Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Interview with LSU Professor Helen Regis on New Orleans' Second Lines/Jazz Funerals

Interview: Helen Regis with Ned Sublette in New Orleans, 2006

Place and Date: New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Ned Sublette

Helen Regis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography & Anthropology at Louisiana State University. She has lived in and conducted research in France, New Orleans, Cameroon, & Mississippi. In addition to International Studies, she is affiliated with Women’s and Gender Studies, and African and African American Studies programs.

NS: Who am I talking to?

HR: I'm Helen Regis, a resident of the 7th Ward, and an associate professor of anthropology at Louisiana State University.

NS: And what do you study?

HR: African American social and pleasure clubs, and the second line parades that they sponsor. I've been looking at second line parades pretty intensively since '95, but I actually started in '88.

NS: So you've been going on second lines for almost 20 years.

HR: That's right. It's weird to say that. The people who would say that when I started doing it seemed ancient.

NS: Well, we gotta get used to that. Could explain to people who have never seen one: what is a social aid and pleasure club and what are its historical origins?

HR: Today a social aid and pleasure club is a club that's brought together by people who are friends -- many of them went to high school together -- and who have a common goal of sharing conviviality and pleasure as well as mutual aid. Most historians trace the origins to the 19th century, around [the time of] emancipation. And certainly 19th-century organizations were really focused on benevolence and mutual aid. They were insurance companies, they were health insurance societies. Basically kind of face-to-face organizations of people who would help each other. You would put in your dues and those dues would go to help aid a member who was ill, or would go to help a member pay for the funeral of a family member, or of course if a member of the club died, then the club would sponsor that funeral. They didn't just pay for the funeral, but they also organized the ritual procession, the ceremonial aspect of the funeral, and they insured that the deceased got a dignified burial, in a period when that wasn't taken for granted by any means.

NS: And this had something to do with the tradition of jazz funerals, then?

HR: Right. The jazz funeral tradition definitely originated out of those benevolent societies. Jason Berry would be a really good person to talk to about that. He's writing a book on the history of jazz funerals in New Orleans , and I think the dancing associated with it is one of his main interests. I have not done historical research on this. I've been mostly looking at the contemporary performances as contemporary history of the city. I'm really interested in how, within any one moment in time, you can go to a second line and you can find out what's happening in the city, because people are talking about it, people are singing about it. The whole interaction that happens between club members and their community, and between people and the police, is often really revealing of the mood of this city. So, for example, right now we're seeing these spontaneous lyrics that people sing behind the bands that are often improvised in the moment, are often a commentary on what's going on in the city right now, kind of like the conga chants in. So that right now, you know, there are chants about FEMA, there are chants about particular political leaders, there are chants about insurance companies. People are voicing their woes. As well as celebrating life, which is a big part of the tradition, too.

NS: How old are the oldest extant clubs in the city? Do we know?

HR: The oldest organization of which I'm aware that's involved in the street parades is the Young Men Olympian Junior Benevolent Aid Society, which recently celebrated its 120th anniversary.

NS: Wow.

HR: And that's the juniors. So you have to think that they were a division of young people whose parents or whose uncles or grandparents had the previous version of that organization. And today that organization is still structured along specific divisions. They can have up to six divisions, so that young people get incorporated into the group, but then they have their own organization. So they parade together, but they're separate and that allows people to develop their own style and their own leadership, and to have some autonomy and yet still be part of the larger corporate group.

NS: Do you have an idea how many clubs there are?

HR: Some people have estimated up to 70 clubs. I don't know if there are that many who are actually parading, but it's sometimes hard to measure, because clubs sometimes band together and share a parade permit and parade together. So for example the Young Men Olympian, they have all these divisions. When you see them on the street you think of them as one club, but they may have six divisions, so . . . There's certainly been a huge increase since the early 90s, and I think a real renaissance of brass band music. There's just been a huge infusion of interest among young people. A whole new generation of people started organizations.

When I first started going to parades in the late 80s, the season started around Labor Day and it went pretty much to the end of the year. So you had parades into December, and then there started to be a few parades in January. And then you started having parades going all the way to Mardi Gras, and they stop parading in the Mardi Gras season because the city's already overloaded with activities, and they start again during Lent. Now we have parades going all the way through June, so there's a club – the Perfect Gentlemen, which has often had a Fathers' Day parade. So there's been probably a doubling of social organizations that participate in this particular tradition.

NS: So new clubs have continued to be formed?

HR: Absolutely. We recently had on January 15th an all-star parade of organizations from throughout the city, with several groups who had never paraded before. They had been planning on parading this fall, and because of the hurricane had to delay their coming-out parade, so they paraded for the first time as part of this larger group which had assembled to state their intention to return and to demand affordable housing, among other things.

