Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Of Red Chandeliers and Second Lines--New Orleans

I've been away from the blog world for various reasons and away in general this month, having traipsed down to New Orleans to the annual Bouchercon conference. In case you don't know, this is a big mystery conference that is named after the influential crime writer and editor Anthony Boucher and is held in a different city every year. I first went two years ago when it came closer to my part of the world, in Long Beach, and attempted to go last year when it was held in Raleigh, partly because I happened to be visiting South Carolina right before it anyway. But there was a huge storm right before it started and the train tracks between Charleston and Raleigh were flooded. It turned out that the one place you didn't want to be if you were trying to get to Raleigh was Charleston right then.

I'll get to the actual book stuff on my book review blog, but thought I'd mention a couple of New Orleans confessions of ignorance, one of which I solved and the other not. The first questition was about what is known as the "second line". Anyone who was interested in joining the second line at the conference was encouraged to do so. This was a parade down Canal Street to the Anthony Awards ceremony that night at the Orpheum Theatre, following a real Dixieland band. This YouTube film was posted by Kristi Belcamino, a crime fiction writer who used to post at Do Some Damage. (I purposely linked to a Bouchercon wrap-up article by Scott D. Parker for another angle on the event.)

I had been in a second line parade once before, down the streets of Santa Cruz. The husband of a friend of mine had died tragically young of a heart attack. He was from Louisiana and so after his funeral, we did a second line style parade down the streets of Santa Cruz, the band marching out in front and all of his friends following with their umbrellas twirling, to his favorite local bar. Despite the overwhelming sadness of his death, it was a very beautiful memorial to him.

Second lines can be about a lot of things, though. Our mystery conference second line had no tragic element, other than all the imaginary deaths the writers had plotted, and I later saw one for a wedding, which was done in high style. Our second line wasn't perhaps as exuberant as the wedding one, but pretty good for a bunch of writers and readers. And it was raining, so I think at the start there was a fifty-fifty chance that everyone was just going to head back in to the conveniently nearby bar in the lobby.

My question, though, is where does the term "second line" come from? It turns out that it distinguishes this group from the "first line," which is the actual band. It's just the people who join in after the talent has gone by.

I read up on it a little. Wikipedia has it as pretty certain to be of African origin, and some speculate that  in the beginning it was a circle dance, in which the children formed the outer or second line. I don't know about all that, and I strongly suspect that no one else has certitude either. But I do like having locked down what the second line is in present day terms.

Less satisfying is the other thing I was curious about in New Orleans. I was staying at the Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette on Common Street. There were two different kinds of art in the room. One was a picture of a street address in the city, which coincided with my room number, a motif which featured in all the rooms and which I thought was pretty cool. The second was a little more questionable. It was a giant image of a red chandelier which was over my bed. I didn't find it all that appealing and didn't understand its purpose either.

Not my room, but pretty much identical.

The second night I was there, though, I was hanging out with a friend in the bar at the main conference hotel, and in a lull, I happened to look out and see that there were giant red chandeliers suspended in the main part of the lobby. As this was a Marriott, and not old, I knew that they had taken this from some local tradition, which seemed to be the same tradition illustrated in my room. I think the red chandeliers must be iconic in New Orleans, but to my surprise, I haven't been able to track down anything about their history. It's almost like they are so iconic that they are just taken for granted.

Marriott lobby as photographed by Belly G.

But I figure if I post about it here, maybe someday somebody who knows something about this will weigh in here...


  1. I was hoping to see you in that second line, but either you look very different from yourself dancing down the street in New Orleans or the videographer didn't capture the section you were in.

    I too wonder about those red chandeliers. I wonder if there's any real history or just something that you find there for the sake of being different and fancy.

    1. Yeah, it was a huge crowd and I was nowhere near the band. In fact, there was a band at the end as well as the beginning, so I'm not totally sure which part of the parade we are looking at. I do see that they are approaching the Orpheum Theatre destination.

  2. I, too, had wondered where "second line" came from, and I still wonder. I share your skepticism about some of the explanations: How does a parade, which moves in a straight line, get its name from a circle dance? My guess is brief: It doesn't it.

    Your hotel has a nicer name than mine, Nicer signs, too. I was there for the Samus Awards banquet Froday evening.

  3. I like the sign photo. The Pere Marquette was a pretty nice hotel and the bar/lounge area was a nice space to hang out in. I actually didn't know that that was where the Shamus Awards dinner was held.