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Second Line For The Second Time: The Curious Tale Of A Rhythm Reborn

Second Line For The Second Time: The Curious Tale Of A Rhythm Reborn

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...we can see the reanimated spirit of those early proto-jazz musicians in New Orleans echoing through the culture, hundreds of millions of people entirely unaware that they were dancing and listening to music whose roots were found in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in the street processions in New Orleans a century ago.
In New Orleans in the late 1800s, the precursors to jazz were forming in the brass bands that performed on the streets for parades, funerals and other events. These groups featured brass and percussion and were followed by crowds who marched behind them in the parades and processions. The rhythms played by the percussion were a rhythmical representation of the melting pot of different cultures found in the post-Civil War era New Orleans—Cuban, Caribbean, South American, Creole, African American, Spanish, American Indian and others. This rich cultural milieu brought many folk traditions together, and one of those became the primary rhythm used by the percussionists in the "second line" in the parades.

It is instantly recognizable, and for good reason—the second line rhythm and its variations are the basis of modern popular music in all genres. It is of Afro-Cuban origin and is known as the "son clavé" rhythm:

It subdivides the measure into a 3+2 pattern, which deliciously destabilizes the inherent strong accents based on two and four that are present in the measure —there are eight eighth notes in each measure, so the three accents interrupt the symmetrical 4 or 2 beat pattern:

Many readers may recognize the rhythm as the "Bo Diddley" rhythm, named after his big hit in 1955, "Hey Bo Diddley:"

It appears in so many other songs that there is a Wikipedia1 page devoted to the "Bo Diddley Beat" that lists about 50 of them. While not an exhaustive list, it does provide a good sampling of the use of the second-line rhythm in popular music dating from the mid-1940s.

Looking at the songs in the list (with several additions), some interesting characteristics emerge. First, out of 57 songs, only four are in minor keys—the rest are in major keys. Clearly, the second line rhythm, while used for funerals, is not one to wallow in misery, preferring instead to reinforce an optimistic and positive visage. Secondly, only seven have female singers, which is surprising given the prominence of female singers and groups in the 1960s and beyond. Thirdly, these 57 tunes show that for the first 30 years (1945-1975), the tempo stayed within a range of roughly 90 beats per minute (bpm) to 120 bpm, with an average tempo of just over 100 bpm. However, in the following years, the search for variation and stylistic boundaries pushed the lower limit below 90 bpm, with one outlier, "Hare Krsna" by Hüsker Dü, pushing the tempo close to 140 bpm. Interestingly, the slower tempos had considerable success —"(She's) So Selfish" by The Knack was a hit for the band, and another slower version, "How Soon Is Now" by The Smiths is likely their most iconic tune, and one that became the theme for the popular Warner Bros. television series Charmed, which ran from 1998-2006. It appears that the rhythm had potential for success, commercially at least, at slower tempos. Still, the effect at more extreme faster tempos makes the rhythm go from spry and fun to a bit manic and unhinged, which seems to be the intent in the Hüsker Dü song, with its overt dissonant and expressionistic punk trappings.

The second line rhythm also regularly made it to the charts, racking up seven chart toppers, eight top-ten, five top-20, and eight top-40 hits. (Many others made it to the top 100, while others did well in smaller markets outside the USA.) Three of the #1 hits were in the early years (1944-1957), including the Andrews Sisters' "Rum and Coca Cola," which is an extremely weak representative of the second line rhythm (it appears briefly at the beginning of the tune and after that, it is a calypso beat). The other two are Bo Diddley's eponymously titled tune and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." Interestingly, they show the black/white radio divide of the time—Bo Diddley's tune hit #1 on the R&B (i.e. "black) charts, while Buddy Holly's tune was found at the top of the Billboard (i.e. "white") charts. Two of them were hits in the 1970s, with a similar bifurcation occurring—Shirley and Company's "Shame Shame Shame" hit #1 in the Dance (disco at that time) charts, while Neil Sadaka's "Bad Blood" topped the Billboard charts for three weeks.

In the 1980s, we find two chart-topping hits: Kenny Loggins' theme song to the huge hit movie "Footloose" stayed at #1 for a staggering 10 weeks! George Michael's "Faith" was a big hit for him as well, claiming the top of the charts for four weeks. This marks the rhythm's apogee in terms of both popularity and number of iterations. As the graph shows, the second line rhythm soars after it first appears in the 1940s, and logs two #1 hits in the 1970s, and two smash hits (I don't think it is hyperbole to use the term "era-defining" here) in the 1980s. Shortly after George Michael's "Faith" (1987), U2 hits very close to the top of the charts with their big hit "Desire" (1988), which came in at #3 on the US Billboard charts. Additionally, "Desire" reached #1 on two other charts (Modern Rock Tracks and Mainstream Rock Tracks), which had never been done before. They also topped the charts in the UK and Australia for the very first time, hit #2 on the Dutch Top 40, and won a Grammy for it as well—the magic of the second line provided them with a powerful career boost. It appears that after U2's "Desire" and George Micheal's "Faith," popular music seems to have lost its faith in the rhythm, and it largely disappeared for years.