NS: I want to ask you about that particular parade in a minute. How have you seen it change in the years you've been observing?

HR: One change a lot of people talk about is that some clubs have experimented with having floats as part of the parade, which in New Orleans we think of being more part of the carnival tradition. Second lines have always been marching parades, where everybody's at ground level – musicians, clubs, followers. There's a special kind of social interaction that comes from that, from sharing the street together. But I think it's understandable that some people – and many of the clubs to have royalty, or honorary members, and they want to show respect for those folks, and while they sometimes ride in convertibles, they've recently experimented with having floats, which some traditionalists say is not appropriate for a second-line.

NS: Have you heard any change in the music?

HR: I'm sure the music has changed radically, but I'm not really a musicologist, and I don't necessarily have that vocabulary to talk about it. I think that when I first started going to second lines in the late 80s, the Dirty Dozen were already touring widely nationally and internationally, so they were no longer playing regularly in the streets, although they certainly come out of that tradition. Being on tour they were unable to make commitments to particular clubs, to say, "We'll play for you the 4th Sunday in September," and the clubs need that. So the Rebirth was already stepping into their shoes in that respect. There were a few other bands playing at the time – the Pinstripe Brass Band, the Tremé Brass Band, and the Olympia Junior Brass Band was still playing on the street in those days. And all those bands were already well into the pattern of incorporating funk and blues and r & b into the music, but Rebirth is the first band I remember bringing rap into it. With, in my opinion, mixed success. Playing riffs familiar to people from the radio stations, and having people sing along to particular lyrics -- that's something I've really seen Rebirth do more than any other band. And that was definitely happening more throughout the 90s than it had previously.

NS: I'm impressed by Rebirth's repertory of calls that the public knows how to respond to. Like, this particular flourish is the cue for everybody to yell "Hey!"

HR: And I think that's because Rebirth, unlike the Dirty Dozen, really made the commitment to keep playing on the streets. They're very loyal to the social organizations that have been hiring them for 20 years. So they have a really loyal following among club members and organizers, but also among second liners. They've had this ongoing dialogue with black communities in New Orleans all that time. So, yeah, we know their songs. And they know us.

NS: How far do the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs extend? Do they have them in Algiers? Do they have them in Jefferson Parish?

HR: I've only seen them in Orleans Parish, but we could very well with Katrina be seeing them reorganizing –

NS: In Portland?

HR: Maybe not in Portland, 'cause I don't think there's enough critical mass, but in Houston, or Atlanta, it's very possible. Now a lot of people have been speculating about that, saying, well, you can't in a suburban context really have the dynamic interaction between crowd and musician that you can have in the densely settled streets of a central city environment. But even before the storm, we already had a suburban club that was performing in New Orleans East. They've been parading, I think at least four years – the New Orleans East Steppers. The parade I went to, they started at the Plaza, which was a shopping mall, so a real contradiction for the second line tradition. And I had my doubts, but I wanted to go experience it, and it was a beautiful parade, in spite of the fact that it was very different. The stops would be at a daiquiri shop instead of at a corner store or a neighborhood bar or the home of a friend. But of course the reason they were in the east is that they were displaced from center city apartments or public housing developments that were being torn down. In the late 90s we saw a huge change in the residential pattern of the city, because we had 10% of the population living in public housing prior to the Hope 6 initiatives and the demolition of public housing. The St. Thomas was torn down, the Desire was torn down, and large portions of the Magnolia. And those were very important places for social club members, especially the Magnolia and the St. Thomas, which were close to downtown.

NS: It certainly seemed last year like many Sundays you could find a second line somewhere. But you have to know where they are.

HR: Yeah, you have to know where they are, and you have to have a sense that this is an okay place to be. I mean, I think for newcomers to the city it can be a little bit intimidating to go into some of the neighborhoods where the second lines happen.

NS: It seems sometimes like the second line is a ghetto day pass to go into places where normally you would not be able to go.

HR: I think that's definitely the way a lot of people have experienced it. Including, by the way, middle-class African Americans who don't necessarily feel comfortable walking around in a housing development unaccompanied. So, yeah, when you're following a second line, you're accompanied. You have the band and the club saying it's okay to be here.

NS: It seemed to me there are two kinds of second lines: the kind that makes a circuit and ends up where it started, and the kind that ends up miles away. And then you have to get back to your car.

HR: Right, so there's really two ways of doing it. Either you have [a sheet outlining] the route in advance, or you know, because you already know this club quite well, basically what their route is. And so you say, well, I'm gonna catch it at such-and-such a point in the parade. I'm gonna go to Joe's Bar and wait for them to come, I'll have an elegant drink while I'm waiting, dance for a while and come back to the bar, get back to the air-conditioning, and then head for home. So that's one way to do it. Many people do that, who don't want to walk or dance for four hours.

