If you don’t like parades, you probably shouldn’t visit New Orleans.
Second-line parades are a cultural ballast in the Crescent City, and like the bulk of this town’s most inspired creations, they emerged from black New Orleans culture. They were first employed for funeral processions—a melange of mourning and celebration that was especially sacred for the city’s jazz musicians. They featured Caribbean rhythms and West African dance and over time adopted bits and pieces of Creole, French, and American culture. Their use expanded from funerals to weddings, births, and holidays. They remain the city’s central expression of mourning, celebration, and even protest.
Whether in person or on HBO’s Treme, you’ve seen a second line before: an effervescent brass band playing funky music with a crowd following behind, dancing and drinking its way through the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter. Onlookers wave and cheer or even start following the parade, attracted toward the nomadic festivities like moths to light.
We have good news. Throwing a parade is easy and relatively cheap. You can throw your own second-line parade for as little as $600. Whether for a wedding, birthday, or just for the hell of it, the streets of New Orleans are ready to receive you.
Step 1: Get your permits
Unfortunately, even in the New Orleans of your imagination, permits exist. You’ll need to fill out the Master Event Application and a Supplement C-Parade form and submit them to the One Stop Shop at City Hall at least 15 days in advance. They can be submitted in person, by mail, or through the One Stop Shop App. These are most likely the only two permits you’ll need, but depending on the size and details of your parade, there could be supplemental paperwork. All of that will be made clear by answering the simple questions on the Master Event Application.
The cost of the application is $200.25 ($100.25 for nonprofits). Plus, you will need to pay for a police escort. This will run you another $384.97 per hour.
You’ll also need to put your parade route on the application. Even if you aren’t familiar with the New Orleans street grid, don’t worry. City Hall is here to help.
You will either call or visit the One Stop Shop and meet with a city official to hash out your parade’s details.
They will design a route of a distance appropriate for the time you want to spend parading. They may steer you toward the most enthusiastic sections of the French Quarter, where you’re most likely to pick up random people as you march. They may even suggest their favorite bars bars to begin and end at.
Step 2: Hire a band
A second line without a brass band is like a museum without art. You need a brass band. But luckily for you, there is no shortage of superb bands in New Orleans. Here’s a good list to get you started.
You might also want to hire a grand marshal, a second line’s spiritual conductor. They’re here to hype you up, keep you dancing, and embrace everyone you pass by. Several companies, such as Frenchmen Street Productions and Carl Mack, can help you arrange this.
Step 3: Supplies
Now that the parade is in order and you’ve booked your band, it’s time to dress the part. A lot of parades have themes—anything from Star Wars to David Bowie. If you don’t feel like doing something so particular, a safe color scheme to stick to is purple, green, and gold, which are the standard colors of Mardi Gras. You can get your supplies at one of the dozens of costume shops scattered throughout the city, or at a local company such as Gem Printing, Second Line Handkerchiefs, or Big Wheel Novelties.
Parasols and white handkerchiefs are classic accessories at second lines. Your group will look all the more impressive by twirling white parasols or waving handkerchiefs in the air as you stroll.
Also, it’s legal to drink in public, so if you imbibe, stick the alcohol of your choice in a backpack, which will serve as a mobile bar. Second lines pause for no one, so don’t try to sneak into bars along the way and get left behind.
Step 4: The parade
The hour has arrived, the time is now, your parade approaches. Go to the starting location. A couple of motorcycle cops clad in aviators and leather gloves will arrive.
Then the band will show up. Be gracious and friendly. These are New Orleans’s culture bearers, descendants of a glorious tradition, and they should be revered.
The band and grand marshal march up front and everyone else follows behind. If there’s someone being honored (bride and groom, birthday girl, etc.), they are encouraged to join the grand marshal at the prow.
The band will strike up the first tune, and you’re off.
If you are walking, you are doing something wrong. In New Orleans, you don’t walk the parade route, you dance through it. If you are simply a group of people walking behind a band, you will not be the pinnacle of gaiety that you set out to be. And no one will join you. So wave that hankie, pump that parasol, and prance your heart out.
This is a good time to mention that as you weave through your parade route, you will start to notice newcomers in your parade. This is acceptable and should be encouraged. The goal is to pick up as many stragglers as possible so that your parade party continues to grow. When you see intrigued but reticent tourists watching you pass, wave them over and welcome them with that archetypal Louisiana hospitality.
Step 5: Enjoy, respectfully
You’ve done it. You are dancing in your very own second-line parade. Take a deep breath and behold the gorgeous human spectacle you’re a part of. Under the moon, the contagious rhythms and harmonies of New Orleans jazz will elevate you to contentment and bliss—a well-deserved respite from the stresses of ordinary life.
And it will be undeniably clear that you aren’t just taking part in any old party. This is a tradition rooted in centuries of hard-won cultural creation. With that in mind, be humble and gracious for what this city has built for you and the talent the musicians are sharing with you.
We’re glad you’ve come to New Orleans to participate in our glorious and eclectic customs. But please, be respectful of those who made this possible. You are only catching a glimpse of what for others is a lifetime of practice and pride.
By all means, blow off steam and party. This town loves its fun. But this isn’t just a city in which to accumulate drunken regrets. It is one of the most extraordinary places on earth. Engage with it. And if we see your second line passing by, we won’t hesitate to come dance with you.