OUT OF DEEP WATERS: Second line brings new life to New Orleans

November 16, 2005

For the first time in many weeks, on November 16, New Orleans smiled. And shouted. And danced.

More than 200 people formed up into the first big band "second line" since Hurricane Katrina, and moved out of St. Louis Cemetery #1 on Basin and St. Louis. The line of dancers and musicians threaded its way down through the French Quarter to the Wyndham Hotel on Canal Place.

It was billed as the "the cultural reopening of New Orleans."

This revival of the second line was "a sign of hope for us here in the city," said Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana at the cemetery before the festivities began. During a time when a lot of people are struggling and not getting answers to their most basic questions, Jenkins said, the second line is both "a diversion, a passing thing" but also an "outward and visible sign" that New Orleans can return to life.

The tradition of the second line is rooted in the city's history of fraternal groups and burial societies, who often competed with each other to see which group could send off a member in the greatest style. When the church service was over, and the procession moved from church to cemetery, a band played sad hymns and dirges.

After leaving the cemetery, the music became more joyful. The band played high-spirited tunes. The second line, those people who joined in behind the band and the family, danced with wild abandon, usually sporting umbrellas and handkerchiefs, both of which were in evidence during this second line.

This second line began after a short service inside the walls of the cemetery, the oldest still extant in New Orleans and founded by a royal Spanish land grant in 1789. There, the Very Rev. David Allard duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, conducted a service that echoed the committal service in the Book of Common Prayer.

At the end of the service Jenkins gave his blessing and duPlantier asperged the second liners along with a large gathering of photographers, videographers and reporters. As he flung holy water on them, jazz musician Irvin Mayfield began a slow version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

The small gathering inside the cemetery's walls moved out to the street and joined the band made up of a number of New Orleans musicians. Oswald Jones led the second line with duPlantier and Mayfield right behind him. Jenkins was in the crowd as well. As the band played and people danced along, duPlantier continued to asperge the crowd in what he had said at the cemetery was a "symbolic cleansing of our city" and a reminder of our baptisms when we rise to new life.

As the parade moved into the French Quarter, one dancing second liner said to another "See my knees? I haven't been able to do this for months."

Another woman raised her hands in the air as she danced with eyes closed and shouted "Thank God, we're alive."

The day could not have been without its own private grief for Mayfield, the founder of the three-year-old New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Mayfield has yet to find his father. The elder Mayfield rode out Hurricane Katrina at his home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, then disappeared during the subsequent evacuation. A few days after the storm, his musician son searched the flooded house. He discovered a flashlight and a stash of peanut butter and cigarettes in the attic, but no indication of his father's fate.

"He could be anywhere," Mayfield told the Times-Picayune newspaper on November 11. "He's one of those guys who never had a cell phone, never kept phone numbers. We're just waiting to hear something.

"Everybody's been asking me, 'How do you deal with this thing with your dad?' More so than ever, we've got to do what it is that we do. What I do is play the trumpet and write music. So that's how I'm dealing with this."

Mayfield's composition "All the Saints," commissioned by Christ Church Cathedral with donations from all over the world, will premiere November 17 at the cathedral as part of its bicentennial celebrations.