NS: Do clubs keep pretty much the same route every year?

HR: Some clubs seem to alternate between uptown and downtown routes, but most clubs have long-term relationships to particular places. They may always go to a particular bar or stop by a club member's grandmother's house.

NS: Now, I had you describe what a social aid and pleasure club is. Now could you explain, for people who've maybe never seen one or heard one, what is a second line? What are these parades?

HR: Well, first, it's kind of misleading to call it a parade, because we often think of parades as something that you watch. A second line is not really anything to watch. You have to really jump in. Jump into the flow, move into the music, and become a part of it. So that's the first thing. The only way to really get a sense of what a second line is about is to be a part of it. And if you're standing on the sidelines while the parade is going by, people within the crowd will urge you to come in and dance. You get this kind of urgent invitation, so the main thing about a second line is walking or dancing down the street with hundreds of people or maybe thousands of people who are all moving to the same rhythm. That's the most powerful thing about it, I think, is that feeling of togetherness of people from all walks of life. People say the name ["second line"] comes from the idea that the first line is the club, or if you talk to the musicians, the first line is the band, and then the second line is those who follow the band. So anyone who feels like following a band, who likes their sound, or who's a fan of that particular social organization, is going to be a second liner. So that's what makes it what it is, I think: that massive following. If you just have a band walking down the street, it's not a second line. It's a procession, but it's not a second line, because it doesn't have that massive group of followers, or that intense interaction between people – rubbing shoulders with people, moving down the street in a way that seems kind of impossible when you first look at it. But then when you're in it, people are just amazingly gentle and polite, and someone steps on your foot and they say, oh excuse me, pardon me, so there's this real sense of sharing space and making it comfortable to be in.

NS: How long does it take? What's the rhythm of the parade?

HR: Most parades today are limited to four hours. We're talking about the Sunday afternoon anniversary parades. So they usually start at 12 noon and go to 4 p.m. Now in the past, the early part of the 20th century, these parades went all day. People talk about getting up early in the morning and starting their parade, and then stopping for a leisurely picnic in the park, and then going again. So there was a really different pace in those days, but they're limited by the police to four hours now. So depending on the club, the pace can be very fast. There can be this sense that, we really need to get to such-and-such a part of town, and there's a real sense that the club is investing its reputation in being able to finish their route. So if you're delayed, if your band members are late [laughs], or if something happens and the money doesn't come together and the parade gets delayed, there's a real question of public reputation involved. And also your reputation's involved in maintaining the pace, so you can move pretty quickly down the street and then have a leisurely stop for five, ten, fifteen minutes, and then you've gotta start again, or else you won't make your route. Now if you don't make the end of your route in four hours, the police will disband the crowd. And I think there's a real sense of what a shame that is, if you're not able to bring people all the way home.

NS: My impression was that the police do not like second lines.

HR: Yeah. I don't fully know why that is. I mean, sometimes I think that the antagonism between the police and the second liners is almost part of the tradition. Sometimes they seem to almost egg each other on. Sometimes the police use their sirens to push people up the street. Why are they doing that? I don't know, but it makes people mad, it really does. Sometimes the dancers in a second line will start gyrating against the police car in a provocative way that seems designed to make the police mad. So then the police are being challenged to keep their cool and not worry about it.

NS: In Cuba – the congas of Cuba are not second lines, but they're cousins – and there is, and possibly since the 16th century has been, a theater of ritualized confrontation with authority almost as part of the activity of a conga. The play of the crowd against the police is part of whatever the game is. I had the impression here [in New Orleans] that the police are just nervous about seeing thousands of people romping down the street together, drinking and taking over the street.

HR: Yeah, that's a really interesting thing. I think if you're a police officer and you're asked to work at the second lines, you have this experience that you're not in control. Here's this huge crowd of people dancing and to the extent that there is order, which I believe there usually is, it's the band and the club members who are really providing that order, and the second liners, who are self-policing, as I was saying, being really polite to each other, or breaking up fights or making sure they don't get into disagreements. Conflict mediation is a well-practiced art in the black communities, and certainly in New Orleans . People know what the costs are to conflict, and they're usually very, very good at preventing that. But the police are clearly not in charge. And that's bound to be hugely frustrating. But when you think about that nervousness about possibly the crowd getting out of control, it's really interesting to think about that having a history too. When the history was really rigidly segregated – legally segregated – surely having black folk march down St. Charles Avenue would never have been allowed. And there are a few clubs today who march at least one or two blocks – I think the Prince of Wales Social Club marches down St. Charles . I was told that in the 60s some clubs were marching down Canal Street, and that they were banned from doing that by some merchants who were afraid that their store windows would get broken. So I think there is this fear of disorder and violence on the part of officials and to some extent business owners. A lot of businesses close their doors when the second line goes by, even though second liners are very eager to buy water and buy drinks, especially on a hot day.

