrepressible will to live came the second line phenomenon. And the joy and exuberance are spreading.

The Second Line Parade

Humans everywhere have always had rituals and rites to celebrate and commemorate the major events and passages of life – particularly birth, marriage, and death. That’s what the New Orleans-flavored second line parade is.

Second-line parades are the direct descendants of New Orleans’ famous jazz funerals, which included a casket, a host of mourners, and a band. Today, there “are dozens of different second-line parades put on throughout the year, usually on Sunday afternoons, and held in the French Quarter and neighborhoods all across the city. They range in size, level of organization, and traditions, but in all cases, they will include a brass band, jubilant dancing in the street and members decked out in a wardrobe of brightly colored suits, sashes, hats and bonnets, parasols, and banners, melding the pomp of a courtly function and the spontaneous energy of a block party, albeit one that moves a block at a time” (

And today, especially for wedding second lines, revelers carry and wave white handkerchiefs (often specially embroidered for the occasion) that they wave as they dance and process.

The term “second line” is used to refer to the revelers and participants who aren’t the principals in the event, but join in to help celebrate and carry the jubilation and excitement forward. For a funeral, for example, the family members of the deceased and for a wedding, the main wedding party would form what is known as the “first line.” “[T]hose who follow along, dancing and singing as they go, form what is known as the ‘second line.’ Second lining can also refer to the type of dancing that usually goes on at these parades – a wild, strutting dance step to carry participants forward in pace with the brass band – so one can go to a second line, be in a second line and do the second line all at once” (

Originally, second-line parades were primarily a kind of funeral procession. Jazz funerals have been a big part of New Orleans culture for a long time, and the second line phenomenon grew out of that. A funeral second line usually consists of the hearse moving from the funeral to the burial service, the guests and participants (both first line and second line), and a jazz band. The idea is to celebrate the life of the deceased.

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Today, however, second-line parades are more commonly a wedding celebration, celebrating in a formal and peculiarly New Orleans way the beginning of the couple’s new life together. “Usually, the second line brings the guests and bridal party from the ceremony to the reception. The newlyweds lead the procession, umbrellas in hand, while the wedding party and guests follow the band with handkerchiefs” (

So leading the procession is the first line – typically the band and the ones being honored, the bride and groom. The just-married couple usually heads the procession carrying decorated umbrellas or parasols. Following the couple and the band (and often the other main players in the wedding party) are the guests and, really, anyone else who wants to join in. These make up the second line, usually dancing, strutting, and waving handkerchiefs.

In New Orleans, it’s pretty safe to assume that if a couple is celebrating their wedding, they will have some kind of second-line celebration at some point. It could be dancing around the wedding venue or a formal parade in the streets, but in New Orleans, a wedding generally means a second line.

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Participants are usually provided party favors like personalized handkerchiefs with the couple’s names and wedding date printed or embroidered on them. The idea is to engender a celebratory mood and encourage them to participate wholeheartedly. Bridesmaids are sometimes presented with special hand-painted umbrellas or parasols, and groomsmen with painted canes so they can colorfully dance and strut to the band’s beat. The brass band, though, is an essential traditional element to lead the procession.

Where it Came From

Scholars believe that the second lining’s origins can be traced to traditional West African circle dances. In these dances, children formed a circle on the periphery of the main circle of dancers – the second circle of dancers much like the second line of revelers and dancers in a second line parade. This style of dancing was brought by slaves to New Orleans to be incorporated into formal processions, eventually becoming second lining. It’s also believed that the exaggerated, loosely coordinated strutting characteristic of second-line dancing was an outgrowth of the dancing slaves engaged in on their Sundays off.

Second lining can definitely be traced to the nineteenth century and the fraternal societies and neighborhood organizations meant to provide insurance and burial assistance to members of the African-American community. Many of these sprang up immediately after the Civil War to provide loans and education to newly freed slaves, for example, the New Orleans Freedmen’s Aid Association founded in 1865. Then, in order to advertise their services, these organizations began hosting neighborhood celebrations and parades.

Eventually, overt racial segregation began to disappear and insurance and other services opened up for Blacks in New Orleans. These fraternal organizations then shifted their primary focus from social aid to the parades themselves. And so the second line parade was born. Still, such organizations retain the ties to their roots as benevolent societies and often refer to themselves yet as “social aid and pleasure clubs.”

Parades hosted by such groups as the Jolly Bunch, the Sidewalk Steppers, the Devastating Men, and the Popular Ladies are usually propelled in their procession by the unique sound of a New Orleans brass band. This sound is characterized by a thumping, syncopated, irresistibly foot-moving beat, and typical instruments include trumpet, trombone, saxophone, tuba, snare drum, and bass drum. The music differs from both contemporary jazz and traditional Dixieland and leans heavily on improvisation and funked-up interpretations of pop songs. This music sets the mood and moves along the second line celebration, strutting, dancing, and handkerchief waving.

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True to their roots, second-line parades travel major thoroughfares only briefly and spend most of their route meandering along neighborhood side streets. These routes, passing by elegant antebellum mansions one minute and then housing projects a few blocks later, point up the cultural and historical stew that New Orleans is. Routes can change from year to year, and information about routes and schedules can be hard to come by. After all these years, second-line parades remain primarily a local, grassroots phenomenon.

The Second Line Handkerchief

But why do participants wave white handkerchiefs? Originally, second line participants carried umbrellas or parasols to add color and motion to the animated procession. With spontaneity a key element, people would decide to join the festivities but didn’t have a handy umbrella or parasol. So they would just grab the nearest white handkerchief to wave. Men and women many years ago usually carried such a handkerchief, so they were easy to come by when people wanted to join the festivities. And then, as with many things that have practical roots, the white handkerchiefs became part of the tradition.

Second Line Celebration Spreading

Second lining and second-line parades are now no longer to be found only in New Orleans. This style of celebration is spreading to other parts of the country, particularly in the South. Memphis, for example, is rapidly becoming a noted center for second-line celebrations. The Memphis Second Line Jazz Band is known to lead impromptu parades from Memphis Park on Front Street to RiverPlay on Riverside Drive.

You can even find second line celebrations in places as far from New Orleans as Massachusetts, with the HONK! Festival in Somerville started by the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band. There’s also a remarkable second line presence in Asheville, North Carolina. There, the Asheville Second Line Band leads parades and performs at other local events.

Your Source for Second Line Handkerchiefs

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