Learning from the second-lines - Nick Spitzer
Thu Oct 11 23:11:21 EDT 2007
This was posted on Pat Jolly's list today - nice piece.....
Learning from the second-lines
Thursday, October 11, 2007
A year ago I shared a stage with trombonist and singer Glenn David Andrews as
he held more than 2,000 listeners transfixed singing the old hymn to peace and
eternity, "Down by the Riverside."
The event was at prestigious Strathmore Hall near Washington, D.C., for the
National Endowment for the Arts' Heritage Fellows concert at which the Tremé
Brass Band were honorees.
I've seen him many times since, playing in Jackson Square or out at
second-lines, and I know the passion Glenn brings to New Orleans music and his
ability to articulate the value of our neighborhood culture.
So it came as a shock to me last week when he and his brother Derrick Tabb were
led away in handcuffs near the end of an early evening memorial procession for
a cousin. The charges: disturbing the peace
and parading without a permit in the heart of Tremé.
Jazz funerals, with their roots in West Africa, medieval Europe and Christian
America, pre-date our city's police department and certainly the permits the
police want marchers to have.
From summoning the spirits with drums to praising the Lord with a horn, jazz
funerals and related mourning activities are not as predictable as the
regular, permit-sanctioned second-lines of social
aid and pleasure clubs. But then, death is not predictable, especially among
the young black men of our city.
What is consistent, however, at these events is the remarkable co-mingling of
sorrow expressed in slow-paced hymns and dirges such as "Just a Closer Walk
with Thee" and the hope for a better life in the hereafter implied in joyful
upbeat songs like "I'll Fly Away" (ironically, the live sound track ended by
the police last week). In a city where serious crime often goes unprosecuted
and unpunished, jazz
funerals make the streets momentarily sacred and safer.
The neighborhood-based jazz parades are communities of music and dance in
motion, celebration and social commentary, dating back at least to the 1880s --
the end of Reconstruction, a time of increasing
oppression into the Jim Crow era that followed.
Today under a new kind of duress, and in a vacuum of citywide leadership, the
second-lines and organizations that sponsor them are the largest social and
political unifiers we have at the neighborhood level. They still offer "social
aid and pleasure" in a time of trouble.
While most residents are glad to have police protection for the parades,
funerary or otherwise, too often what they've gotten has been harassment by
officers lacking direction and training from the top.
One officer at this scene said, "We don't change laws for neighborhoods." But
in fact we do, when neighborhoods are designated as "historic" -- the nearby
French Quarter being a national and local
icon of such a shift in legal status dating to 1936.
Some Tremé residents blame the recent arrests on newcomers ready to call the
police at the first sound of a trombone in the street. Perhaps those willing
to dial 911 should recall the old adage: When
you move near a sawmill you can expect to hear the sound of cutting wood. If
you don't like the jazz and street rituals, you should consider living
In addition, having well-respected musicians hauled away in handcuffs is not
good for the city's global image as a place where traditional creativity and
revered music flourish, attracting more culturally
aware tourists -- the ones who stay and spend on cultural experiences.
The social aid and pleasure model has been replicated by other New Orleans
institutions: Tipitina's long offered a place for old-school musicians to play,
and now raises money for players in need; the
Silence is Violence campaign marches across the city to demand police and
judicial attention in neighborhoods wracked by murder; "voluntourism" groups
encourage visitors to do home-building by day (social aid), and go to music
clubs and restaurants by night (pleasure).
Yet despite New Orleans' emerging image of both joie de vivre and "can do,"
there is still too often an undercurrent of official neglect about the very
culture that uplifts us most.
The hundreds of second-lines each year -- jazz funerals, weekend celebrations
of a saint, ancestor, founder, mother or simply the bliss of flamboyantly
expressing yourself in the collective -- are among our greatest vernacular
assets. They artistically pull the diaspora home
as our unofficial social and emotional Road Home program.
Writ large, the second-lines are the metaphor for marching together to a future
renewed city, connected positively to its past. It's time to lay down our
"sword and shield, down by the riverside," drop the charges and let that
. . . . . . .
Nick Spitzer is creator of the public radio program "American Routes"
and professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University
of New Orleans.
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