NS: As the second lines go around, part of the rhythm – on the ones I went on, anyway – there were usually six stops. And each one was a little neighborhood bar. I assume that the second lines are an important part of the bars' business.

HR: Absolutely. Not only on the day of the second line, when huge crowds of people will stop by and buy drinks, but also the clubs themselves become patrons of particular bars. Some clubs have their regular meetings in a bar, or they will have social events there, and they're bringing their friends and neighbors to those bars. And very literally, when a club publishes a route sheet, if they name a particular business on their route sheet, they're putting them on the map, they're putting them in public consciousness. So if I was starting a bar, let's say right here in the 7th Ward, I would want to have an affiliation with a social club, so that the name of my business would become known.

NS: Do the clubs have other activities than second lines? Or is producing the annual second line the sole focus of their activities?

HR: Most of the clubs function year-round as social organizations, so they're having fund-raisers four, five, six times a year. A lot of clubs have dances as fund-raisers, so they're inviting friends, family, neighbors, and other clubs.

NS: Is it fair to say that they're part of the glue that holds the town together?

HR: Most definitely.

NS: Could you talk to me about that?

HR: Although they're no longer providing health insurance for their members, they're still providing a benevolent function in a more subtle way. [If] you lose your job and you want to find another job, who are you gonna ask about where there are job openings? You're gonna ask your club members. And I think that, again in a more subtle way, they continue to organize major events in people's lives, from birthday parties to funerals. Some clubs meet once a week. So they really provide a kind of solidarity and a kind of emotional and social connection for people.

NS: How many people would be at a meeting of a social club that meets once a week?

HR: Typically, I would say, between 10 and 20 people. Most clubs don't go above 20. If they do, then they start having different divisions. That seems to be the size that people can really relate to each other on a face-to-face basis, where everyone can talk at a meeting, where you can make decisions by consensus.

NS: So 20 people handle the work of producing an event with several thousand people and run it all themselves?

HR: That's right. In most cases, nearly everybody at those parades knows one of the club members. So they're really deploying their social network, and that's why most parades, you have a beautiful peaceful event. Because people are there to support their friend who's in the club.

NS: What is the membership in terms of African Americans versus non-African Americans? Are white people part of the social club network at this point?

HR: Absolutely, although not in numbers proportional to our presence in the city. These clubs definitely come out of a black cultural tradition in New Orleans , and I think that, although there are white participants, many of us feel that we're participants in a black cultural event, or a black institution, I guess. A number of clubs have had white members. There's even one club, the Bayou Steppers, that was founded as a multiracial social organization. The founding presidents were black and white.

NS: And of course, we were both on that parade, and you remember how that parade ended. Could you describe that, since you were there?

HR: The parade you're talking about ended right near the interstate overpass on North Claiborne at a little club called the Mother-in-Law Lounge, which is run by Antoinette K-Doe, the widow of Ernie K-Doe. The parade ends at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, it was a beautiful four-hour parade, just a perfect day, and there's a wonderful feeling among second liners at the end of a parade. People are feeling great about having been dancing and walking for four hours, and you have friends that you want to talk to, now that the band is taking a rest. And the police began to use their sirens to disperse the crowd. These were not ordinary sirens, because they were parked under the interstate in order to be able to use the amplification of the cement structure of the interstate. And so their sirens, which were already loud, were being amplified by the interstate. And there were several cars that were doing this, and they were directing it at this club. We couldn't have a conversation outside on the sidewalk, or inside the club. If you lived in a home in that area, you couldn't hear yourself think, even within your home. It was extraordinarily abusive. What happened that day is really part of a larger pattern of the police intentionally disbanding the crowd after a parade. I feel positive that this is not an individual initiative on the part of a particular police officer. This is an NOPD policy coming from the top down.

NS: Which reached a climax a little later with the debacle of the Mardi Gras Indian gathering.

HR: Right. March 19, 2005, just last St. Joseph's Day, the police dispersed a crowd of Mardi Gras Indians and their supporters and followers. In the paper it was reported as being about 200 people. One of the police officers was quoted as having said: take them fucking feathers off or go to jail. That really conveys the attitude toward this tradition, that this is something that's not worthy of respect. I hate to think this, but this seems to be the attitude informing these policies, that any gathering of working-class people or of African Americans in New Orleans in public space is inherently a problem and they want to disperse that. Now it may be that gatherings of people do create higher risk that something unfortunate could happen in a crowd. But a lot of things are risk factors that we don't choose to ban, and this is such an important cultural tradition in New Orleans, that I really think that this is not a reasonable approach to policing.

