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NOLA History: Social Aid Clubs and Second Lines

Discover the history of New Orleans’ second line parades and social aid clubs, an important part of the city’s past and present.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers (Photo: Rebecca Todd)

Say “parade” to most visitors to New Orleans, and their thoughts shift immediately to Mardi Gras. But our Carnival celebrations are merely one component of our street parties. The rest of the year, we “second line.”

Parades have been a part of New Orleans since the early days of the city. French troops would drill on the Place d’Armes, the city’s parade ground, located in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Those troops would march down to the parade ground from their barracks, often accompanied by drummers and buglers. By the Spanish colonial period, soldiers were accompanied by a full military band. As the soldiers marched through the city, young boys and family members would follow behind the main procession. The soldiers and band were the “first line,” and those joining in unofficially were the “second line” of the parade.

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The Young Men Olympians dressed in their second line Sunday best (Photo by Susan Whelan)

The tradition of walking along with military parades grew as European immigrants from other countries brought their funeral traditions with them to New Orleans. Families would often hire a brass band to march with funeral processions, from the church to the cemetery, then from the cemetery back to the family home. The rhythmic sounds of muffled drums and horns contributed to the dignity and solemnity needed to send loved ones to their final resting place. Once the deceased was committed to the tomb or grave, the band would play less solemn tunes, reminding the marchers that life goes on.

There was one important catch to funerals, however. It wasn’t cheap to give family members a proper burial. Above-ground tombs were expensive, and families who came over with not much more than the clothes on their backs certainly didn’t have the money to buy a plot and build even a “single” tomb. So, they did what villages and communities have done for centuries: pooled their resources. Ethnic communities (Germans, Irish, Italians) would form “benevolent societies” that built large, mausoleum-sized tombs in New Orleans cemeteries. Families would pay monthly dues to the society. When a loved one passed away, the society would handle the funeral arrangements, often including a band.

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To Be Continued Brass Band playing in a Young Men Olympians second line (Photo by Susan Whelan)

After the Civil War, black families found themselves in a situation similar to that of immigrant whites: limited resources. These families followed the model of the other communities, pooling resources by forming “social aid” societies, so they could bury their loved ones with dignity. Black musicians could work professionally as free men, so it wasn’t long after the war ended that they put together brass bands. Funerals would become an important source for gigs. One of the best ways to avoid confrontation with others during the tense years of Reconstruction was for the entire “social aid” society to join the funeral procession.

When “Jim Crow” laws came into being in the late 19th Century, white musicians played clubs, saloons, and social events for white society. Those bands kept busy, leaving the street parades to black musicians. The black musicians began to add syncopated rhythms and improvisational techniques to the traditional military-style tunes, and the jazz bands were born. Jazz gets the feet moving, and the up-tempo songs the bands played as they left the cemeteries were a call to the community at large to join in, celebrate life, and dance.

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A fancy Pigeon Town Lady Stepper doing a second line strut (Photo by Susan Whelan)

As jazz grew in popularity in the early years of the 20th Century, one of the easiest ways for younger musicians to practice their skills was to parade though the streets, passing the hat as they went by. Even the bands of experienced musicians would ride wagons through the streets on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, playing tunes and advertising their evening gigs at the baseball parks, dance halls, and saloons. These bands would attract followers, “second liners,” parading and dancing behind the band.

Black families became more and more a part of the city’s middle and upper classes, and the original purpose of “social aid” societies evolved from that of burial society to “pleasure club.” The membership of a number of these societies decided that there was no reason to limit their parades to funerals. The clubs would hire a band, meet at a favorite bar or club on a Sunday afternoon in their best clothes, and parade through the neighborhood. This evolved into a formal schedule of groups looking to parade in similar clothing and costumes. The band plays, the club members show off their best clothes and dance moves, and everyone has a good time.

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Little Young Men Olympians starting the tradition early (Photo by Susan Whelan)

New Orleans visitors can catch second line parades on Sunday afternoons in the fall and spring. Many of the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs take their talents to the New Orleans Fair Grounds each spring, parading there during the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Come check out a New Orleans second line, but it’s a must to move those feet and dance along with the band!

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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