Pigeontown Steppers, 2009.
At the head of the parade, the prestigious Grand Marshal set the pace. St. Mary’s Benevolent Association delineated in its bylaws the duties of the Grand Marshal, charging him with directing all parades and funerals, taking care of the association’s banners, flags, and decorations, and reporting members who came to parades out of uniform. Bechet vividly remembered seeing Grand Marshals leading parades in the New Orleans of his youth. The club members, he said, “all have their full dress suits on with sashes that would go down to their knees and they’d have their Grand Marshal who was the leader of the club. He’d have the longest sash. He’d have a sash that would go right down to his shoe tops and it would have gold bangles on it. And on his shoulder, he’d have an emblem, maybe a gold lion. That was his badge. But most of all, the way you could tell the Marshal, it was how he walked. The Marshal, he’d be a man that really could strut.”24
“But most of all, the way you could tell the Marshal, it was how he walked. The Marshal, he’d be a man that really could strut.”
Louis Armstrong never forgot his feelings of pride and excitement when he saw his father leading a parade as the Grand Marshal. “My real dad was a sharp man, tall and handsome and well built. He made the chicks swoon when he marched by as the Grand Marshal in the Odd Fellows parade. I was very proud to see him in his uniform and his high hat with the beautiful streamer hanging down by his side . . . he strutted by like a peacock at the head of the Odd Fellows parade.”25
Jelly Roll Morton also cherished memories of Sunday parades in his hometown. “Those parades were really tremendous things,” he recalled. “The drums would start off, the trumpets and trombones rolling into something like Stars and Stripes or the National anthem and everybody would strut off down the street, the bass-drum player twirling his beater in the air, the snare drummer throwing his sticks up and bouncing them off the ground, the kids jumping and hollering, the grand marshall [sic] and his aides in their expensive uniforms moving along dignified . . .” Behind the society members and the band (or sometimes in front of them, in Morton’s recollection), spectators formed a “second line,” dozens, even hundreds, of people, walking, marching, and dancing in time to the beat of the music. “They had to make their own parade with broomsticks, kerchiefs, tin pans, any old damn thing,” Bechet recounted. “And they’d take off shouting, singing, following along the sidewalk . . . when I was just a kid I used to get in on a lot of those second lines, singing, dancing, hollering—oh, it just couldn’t be stopped.”26
The parades, fondly remembered by these New Orleans musicians who grew up in the early years of the twentieth century, were not all fanfare and fun. They could be dangerous. Armstrong, Bechet, and Morton all remarked on the violence that often accompanied the parades of their youth. Attacks could come from hostile whites or from blacks defending their turf against the incursions of outsiders. Armstrong remembered trouble when black marchers from other parts of town crossed into the Irish Channel. “If you followed a parade out there you might come home with your head in your hand,” he wrote. “And if the kids were scratched up at all or hurt some, the mothers they’d know right away where their kids had been,” Bechet noted. The trouble usually started with the second-liners, some of whom carried homemade weapons—“drum sticks, baseball bats, and all forms of ammunition we’d call it to combat some of the foe when they came to the dividing line,” according to Morton. “Whenever a parade would get to another district the enemy would be waiting at the dividing line,” he added. “If the parade crossed that line it meant a fight, a terrible fight. The first day I marched a fellow was cut, must have been a hundred times. The fact of it is, there was no parade at no time you couldn’t find a knot on someone’s head where somebody had got hit with a stick or something.” Some families, such as musician Danny Barker’s, refused to let their children second line because of the danger involved in crossing into hostile neighborhoods and being met with knives, baseball bats, and other bludgeons.27
In Jim Crow New Orleans, violence was not an unexpected response to parades where blacks self-confidently and assertively marched through the main streets of town and into districts outside their own neighborhoods. Parades were the perfect vehicle for defiance in a city that had always loved a parade. When association members marched through white and black neighborhoods, downtown and Uptown, they claimed the streets for the black community and challenged segregation. Parades were not only a form of entertainment, but also a “form of protest,” musician Michael White has observed, “a show of strength and unity and a defiant march toward freedom and democracy in a society where such assemblies would normally be discouraged or illegal.” The city’s public spaces were “the very spaces where African-Americans were expected to confirm social inferiority by sitting in the rear of trolley cars and by stepping aside on sidewalks to allow whites to pass,” noted Thomas Brothers. “It would not have taken much to regard the whole thing as a symbolic act of resistance to Jim Crow hegemony, which may partly explain why second lining was so consistently associated with violence.”28
One of the most important parading traditions in New Orleans grew out of the practice of holding a funeral with music. As early as the 1830s, the military routinely buried members with musical honors, as did Masonic organizations, fire fighters, benevolent associations, workers’ organizations, and all sorts of other clubs. Funeral parades “attracted considerable attention,” the Daily Picayune noted in its story about one funeral organized by the German Bakers Society in 1852. A band led the way, the paper reported, followed by a hearse “with tall white plumes, and the coffin wrapped in the American flag. High above the hearse and immediately behind it was borne the banner of the society, conspicuous on which is a representation of a loaf of bread, and the motto ‘This is the Staff of Life’ . . . followed by members of the society, with handsome showy blue scarves and regalia, and last came a number of carriages with female mourners.”29