In the opening of the New Orleans episode of Sonic Highways, the Rock band Foo Fighters are rehearsing with local musicians at the legendary Preservation Hall, a venue that for over 50 years has featured “traditional” New Orleans Jazz. As the performance grows more energetic, the musicians collectively decide to open the doors to the hall, giving passerbys in the bustling French Quarter a chance to see the group rehearse. Then, as if the walls of the building could no longer contain them, the musicians exit the hall and march, still playing, through the street, picking up pedestrians as they stroll. The rehearsal has become a parade, and all are welcome to march.
Rock stars parading down the street with a traditional jazz band and random passersby in tow might seem unusual anywhere else, but in New Orleans, such moments occur regularly. For centuries parades have criss-crossed the city, and, though they’ve developed differently in various neighborhoods, have maintained a place in the lives nearly all New Orleanians.
New Orleans is perhaps best known for its Mardi Gras parades, public celebrations with origins tracing as far back as the ancient Roman Empire. These celebrations began in New Orleans in the early 19th Century, when a variety of community clubs or “krewes,” began parading in the streets with “flambeaux,” or gaslight torches, before the Catholic period of Lent. As time went on, these parades grew to incorporate marching bands, floats, and accompanying street fairs.
Public celebrations in New Orleans, however, are not just limited to annual Mardi Gras parades–they are a part of everyday life in the city. For instance, New Orleanians have long both mourned and celebrated the lives of their deceased with “Jazz funerals,” parades that amble toward a graveyard to the somber beat of toms toms and dirges, then jubilantly dance back to the city with snares drums and festive brass. Jazz funerals, like the Foo Fighters’ parade and most others in New Orleans, swell with new participants as they move along. Indeed, the music the bands play has become known as “second line,” in honor of the many celebrators that join the “first line” of musicians.
When New Orleanians go in the street to talk, dance, clap, and sing along with friends, neighbors, and complete strangers, they help create community and reinforce a geographic identity that supersedes race, class, and income brackets. To musicians outside of New Orleans, “second line” is a style to be learned; to those who march within the city, “second line” is a part of life. Within a port city that has been home to diverse cultural, racial, and linguistic traditions since its founding by French explorers in 1718, the parades may have served as both bridges and glue, providing forums for disparate people to connect, and then remain in touch.
In this lesson, students investigate how the geography and history of New Orleans contributed to its unique cultural development. By watching clips from the New Orleans episode of Sonic Highways, students explore how music permeates everyday life in the city, and how it serves as a means of socialization and communalization. Using what they learned about New Orleans musical culture as an inspiration, student groups then brainstorm ways they might use music to enrich their own communities. Students will leave the lesson with a deeper understanding of the communal functions musical performance can serve beyond entertainment.