New Orleans's Second Line Tradition is a Reminder of the Need for Collective GrievingBreaking News
tags: African American history, New Orleans, music, Second Lines
Every part of a ritual funeral procession in New Orleans is sacred.
Stafford Agee says it just feels different when he performs one in his hometown. As a musician, his responsibility is to honor the life of the deceased and give the family a little more joy in the transition. “I never liked considering a funeral being a gig,” he says. “I’m performing for somebody’s homegoing ceremony.”
When Agee, a member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, lifts his trombone, he forges a connection between his city’s musical traditions, those who came before him, and this ritual of remembrance and celebration. In those moments, the car-lined streets and the houses that line the route are transformed into the walls of a church; it’s spiritual. There’s an inescapable solemnity, yes, but also so much laughter.
For Black New Orleans, these funeral second lines, sometimes called jazz funerals by observers, have existed for generations. In its simplest form, the second line is a parade, a mass of celebrants and mourners that weave their way through the streets. For the city’s Black culture-bearers who make it their life’s work to uplift and maintain the traditions of their ancestors, the funeral second line is much more. It is one of many sacred cultural rites that originated in the crucible of the American slave trade and are maintained to this day. The term second line refers to the crowd of community members and mourners who follow the first line of the parade — the casket, family, and musicians. In New Orleans, that first line includes percussion alongside a brass band, with trumpeters, tubists, and trombonists like Agee.
Funeral second lines are community events, with sometimes hundreds of people joining the procession. “I come from the era when you’re in your house and you hear music and you go ‘Second line!’ and you run outside,” says Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Big Queen of the Washita Nation, and an artistic director of Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and adjunct professor of dance at Tulane University. For her, the dancing typical in a second line allows each individual to be uniquely expressive but also invites them into a chorus of bodies, where one collective movement becomes a part of a mourning practice.
This month, for example, family and fans took to the streets to celebrate the life of pioneering bounce rapper “Josephine Johnny” Watson, who died in late December at 45. The city, too, has held second lines for Prince, and even Betty White, after their deaths. In New Orleans, grief doesn’t exist without laughter, without dancing, without the movement of bodies, the crush of crowds, and the reminder that death, no matter how somber, is a part of life.
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