NS: What is the right way? Certainly, if you talk to people in town, you will hear some of them express nervousness about second lines. A lot of people won't go anywhere near one because they're afraid there'll be a shooting. Things do sometimes happen. What do you think is a reasonable way of looking at this?

HR: Again, I think the second line really does reflect what's going on in the city, and to some extent New Orleans reflects what's happening in America more generally. We like to talk about how unique we are, but in many ways we share the same problems that all American cities share. We have too much poverty, we don't have good jobs, and we have a lot of people who end up in the informal economy in ways that are really self-destructive and hurtful to others. And there's a lot of violence associated with that. So we really do have these problems, and some people choose the second line as the place to settle scores, and to do so violently. So that does happen. And I can completely understand that that concern causes some people to decide, I'm not gonna do this anymore, I'm not gonna go. Unfortunately, we can't really solve the problem of policing second lines in an appropriate way without solving our social problems. But on the other hand, no one's really looked carefully at the pattern of violence at second lines. There have been shootings. I've been on second lines where there have been shootings. And it's a terrible thing. But there are shootings in poor neighborhoods in New Orleans every day -- before the storm, anyway. So being poor is a risk factor for violent crime. Just like being married is a risk factor for spousal abuse. There's a relationship there, but we're not gonna ban marriage. So second lines do occasionally provide a forum for people to settle scores, but I don't think it's reasonable to ban second lines, any more than you would ban marriage because marital violence is linked to marriage.

NS: There's also the tradition of the informal second line, not an annual planned parade, but something that springs up more spontaneously.

HR: I guess the Tremé neighborhood is really known for having spontaneous second lines, or second lines that are not in any way official, and sometimes I've been aware of second line parades happening during, for example, the period between the death of a relative or a friend and the funeral. For one well-known musician, there was a second line every night between the night he died and the funeral. And the Rebirth were playing there. That was James and Troy Andrews' brother, D-Boy [Donnell Andrews], who was quite young [he was 17] when he was found killed. And so, yeah, this incredible kind of wake of a second line moving through the streets, moving through the neighborhood he had lived in, with hundreds of people and no sign of a police presence. That's definitely an informal second line. And a lot of people say that the Tremé neighborhood, more than any other neighborhood in the city, are fierce defenders of this tradition. They really have not accepted the idea that you have to pay for a police permit in order to gather peaceably in the streets and perform this kind of sacred dance.

NS: It seems like the issue of who can assemble in the street is a fundamental one here.

HR: Absolutely. I think a lot of second liners – you know, they might not have law degrees, but they have a really profound understanding of public space, and the value of public space. I believe that public space is really important to a democracy, that we need to be able to gather in public and be together, whether that's discussing politics or dancing in the streets. And certainly in New Orleans it feels like a fundamental right to those who participate in this tradition.

NS: A right that's been exercised since the days of Jim Crow.

HR: Absolutely, and this is where I think funerals take on special significance. Because during slavery, black folk in many parts of the South – enslaved people – could not gather except for a funeral. That was one of the only occasions when the people in charge would allow them to gather. I think as Christians, they [the slaveowners] had to recognize that a funeral was an important event. Funerals, I believe, became especially important in the black community in part because there were so few occasions for people to gather and to enact or to talk about or to perform the values that they hold dear and to celebrate their dignity and the sacredness of life.

NS: I always felt from the first time I went on a second line that if you haven't been on one, there's something about jazz you don't know.

HR: A lot of people refer to the second line tradition as fundamental to the origins of jazz. Louis Armstrong talks about having played at second lines as a child, and certainly having admired jazz musicians. He wanted to be like them, and he saw them for the first time during jazz funerals, during anniversary parades. And you know, the social organizations in the black community that hired these bands week after week – not only for parades, but for dances and balls and other social events – really were crucial to that connection between the music and the community. And I guess – yeah, when you hear a brass band playing in the streets and you really begin to understand the kind of interaction between musicians and dancers, you can really see how fundamental that is to the kind of dialogue that's happening in jazz music. There's a wonderful quote [on p. 72 of] in Mick Burns's book – have you seen that? – Keeping the Beat on the Street: The Brass Band Renaissance, and it's an interview with Gregory “Blodie” Davis of the Dirty Dozen, who talks about how their music really grew out of the interaction between the band and the dancers, and the dancers challenging the musicians with their dance and the musicians having to come back and do one better. And the band practicing all week, thinking about what the dancers were gonna be throwing at them, and so there's that sense in which dancing is already very musical.

NS: I realize this is hard to do, but could you take a stab at describing how second line dancing works, how it moves, how it goes down the street, what the movements are?