There are only a few examples in the '90s, and none of those tunes got anywhere near the top 10 or 20. When the rhythm reemerges in the new millennium, it has fallen from its lofty heights. In 2005, it brushes up to top the Top 20 in KT Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and the top 40 in Rihanna's "If It's Lovin' That You Want" but this feels more like what stock brokers would call a "dead-cat bounce." To make matters worse, our noble New Orleans rhythm gets rudely co-opted as it crosses over into the comedic and the commercial—it is featured in parody musician Weird Al Yankovic's "Party at the Leper Colony" and in "Water Fountain" by the tUnE-yArDs, which was used by Google as promotional music for their line of Pixel devices.

The harmonic content that the second line rhythm supports is also interesting:

Minor Scale:

Only one tune, KT Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," uses the minor scale, with minor tonic and major dominant.

Phrygian and Lydian Mode:

Elton John's curiously titled "Billy Bones and the White Bird" stands out as quite the colorful, ominous anomaly. It features a tonic pedal with II (Lydian) and ♭III/♭II (Phrygian).

Very Simple:

Two of these are essentially two-chord vamps in a major key—Rihanna's "If It's Loving That You Want" and "Water Fountain" by the Tune-Yards. Also included here is the fastest tune in the list, Hüsker Dü's "Hare Krsna," which is a two-chord punk rock vamp featuring acerbic, dissonant, improvised guitar riffs and creepy, unintelligible spoken word recitations way back in the mix. It is by far the most avant-garde iteration.

Aeolian Mode:

Three tunes use Aeolian2 mode, marked by the ubiquitous use of the rock trope chord progression ♭VI-♭VII-i. This includes David Bowie's "Panic in Detroit" and progressive rockers Jethro Tull's iconic "Aqualung." The Talking Heads' "Ruby Dear" is the third tune, and stands out because the melody leans heavily on the lowered sixth scale degree, creating a strong dissonance over the scrappy second line rhythm, which is rare.

Dorian Mode:

Closely related to the Aeolian mode is the Dorian mode and we find two tunes in that mode: Guns 'N Roses "Mr. Brownstone" and The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now." The Smiths tune is noteworthy because the chords and the melody are Mixolydian, but the trippy and sinewy sliding guitar riff begins on ♭5-♭3, which gives it a strong blues connotation. Those pitches then resolve downwards to scale degrees 4-2, which is dissonant with the major tonic, made more striking because they never resolve. The melody, sung by Morrissey, leans heavily (as he does in many tunes) on the major third, and the rhythm guitar is playing a major chord, which would seem to indicate that it is in Mixolydian mode, but it is not—the bass is playing the minor third, which makes this an example of mode mixture. This, along with the other elements discussed, imbues the tune with a mysterious, unsettling feeling in the verse. Notably, as previously mentioned, this tune was used as the theme song for a major television show, Charmed, that started in 1998, 13 years after it was released in 1985 which is astonishing given that it didn't make the charts in the US. It was also featured on the soundtrack to the movie The Craft (1996). The movie and the eight-season television series dealt with the same themes—witchcraft and the supernatural. The Smiths tune, with its slower version of the second-line rhythm featured so prominently, clearly conjures a kindred spirit of some kind, which makes it difficult not to think of the same invocation taking place in the funereal rituals and processions in New Orleans, a century earlier.

More Complex:

Most of the tunes are very simple in form and harmony. Two tunes are from progressive rockers—Genesis' "Squonk" and Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." "Squonk" features the rhythm in a major key, followed by a variation in Aeolian mode. It is not, however, a defining feature—it occurs briefly at the end as a coda to end the piece (5'53" in the live video, with Phil Collins singing the rhythm when it starts). It is a bit more prominent in "Aqualung"—it is found as the vamp underneath the guitar solo. Thomas Dolby's "Europa and the Pirate Twins" is also included here. His jazz-tinged synth lines and his attention to texture give the tune more depth and complexity. The other is Elton John's "Billy Bones and the White Bird," which, as previously mentioned, features two different modes over the tonic pedal, creating a level of dissonance not often found in popular music.

