British Association for American Studies


Sound, The Second-Line, and the Politics of Post-Katrina Memory

In January of 2006, thousands of displaced New Orleanians returned to their sunken city from a variety of locales. They came from as close as Baton Rouge and as far as Portland, Oregon. Following a strange diaspora, an extension of forced exile caused by inadequate and disorganized evacuation plans sponsored by the city following Hurricane Katrina, it was, for many, their first return to New Orleans following the storm[i]. This homecoming served as catalyst for what some considered to be the true beginning of the rebuilding effort: participation in a second line parade. The All-Star Second Line drew over eight thousand attendees, filling city blocks that had been more or less abandoned since the previous summer[ii]. For the sake of brevity, I won’t rehearse the long histories of the jazz funeral and the second line parade here. I am much less interested in developing an understanding of how they have evolved over time and am instead invested in exploring how their deployment performed a significant function in Post-Katrina memorialization processes. It is worth noting a few key facts about both, however.


The jazz funeral is a cultural tradition distinct to New Orleans and it serves devotional, cultural, commercial, and political purposes. Like many other funereal rituals, the jazz funeral marks a separation between life and death. Instead of foreclosing on a relationship between past and present or enforcing a problematic binary between the two, however, the jazz funeral articulates a vision of death that is reincorporated into, or at least coexists alongside life in the most literal sense. The second line, a particular element of the brass band parade tradition in New Orleans, has become part of the jazz funeral in a way that has made the funerals virtually indistinguishable from other usually celebratory processions, like those on St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras, two significant events on New Orleans’ robust social calendar. The second line presents a profound way of strengthening and repairing the social fabric of New Orleans in the face of poverty, unemployment, violence, de facto and de jure segregation both pre and post Katrina. Typically, the second line is attended by a rather homogenous population composed of ordinary individuals, the majority of whom do not own homes or big businesses. However, through the experience of the second line, facilitators and participants alike take ownership of the streets, at least for the duration of the performance. The importance of this collective ownership, particularly in the context of life after Katrina cannot be overstated.


The very term: “second line,” calls upon its status as a vernacular commemorative practice. It is the second line of the parade of people–ordinary, if you will–who fall in behind the “first line,” the musicians and members of the social club. The second line also refers to the distinct rhythm of the music in which two drummers work to establish the central rhythm over which the brass players overlay their grooves. And finally, it refers to the dance steps (secondlining) that come out of the performance. The chief purpose of the second line is to generate movement in a very practical sense: to move mourners from the church in which a funeral service has been conducted to the grave at which the deceased will be, “buried with the music”. The second line thus creates what anthropologist Helen Regis terms, “a single flowing movement of people unified by rhythm”[iii].


Indeed, it is the rhythmic aspect of the second line that works to produce its distinct form of participatory memorialization. The strutting dance step that draws participants forward in pace with the band is urged along by a syncopated rhythm produced by the drummers. Theories that pertain to life after traumatic events–whether they be loss or natural disasters–traditionally conceive of repetition as being that which is at the very heart of that trauma. Conventionally, it is this repetitive characteristic which ossifies the traumatic event in the past, repeats it ad infinitum in the present, and forecloses upon meaningful reconciliation with it in the future. However, the way in which repetition is deployed by the act and art of the second line actually works to invert the way(s) we might think about the repetition paradigm in trauma. Through the second line, repetition is rearticulated as a path through rather than as a destructive loop. Syncopation, which music theorists regard as a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm, is quite literally the essence of the second line. Yet it is this very rupture that draws people together. The repetition inherent in the second line, then, demonstrates that which has come to pass will inevitably come again, yes, but through its passage, it opens up a space for new ways of remembering, and indeed being in the world after trauma.


In New Orleans, the impetus has largely been to look forward rather than to reach back with regard to the memory of Hurricane Katrina. In August of 2010, residents and tourists, accompanied by the Jaywalkers Second-Line Jazz Band, took to the streets behind a horse-drawn hearse which contained a make-shift coffin[iv]. Above the coffin was a simple sign which read, “KATRINA It’s Time to Put the Old Girl to Rest” and its contents included various items associated with the storm and its relief effort such as roof tarps and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)[v]. This act, which took place on the fifth anniversary of the storm, sought to quite literally put Katrina and its lingering aftereffects to rest so that the citizens of New Orleans might move forward. The second line works—in this specific case, but also more generally, to do what more conventional or traditional forms of memorialization–such as monuments or museums–cannot. Unlike those static, immutable edifices, the second line is not merely meant to be witnessed, passed or looked through. Instead, it is to be joined such that, participants come together like the confluence of intersecting bodies of water, flooding streets with sound and joy, engaged in the practice of memorializing and commemorating in ways that they know best. The second line thus works to rearticulate the experience of the Hurricane itself, with citizens flooding into the streets in an act of reclamation, instead of being flooded out in an act of exile. The water, debris, and destruction are replaced by people. Death and trauma are thus repositioned in the jazz funeral and second line, transcending the typically reductive way in which they are understood. The jazz funeral and accompanying second line become both a compelling metaphor and simultaneous literalization for understanding New Orleans’s recovery process. Given its status as an already existing commemorative practice and perhaps indeed the central cultural event among New Orleanians, particularly those of color, the second line is a source of both empowerment and renewed commemoration. Through this animated, functional memorial, the dead and the living are inextricably bound, coalescing into that which creates a cornerstone for community memorialization.


[i] [i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/katrina-diaspora/

[ii] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/5234630

[iii] https://64parishes.org/entry/jazz-funerals-and-second-line-parades

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hngg54L1kr8

[v] https://urbanllama.com/2010/09/02/jazz-funeral-for-katrina-v/

About the Author

Jay Jolles is a PhD student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. His research interests live at the intersection of trauma theory, memory studies, and digital culture. Currently, his work is concerned with vernacular practices of memorialization following catastrophe.