HR: There's kind of a basic second line step, which is almost a strut that you do while you're moving quickly down the street with a brass band. But then there are people who are doing something entirely different, and they're the virtuoso performers, the virtuoso second liners, and they can be of all ages. When they start to really get into their dancing, there's often a circle that forms around them, and people start watching them and encouraging them. And then someone else will move into the circle and challenge them. It's often men dancing with men as well as men dancing with women or women dancing with women. So there's a real competitive challenge happening on the street, which then gets translated into the challenge between the dancers and the band members as well.

The feet are usually really close to the ground, but people are really light on their feet at the same time. There's also this incredibly athletic dancing, with people jumping up in the air and twisting, going down in splits, the kind of dancing that you would expect to see on stage somewhere, instead of . . .

NS: . . . on concrete.

HR: Yeah, and these people are wearing tennis shoes, because they're going to be walking for a very long time, so that has an effect on the kind of dancing that you see.

NS: It's an exhausting thing to go on a full second line parade. I always wonder how the musicians do it. Of course, they do take breaks, but even so, four hours of blasting away, making all the many feet of metal in a sousaphone vibrate by pushing air through it with your jaw muscles as you dance down the street in hot sun, dehydrated, and the tuba player's usually overweight to start with, which is why he wound up playing the tuba. It seems like a real physical ordeal.

HR: The brass bands who really have a commitment to the second lines, they're fit. And so are the club members and the regular second liners. Sometimes you'll see a band coming back to the street after having been away for a while, and you see them huffing and puffing and taking a break between songs, and at times the second liners start to become quite outspoken – "why don't they play something?" You don't get a lot of slack from the second liners if you're trying to rest.

NS: Do you have any idea how much distance is covered by a typical second line?

HR: I would say it's not unusual to cover six or seven miles, but some of them may cover even more.

NS: That's a long march.

HR: Yeah, absolutely. And when you think about dancers who are really into this – they go into this clowning mode – "clowning" is what they call it in New Orleans . They start doing things like climbing up telephone poles and dancing, or climbing onto rooftops and dancing. There's something about that. It's usually young men who do this. But think about all the miles they're climbing, as well as walking! And then they have to walk ahead of the group in order to be up there by the time the second liners pass by and see them, and then climb back down and run ahead again. The photograph that's above you is from the Circle Food Store, on St. Bernard Avenue and Claiborne, and you can see there's a dancer, dancing on the roof during a second line parade.

NS: I took a bunch of pictures of two dancers up on the overpass on Claiborne, that big overpass. It didn't look like much in the picture, actually, you couldn't really get the sense of these thousand of people watching these two guys dancing way up in the air on this concrete air. But the whole crowd was like . . .

HR: . . . stunned. One of the things about being in the second line is, you can't really see it when you're in it. You can see the people just around you, which might be 10 to 20 people, but if there's six thousand people at a parade, you're obviously not seeing most people. But if the route allows you to go over a bridge, then you're able to really look back and you can see the expanse of people. Some clubs try to design their routes to include a bridge or an overpass so that they can have that experience. There are two clubs that I know of that are doing that right now – the CTC, the Cross the Canal Steppers, they go over the Industrial Canal over into the Lower Ninth Ward, so that allows them to really have this incredible panoramic view. And they're going over this rickety old metal bridge. It's not really rickety, but it feels like it when you're on there, the whole bridge starts to move as people are dancing. And another group, the Nine Times, which is out of the Desire area, goes over the Almonaster Bridge , which is over a railroad track. When they talk about their route, they talk specifically about the importance of being on that bridge, and being able to see all the people you've brought out, and the people you've brought together, and they just take great pride in that accomplishment. And so at some point in their route, they're going to be able to look around and see all the people who have come together to support them.

NS: Let's talk now about what's happened since Katrina. Of course, Katrina happened just before Labor Day . . .

HR: Well, the Sunday before Labor Day is traditionally the second line of the Black Men of Labor, which is a social organization started in the mid-1990s. And as you can tell from their name, they were very self-conscious when they organized that they wanted to honor the dignity of black working men, and they also embrace a really traditional approach to the music, and to their clothes and their decorations. They make all their decorations themselves, and they often wear shirts and suspenders instead of expensive suits. The idea was to really honor the musicians and put more money in the music and less on their clothing. And since they're Black Men of Labor, they often wear clothes that recall a working-class heritage as well.

NS: And that of course didn't happen this year.

HR: Yeah, the Labor Day weekend was – well, just the weekend after Katrina, so of course the members of the organization had evacuated before the storm, or they were in the process of evacuating, or they were back in the city helping people, working in the city in boats and helping people get out.

NS: Would you care to speak in general terms about what has happened since the disaster?

