This post is long overdue, but it's important that I get something down while the events are still somewhat fresh in my mind. I try to travel to New Orleans at least once a year, both for the pure fun and enjoyment the city provides, but also to stay in touch with people and communities I have worked with over the years. Last year I attended a second line funeral for Mardi Gras Indian Chief Ironhorse. I donated the photos and video I took at that time to the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame, with the intention of providing that material the the family of the deceased. I was honored and excited that due in part to his gesture, I was asked to conduct and interview and contribute a short article for the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame "Year of the SpyBoy" book project. I had the pleasure of interviewing young Sandifer brothers, Spy Boys of the Creole Wild West, the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans. When I was presented with the opportunity to travel to NOLA with some friends for the weekend last month, I also arranged to meet up with the editor of the volume, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, and get a copy of the book I had contributed to. On any given weekend in New Orleans, especially among communities as active as the Mardi Gras Indians and various Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, there's a celebration of life, and perhaps just as often, an honoring of the dead.
Nelson Joseph Thompson Sr., a member of the Money Wasters Social & Pleasure Club, passed away in May. (The Money Wasters are a significant club in New Orleans, and hold an annual second line parade of their own) A church service and second line funeral for Mr. Thompson had been arranged for a day I would be in New Orleans, so at the invitation of Ms. Harrison-Nelson I decided to attend. It's difficult to describe the feeling of a second line funeral and its accompanying sites and sounds provided by brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, to someone who has never experienced one. Several scholars have done a good job of it, including Helen Regis (2001), Matt Sakakkeeny (2013), and Ned Sublette (2008), among others. "Rolling" is one term these writers use to depict the feeling, a mobile block party, a moving celebration of the life of the deceased, one last loud party before the silence of death. The service was held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 411 N. Rampart Street, one of the oldest standing churches in New Orleans, which was built originally as a mortuary for yellow fever victims in 1826. This is where the second line funeral began. My friends who accompanied me were somewhat speechless throughout the experience, the uniqueness and genuine spectrum of feelings conveyed, danced, and sung by Mr. Thompson's friends, family,and community members at such a community were an honor for us to experience. After a several block march that pushed up against Claiborne Ave and I-10, paul bearers loaded the coffin from a horse and carriage into a hearse. The brass band continued to play for another couple of blocks, then it was all over as we arrived at the Treme community center. At that point I was able to meet up with Ms. Harrison-Nelson and collect a copy of the Spy Boy Yearbook, a volume I am proud to have contributed to.
Further reading on Second Lines:
Regis, Helen A. 2001. "Blackness and the Politics of Memory in the New Orleans Second Line," American Ethnologist 28(4): 752-77, 2001.
Sakakeeny, Matt. 2013. Roll with It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans. Duke University Press.
Sublette, Ned. 2008. The World That Made New Orleans: from Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.