Brice Miller Jr. went to his first second-line on Friday.
His father brought his trumpet, and a tambourine for his 8-year-old son.
Brice Miller Sr., a musician, entertainer and educator, had mixed emotions, combining his grief at the passing of “Uncle” Lionel Batiste with his joy that his friend and mentor had transcended his earthly limitations, and had left behind the pain of his final battle with cancer. He was also pleased to be introducing his son to a tradition he had been participating in for 30 years, since he was about the same age. The mix of emotions was about to become more complicated, however, with the addition of frustration with the conduct of the second-line.
First, Miller had trouble finding Benny Jones (snare drum, Treme Brass Band) and Woody Penouilh Jr. (sousaphone, Storyville Stompers), with whom he wanted to march in the second-line. They were there, but not in the central location he had expected. Then he noticed members of the gathering crowd in flamboyant costumes, mugging for their friends’ cameras as if they were at the starting point for the Krewe de Vieux Carnival parade, rather than a memorial procession.
But it would soon get worse, when, at the start of the procession, one of the two bands turned toward Rampart Street and the other turned the opposite direction, toward Claiborne.. Dylan James Stansbury’s video of the start of the second line, shared below, shows that 6 minutes into the procession the music had already made the transition from “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” to “Didn’t He Ramble,” and at the 6:25 point someone can be heard asking, “Where’s the second band?”
“It was the weirdest cultural phenomenon I’ve ever seen in New Orleans,” Miller said.
The event was promoted through a Facebook public event page, “Uncle Lionel’s Second Line,” created by Andrea Butson and Markeith Tero. The event was widely shared, with invitations sent to 3,972 people and with 1,339 Facebook users indicating that they would attend.
Among the throngs who filled two blocks of northbound Rampart Street shoulder-to-shoulder, some certainly knew Uncle Lionel better than others. There was a central group, a first line if you will, of people dealing with a personal loss. Outside that inner group, hundreds of people brought hundreds of perspectives to the event.
For Miller, an adjunct professor in the International Honors College at the University of Alabama, the question became how those outside the inner group understood themselves as “the other.”
Did the young man in a New Orleans Saints T-shirt, challenging the authority of the elaborately decked-out grand marshal, consider himself “the other”? Or did he consider himself a leader? When the two bands’ routes diverged, which was “the other”?
For Miller, much of the intrigue of the indigenous performing culture of New Orleans lies in its other-ness, in its strangeness to the outsider, rooted in the racial divisions of a century ago.
Second-lines evolved as responses to personal loss. Over time, the marches took on other functions, such as Sunday afternoon entertainment for social aid and pleasure clubs.
For memorial second-lines to retain their power to bring solace to those who grieve, conformity to the traditional structures is important in ways that are not essential to other second-lines. The mourners are the center of attention at the memorial second-line. The grand marshal is in charge. Where the grand marshal leads, everyone follows. The music should turn the corner from dirge to celebration at the grand marshal’s signal, and not before.
Stop: Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. Continue down N. Claiborne to St. Bernard Avenue. Left on St. Bernard Ave. to Hunter’s Field.
Disband: Hunter’s Field.
A memorial fund has been set up for Uncle Lionel Batiste at Liberty Bank and Trust. Donations can be made to the fund by going to any branch. If you have any questions please contact Glenda McKinley at 504-915-1552.
Below is Alex Rawls’ video impression of last Friday’s second-line.