Some thoughts on the Second Line Culture of New Orleans

Nearly a decade ago, when I was the editor of Beat Street Magazine, we published an issue focused exclusively on the culture of our city, which included stories about jazz funerals, the evolution of brass bands and the return of Danny Barker (pictured below-photo by Michael P. Smith) to New Orleans. During an editorial planning meeting, a heated discussion ensued between myself, the publisher Steve Novak and the esteemed musicologist and cultural historian Jerry Brock. Novak wanted to include a piece about the underground economy of food and drink vendors that are integral to second line parades.

His idea was to interview Miss Linda, the Ya-ka-Mein Lady; the BBQ grill men, the men with rolling coolers full of beverages and other member of this unique subculture. At the time, Kermit Ruffins had recently left the Rebirth Brass Band to start the BBQ Swingers and was supplementing his income cooking his now-signature food on a barbecue pit that was mounted in the bed of his pickup truck.

Brock was totally against anything that would expose these underground entrepreneurs to the vagaries of city government bureaucracy. He was convinced that permits and inspections would doom this important cultural tradition. The decision to assign a writer to this story was mine and I sided with Brock.

Now the proverbial cat is out of the bag. As the second line season kicked off this past Sunday with the annual parade of the Valley of the Silent Men through Central City, two stories appeared in the Times-Picayune suggesting that one of the reasons for an impeding crackdown was complaints from bar owners on the parade route about alcohol and food sales in front of their establishments.

(video by Big Red Cotton)

Let me explain this clearly. Every second line has around six stops along the route where the club members and the accompanying brass band musicians have a moment to refresh themselves before returning to the streets. The bar generally provides finger sandwiches or other easy-to-eat snacks and cold drinks to the club members. While the members are inside, only close family and other intimates join them. The bar makes its money from the dozens of patrons who are hanging out waiting for the parade to arrive and linger after it passes through.

Meanwhile there is a lively scene on the street outside the bar. The hundreds of people following the parade take a break too. Food and beverages are sold including beer, water, soft drinks, grilled pork chop sandwiches, smoked sausages, candy apples, popcorn, peanuts and even fresh fruit.

It would be impossible for any of the bars along the route to serve everyone in the short time that the parade is stopped in front of their business. More significantly, the bars on the various second line routes relish the opportunity to be part of this tight knit community.

I am only aware of two instances when a significant problem occurred. The first, which occurred before Katrina upended the culture, ended in tragedy when “Papa” Joe Glasper, a well-respected, long-time Tremé bar owner, shot a beer vendor outside of Joe’s Cozy Corner. Though Glasper certainly overacted and his decision was rash, eyewitnesses testified that the vendor had violated an unwritten rule governing beer sales at second line parades. He should have moved on with the parade.

The second instance occurred this past spring at a bar on Esplanade Avenue. A new integrated club, the Bayou Steppers, had selected Buffa’s as one of their last stops. An employee attempted to get the pit men to move their vehicles away from the bar as they anticipated the parade’s arrival. She eventually began writing down license plate numbers. There was a considerable amount of tension that easily could have been avoided had the bar been aware of the tradition. Fortunately nothing else occurred.

(painting by Barbara Thibodeaux)

As the season progresses with two of the biggest parades scheduled over the next month, it’s important to note this part of our culture is thriving despite well documented population losses six years ago and police permitting issues more recently. There are parades scheduled every weekend between now and the end of June 2012.

There is no easy solution that will balance the city’s role in providing for public safety, generating revenue and protecting our unique culture. By taking a nuanced approach we will insure that these important traditions, which have managed to survive every social and cultural change since the late 1880s, will continue to thrive.

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