HR: [long pause]. Well, we're talking right now in February of 2006, so it's been over five months since the storm, and the majority of the city's African American population is still living in exile, so I think for that reason alone the future of the second line tradition and the music that the second line organizations support is very much in question. The storm and the flood affected people from all walks of life, and it affected many areas of the city, and in many ways it cut across race and class in the way that it affected people, but now the floodwaters have receded. People's ability to return is very much determined by class. So many of the people who were the creators of the second line culture and the music really come out of working class families and neighborhoods, and most of the city's public housing developments remain closed. Even those that didn't flood. So it's hard not to feel that there's a major transformation happening in New Orleans and we don't know what it is yet, because it's changing all the time. But there really is a sense that this city will be dramatically different, and certainly right now it's a much whiter and a much wealthier city, and I don't think that that city can really support the second line tradition as it currently is.

NS: Now there have been some second lines since Katrina.

HR: We've had a few second line parades.

The first club to come out since the storm was the Prince of Wales. They had their anniversary parade, which would originally have been scheduled in October. They were delayed by a couple of months, but nonetheless, they came back, they came together, and they managed to put on a beautiful parade. Their route goes through uptown, and they were fortunate in that most of their route didn't flood, so they were able to go to some of the bars where they traditionally stop, and those bars were open. The Rock Bottom Lounge, which is where the club was really founded, on Tchoupitoulas Street, is on high ground, because it's basically on the natural levee. Many of the people in the Prince of Wales came out of families where the men were longshoremen, so they lived close to the river for that reason. So partly for that reason too, most of their route is still navigable, by foot anyway.

Most of the other clubs, their routes reflected where their members lived. Most of those clubs paraded through neighborhoods that were farther from the river, what people in New Orleans call Back of Town. And that means that they were downhill, you know, downslope in terms of the natural levee sloping down into what people call the Bowl. So some of the lowest areas of the city that were settled in the 20th century ended up with high concentrations of working-class folks and high concentrations of African Americans, so the majority of the social organizations that sponsored second line parades were in those Back of Town areas, and they were heavily flooded. It's not clear if that housing stock is gonna be repaired.

There was another parade that was organized since the flood. That was the All-Star Parade. And that involved numerous social organizations. I want to say, between 20 and 30 different clubs helped to organize it. They all wore basically a black T-shirt that just said, Renew New Orleans. And listed the sponsoring clubs on the back of the shirt. And this is certainly the first time that I know of in the history of second lining that clubs have paraded not so much as a club but as part of a larger whole, this All-Star second line parade. And in that way it was really a beautiful event. And because it was the first massive second line parade in the city, it also drew people from all walks of life who wanted to see a second line. People come to second lines looking for – now more than ever – looking for a sign that black culture is alive and well in New Orleans, and I think that a lot of people came, a lot of middle-class folks, white and black, came looking to see that New Orleans was coming back. Because the parade was well organized and planned in advance, people were able to get tickets to fly in from Atlanta and Houston and in some cases New York or Portland, and probably I would say at least half of the people who were in the clubs who paraded are not living in New Orleans. But they were here for that event. And sadly, after the parade, they had go back and leave the city. But at least during the parade they were announcing their intention to reclaim their city, to come back to New Orleans one way or another.

NS: It was a very large parade, as I understand, in terms of the turnout.

HR: It was huge. I counted – very approximately – eight thousand people, but I was doing that after the height of the crowd. And a lot of people leave. New people come in and join it, but a lot of people leave after a couple of hours, so the parade went until four o'clock, and I was probably counting around three o'clock.

NS: And the parade ended with a shooting.

HR: Yeah. Most of the paraders had already finished parading when the shooting started. I was not near the gunshots. I didn't even hear them. But I did feel the crowd kind of surging forward, and of course people in New Orleans do run when they hear gunshots and try to get out of the way. I think only a few intrepid reporters were trying to go toward the shots, but most people run in the other direction. So I felt the crowd surging forward and I was hoping it was a false alarm, but I found out later that there was a shooting. [It was] extremely saddening for the organizers of the event and the people who came back for it. And so far, the response of the police department has been – I think somewhat predictably – fairly severe. So they've announced that they're raising the fees for parade permits from approximately $1600 per club to $3605 dollars per club. And that's just for the permit.

NS: And that's what a lot of the clubs do all year long, is raise the money for those permits, right?

HR: For the permits, for the band, for their clothes.

NS: What's the budget of a typical second line? Any idea?

HR: You'll have to ask some club members. I have no idea. I think there's a huge range, because some people are quite proud of the fact that they'll spend ten dollars on their shoes. It's not about that for them. Whereas other clubs are quite proud of the fact that they've spent fifteen hundred dollars on their shoes. Showing that you're able to spend money is important for some of the clubs. So you'd have to say that the basic expenses for the club have to be ten thousand dollars, and for some clubs, considerably higher than that.