Major Scale:

These twenty tunes use simple forms, with many of them featuring only three or four chords (I, IV, V, vi). Smoky Robinson and the Miracles "Mickey's Monkey" falls into this category, as does "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" by The Supremes. Interestingly, many of the earlier tunes use the major scale, but as time passes, they become less frequent, with the modes, in particular Mixolydian, largely taking over. Some tunes feature more than four chords, introducing pitches from outside of the key by including mode mixture and secondary dominants, like The Byrds' "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe."

Mixolydian Mode:

The Mixolydian mode is the most popular, and if we add it to all the other modes, the modal category is the overwhelming choice. Most of these tunes have a bluesy hue, like the Allman Brothers' "No One to Run With," but only two feature blues chord changes: Weird Al Yankovic's "Party at the Leper Colony" and Johnny Otis' "That's Your Last Boogie."

This begs the question: Why are there so many modes and so few major or minor scale songs? Modes are much easier to work with because their ability to assert a strong "tonic" is greatly diminished compared to the major/minor scale. Due to the weakened tonicization, the notes in the scale do not have the same powerful pull towards the tonic, which means that there are not, operationally, any "wrong notes," making modes the perfect medium for untrained musicians. For example, Miles Davis' famous tune "So What" features just two modes—D Dorian and E♭ Dorian. Young students who can play the C major scale (which contains all of the notes in D Dorian) and the D♭ major scale (which contains all of the notes in E♭ Dorian) on their instruments can easily begin improvising over the tune because there are no "bad" notes if they stick to those two scales. "So What" is, therefore, commonly used by jazz educators with young high school musicians as an effective and "safe" way to introduce them to improvising.

However, the use of the major and minor scale is also severely limited. When found, it generally uses only a handful of chords—I, IV, V, vi—which means that only seven of the available twelve notes are accessed, resulting in a very predictable harmonic palette that has no surprises for the listener. Others, however, like The Byrds' "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" have a more colorful texture because they use notes that are not in the key. Their pitch palette is, therefore, larger and more complex, using eight, nine, or ten of the available twelve pitches. In contrast, jazz and classical music freely use all twelve pitches, often within a few measures, making them more complex and more challenging to learn and approach.

Another question arises: Why was the rhythm found so prominently from the mid-'60s until the late '80s? It's hard to come up with a definitive answer to that question, but could it be that the era in question—the Vietnam War, the resignation of President Nixon, the OPEC embargo, the economic downturn of the Carter years, the Iranian hostage crisis, and then the rebound with economic recovery of the coke-fueled, hedonistic '80s—needed and reflected the attitude of this scrappy, jaunty rhythmic meme to help survive the economic and societal malaise of the '70s? And then it is so prominent in some of the biggest hits of the '80s—did it become an overripe trope that could no longer be used without sounding like a kitschy nostalgic throwback or parody?

Of course, it's impossible to prove conjecture of this sort, but there must be some reason that the second line rhythm in popular music increased and then fell precipitously 20 years later, with two big hits from two artists in different genres as the wildly successful finale. Suffice to say that we can argue about the degree to which music influences culture and vice versa, but the fact that they are intertwined at a very deep, subconscious, even spiritual level, seems self-evident.

Regardless of the reason for the rise and fall of the second line, it is truly fascinating to see this Afro-Cuban folk music rhythm, which filled the streets of New Orleans in the late 1800s and then migrated across the country and the world, appearing in popular music of all kinds—classic rock, prog rock, punk rock, disco, pop, and dance—in the 1970s and '80s. Here we can see the reanimated spirit of those early proto-jazz musicians in New Orleans echoing through the culture, hundreds of millions of people entirely unaware that they were dancing and listening to music whose roots were found in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in the street processions in New Orleans a century ago.

Special thanks to Jazmine Hobbs for the artwork.


1 I tried adding some songs to the Wikipedia website, but those edits were erased by the administrator because there were no extant "references" in journals or magazines! Given that the songs are the ultimate primary source, this was quite revealing, especially since one of the pieces listed there, "I Wish You Would" by Billy Boy Arnold, did have an accompanying newspaper reference but that source is incorrect—the song does not have the rhythm in it.

2 Aeolian and Dorian modes are sometimes difficult to distinguish between, especially in music that has so few chords. The pitch that differentiates them is scale degree 6, which is a minor 6th from the tonic in Aeolian and a major 6th in Dorian. They often use both in the same tune, so it is difficult to make a case for one or the other. Nonetheless, they're both minor modes, so the distinction is perhaps not terribly important.

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