Second line music is traditionally associated with funerals in New Orleans, but is now synonymous with almost any kind of New Orleans party/procession. Conventionally in New Orleans a funeral procession will take place between a church and a graveyard. After the family of the deceased exit the church with the coffin they lead a procession towards the graveyard, behind which, and as the ‘second line’, a brass band will follow playing solemn-dirge music (Just a Closer Walk with Thee is a common tune of choice). Once the graveyard is reached and the body is buried, the procession continues throughout the city with either an up-beat rearrangement of the dirge tune(s) played on the way to the graveyard, or a completely different up-beat/faster tune (When The Saints Go Marching In, Didn’t He Ramble, ‘Lil Liza Jane…).
Distilled to its essence, the groove itself is created by two percussionists. One with a bass drum strapped to his/her chest with a single upturned cymbal on top, and another with a snare drum. The bass drum player plays the bass drum with his/her right hand holding a big beater, and his/her left hand holding a metallic stick to strike the cymbal. Crucially the bass drum player provides the foundation of the groove with a pattern between his/her two hands that leads towards ‘the big four’ – an accent of both hands on beat four at the end of their phrase. The snare drum player plays a clavé rhythm between the hands, by use of accents, that similarly has a particular accent on the beat four at the end of their phrase. Both instruments enjoy some degree of improvisation, but are always aware of how they interlock, compliment the song, and lead towards the ‘big four’.
Below I demonstrate how the second line groove can be adapted for a drum set (link 1), as well provide a link to the rhythm section of the Rebirth Brass Band demonstrating what I have discussed (they present the tradition as well as modern interpretations).
Blog by Tom Wright