NS: Is there anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't asked you about? Do you have any other observations in general about this?

HR: I think I want to get back to the idea of the ghetto pass. I don't want to use that phrase, but I think there's definitely something to that. I've interviewed a lot of second liners who evidently didn't grow up with the tradition. Some of them aren't even from New Orleans , but they've come here and fell in love with this tradition. For many of them, the second line is the kind of event in New Orleans where they feel like they can be part of the whole city. It seems like, even though desegregation was forty years ago, in many aspects of our everyday lives in New Orleans we're still very separate from each other. And the second lines have created a place where people from different walks of life can share space. It's not for everyone -- there are lots of people who don't like second lining. But for many of us, it's provided an entree into the larger city. I first moved to New Orleans in the 80s to go to school, and I was told, don't go here, don't go there, don't ride the bus, ride the streetcar, don't go into the areas that are known as black neighborhoods, and it was through the second line tradition that I started to see that the city was – for one thing – much richer than I ever thought culturally, but also that I could be a citizen. That I could really live in the city. That I didn't have to be cloistered in only certain sections of the city, and that's really liberating.

We usually think of the ghetto as enclosing – obviously, in Jewish history, being a place where Jewish people had to be, or where black folk have had to live in American cities. But in a way, white New Orleanians have been very much sequestered by differences – perceived differences or actual differences – in wealth, race, class status.

NS: Ghettoization in New Orleans works very differently than any place else I've ever been, just because of the peculiar nature of the city's layout.

HR: People always talk about the checkerboard pattern that defined New Orleans historically, but when I moved to the city in the 80s that had already started to change. So what some people call Central City really became a black neighborhood, or you could call it a black ghetto. But that really was produced partly through legally segregated housing during the Jim Crow and then partly through white flight, starting in the '60s.

NS: And also in the 60s when the projects became all black. The St. Thomas [housing project] was originally for white people.

HR: Right. The projects were from the beginning racially segregated. But yeah, they went from being pretty much all white to being all black fairly quickly.

NS: Magnolia and the St. Thomas were both built in 1941. Magnolia was built as a black project, the St. Thomas was built as a white project. I talked to an older lady from the neighborhood, who told me that on St. Mary, by the St. Thomas, that's where the country-and-western bars were.

HR: Yeah, it's really interesting to think of the musical landscape having changed with the landscape of residence. And public housing had a huge impact on that. If you check out the Soul Rebels' piece "Free Yo’ Mind" there's a really amazing lyrical sequence about the projects in New Orleans , calling them out one by one as if they were cities.

NS: Do you have any observations about the relationship between the Mardi Gras Indian organizations and the second lines? I’m thinking of the Tambourine and Fan second line, which last year was a tremendous parade, and was also [the Mardi Gras Indian event] Downtown Super Sunday.

HR: The Tambourine and Fan event, which is usually the Sunday after St. Joseph's Day, so the Sunday after March 19, brings together social clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. The focus is definitely on the Mardi Gras Indians, but the clubs are there, so there's this kind of celebration of black street culture as a whole.

NS: Is Tambourine and Fan a social club?

HR: It's unusual, in that I think it's primarily educational, and [it's] modeled almost as a freedom-school concept. They put on this public event, but [the club] functions year round as a series of after-school programs, and a summer camp, and headed by Jerome Smith, who'd be a really interesting person for you to interview, who's a veteran of the civil rights movement. Something else about the Indians I wanted to say: we were talking about how strenuous the playing is for the brass band members, you know, playing and walking for four hours? But they do take breaks, there are these stops, where you go in and get some water or something else to drink. And what you see a lot of times is that the crowd is gathered outside the bar, because the overwhelming majority of the crowd can't go in the bar, wouldn't possibly be able to fit. But people often start to play the tambourine or other percussion that they have, and sing Mardi Gras Indian chants. So the Mardi Gras Indians take over when the band members take a break, during the second lines. When you start paying attention to who's walking directly behind the band, you see that the percussionists are also Mardi Gras Indians, so they're really amplifying the sound of the brass band, and contributing to it musically as well. They're often the ones who are calling out the lyrics. If the band members aren't singing, it's usually the percussionists right behind the band who are singing. So there's this real dynamic interaction between the brass band and the people walking right behind them. And those are often Mardi Gras Indians. Now they may not be men who sew elaborate suits for Mardi Gras day, but in terms of their social identity in the community, they identify as Indians. We usually think what makes you a real Indian is having callouses on your fingers showing that you're sewing, but it's also a social identity, and the music is one of the ways that people express that.

NS: Thank you, Helen.

HR: Thanks, Ned.

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