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Tracing the Roots of New Orleans Funk Music

(by B. Getz for Live for Live Music) – New Orleans, Louisiana, is first and foremost a port town. Originally owned by the French, the Crescent City was where many people of color were brought from the West Indies as a part of the slave trade. Many of these people came from Haiti and brought with them the culture of Voodoo, and with that, its drums and music.

New Orleans was among the first parts of the United States to develop a strong African-American artistic culture leading to the invention of jazz in the early 1900s. Jazz may have been born in NOLA at the turn of the century, but by the 1950s, the music of choice in New Orleans was rhythm & blues. During this period, local R&B talent topped the national charts with songs like Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man”, and Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coalmine”.

Since the beginning of the century, a main feature of New Orleans’ jazz has been the jazz funeral marching bands, also known as second lines. In its primary sense, a “second line” refers to an African-American processional form first established in New Orleans in the late 1800s. Somber brass bands accompanying a coffin on burial are joined by a second line of dancers and drummers, which would turn the event into a exaltation of the “spirit cutting free from Earth”. This treasured tradition is is rooted in African customs, and remains strong in New Orleans to this day.

The backline drums play a syncopated style that is neither on the beat nor the off-beat, and is commonly referred to as “second line”. In a 1975 interview with Downbeat magazine, the now-legendary Dr. John explains the fine distinction between ‘second-line’ and the Afro-Cuban rhythms that predate it:

See, in the basic Afro Cuban music, one is established as the beat and everything after that is basically free. In Latin music one is the hit and is always established and everybody plays around it. But in second-line, the beat is four/one, and there are two accents, as opposed to the one in Latin. (May 22, 1975, Downbeat)

The “second-line” rhythm formed the root for the basic NOLA funk backbeat—a beat which can be heard in any number of rock, R&B, and pop recordings. The “second-line” rhythmic tradition entered the culture through Professor Longhair (also known as Fess) and ‘Fats’ Domino, moving onward through Chris Kenner and Ernie K-Doe. By the end of the sixties, the second-line beat had traveled up out of New Orleans to other regions. For example, Motown producers up in Detroit, Michigan, had unceremoniously jacked a bunch of Bayou-birthed beats for some of its most beloved chart hits; most notably on The Supremes “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, where Benny Benjamin jacks the iconic drum pattern from the now-ubiquitous “Iko Iko,” a song made popular by The Dixie Cups in 1965, but written by New Orleans own James “Sugar Boy” Crawford.

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