On a sunny Sunday afternoon, with not much going on, I decided to join a walking tour that was walking across the old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge. The tours are apparently held to increase interest in the Harahan Bridge redevelopment scheme, and I must say, I think they work. We met in Crump Park, one of the city’s forgotten and disused parks, which sits at the foot of the bridge near a Super 8 motel that used to be a Holiday Inn years ago. The park has a magnificent old magnolia tree in its center where we met the tour director who gave us a lecture about the park and the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, which was erected in 1949. He also gave us information about the Harahan project, and then we set off walking across the bridge to Arkansas. The view from the bridge provides a lot of opportunities for photographs, even though the other two bridges effectively block any good view of the city’s skyline. And even though the weather was hot, it was not unbearably so, and all of the trees and grass were beautiful at this time of year.
Perhaps Easter doesn’t bring thoughts of blues to many people, but this Easter evening was the occasion for an amazing event at Foxfire Ranch celebrating the release of a new album by 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. Welch’s story is amazing, for he is an authentic traditional bluesman who remained undiscovered until 2013 at the age of 82, when he began recording his first record. He signed with Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess subsidiary the same year, and released his debut album Sabougla Voices, which was a gospel record. (“Sabougla” is a hamlet in Calhoun County, Mississippi where Welch is from). Gospel is Leo’s preferred music, but his young audiences love to hear him play blues, and he does so on his sophomore album, which is aptly entitled I Don’t Prefer No Blues. But to celebrate its release, rather than a typical release party, a full evening of live Hill Country blues was scheduled at the Hill Country Pavilion at Foxfire near Waterford, Mississippi. Although the sun was out, the day was chilly, but a decent crowd showed up at 5 PM for the opening act, Jason Carter, who performed acoustically with another guitar player. Right behind him came Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayres, collectively known as the Cedric Burnside Project, who got things crunk with the heavy, rock-inflected brand of blues they play, including one of Cedric’s trademark extended drum solos. Several members of the legendary Burnside family were in the audience, including Duwayne and Garry Burnside. The next act up was something a little different. Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are also on the Fat Possum label, and are more of a strange but winsome amalgam of indie rock, traditional country, blues and funk, which Jimbo whimsically calls “catfish music”. Although he maintains a different sound than Hill Country blues, the influence of blues can be heard through much of his work. Robert “Bilbo” Walker is 76 years old nowadays, and is a former Mississippi bluesman who currently lives in California. Although he is originally from Mississippi, his music has considerable Louisiana and swamp influences, which came to the forefront in his reading of the classic blues/soul song “Staggerlee”. Finally, at the end of the night, Leo “Bud” Welch came up with his three-piece band and performed a collection of songs from the new album, which he had available for sale there at the pavilion. When things finally came to an end around 10 PM, there was still a decent crowd.
Keep Up With Jason Carter & The Healers:
Keep Up With Cedric Burnside:
Keep up with Jimbo Mathus:
Keep up with Robert “Bilbo” Walker:
Keep up with Leo “Bud” Welch:
Keep up with Foxfire Ranch:
Keep up with Fat Possum Records & Big Legal Mess Music:
Monuments, memorials and murals are common to cities. All cities have histories, and important events and people are often honored with statues, parks, buildings or other public markers. But few cities have such things to commemorate a form of music. Yet over the last several months (because it wasn’t there in November), a brick wall behind the Circle Food Store in New Orleans was remade into a colorful and beautiful tribute to bounce music, New Orleans’ most recently created musical genre. Since bounce is a DJ-based music, there is of course a DJ in the mural with turntables, as well as the “Wobbly, Wobbly, C’Mon” chant which is ubiquitous in most bounce music. It’s quite a cool thing to see along North Claiborne Avenue.
Como, Mississippi is a town of significant importance when it comes to the Hill Country style of blues, and it is a town that has had something of a nightlife renaissance in recent years, with several regionally-acclaimed restaurants, so it is somewhat surprising that live blues is considerably rare in Como. After all, this was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the town where the Rev. Robert Wilkins and the Rev. John Wilkins preached and played their unique style of blues-inflected gospel. But aside from the occasional recording sessions at Delta Recording Service, I had never seen any live blues in Como, so when Sherena Boyce invited me to her birthday party and said that her dad, legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce would be playing, I made plans to go.
Her party was held at a little building called the Back Street Ballroom on the street immediately behind Main Street. Although the building was more of an event rental venue, it had the look of a typical Mississippi juke, particularly inside. Friends and family gathered, and a few fans of R. L. Boyce as well, and the event soon got underway, with R. L. Boyce playing the guitar, backed by a band from Potts Camp in Marshall County whose name was never mentioned. It was a versatile band, however, because its keyboard player at one point switched to drums, and its drummer also played guitar and sang. After a few songs, a female singer named Joyce Jones came up and performed several more tunes, and the floor filled up with dancers, many exhibiting the same kind of moves that I had seen the weekend before at the second-line in New Orleans. Also reminiscent of the second-line culture was the fact that at least one party-goer had brought a tambourine with them that they beat and shook in time to the band on stage. After two sets of live music from the band, the DJ picked back up with southern soul and blues music, and the party kept going strong until 2 AM.
Perhaps no New Orleans experience is more enjoyable yet exotic as the Sunday afternoon parades called second-lines. Inspired by the bass-drum, cowbell and tuba-driven grooves of a brass band, the second-line is basically a rolling party led by one of the many social aid and pleasure clubs in the Black community of New Orleans. Unlike more traditional parades elsewhere in the United States, these are participatory events. People come off their porches and fall in behind the marching band, or jump onto high places to dance and be noticed. The refreshments roll too, pulled by vendors with coolers on wheels, so with the music and cold drinks easily available, the average second-liner might not even realize that he’s been marching and buckjumping for nearly four hours in the hot New Orleans sun. Plus, unlike other parades, second-lines stop. The sponsoring club needs to rest, as some of the members are not young, and besides, they are usually dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes that are extremely hot to wear. They also need to salute other clubs by visiting the bars where they hang out, so a second-line is everything- the beat of great music, the exuberance of impromptu dancing, the colorful brilliance of suits and costumes, the joyful meeting of friends or relatives, and ultimately a statement of identity- what it means to be from New Orleans.
On this particular Saturday, the second-line was being sponsored by the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a downtown organization, so the parade lined up at the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the Congo Square Rhythm Festival was going on inside the park, so there was quite a crowd in the vicinity. Revolution is one of the bigger parades of the season, and this year, it featured three bands- the TBC Brass Band, the Sons of Jazz and the New Breed Brass Band, which had formerly been known as the Baby Boyz. With a 70% chance of rain predicted, I had been concerned about the weather. It was certainly grey and overcast, and as the parade began to get underway, big drops of rain came falling down, sending a rush of people into the Ace Hardware on Rampart Street to buy ponchos and umbrellas. But once the parade was up and rolling on Basin Street, the rain abruptly ended, never to return, and eventually, up on Broad Street the sun came out. The crowds grew steadily bigger through the afternoon as we headed down Broad Street toward A. P. Tureaud. At one stop along the way, the club members disappeared into a building, and then came out in completely different attire. Since there had been no “coming out the door” at the beginning of the parade, this was their first “coming out” of the day. All downtown second-lines get kicked up a notch when they hit the I-10 overpass at North Claiborne Avenue. For one thing, the acoustics under the bridge are amazing, and the bass drums and tuba lines seem to hit harder, and the dancers get more creative. For another, there’s usually a crowd of people gathered under the bridge awaiting the arrival of the second-line. The neutral ground of Claiborne was a place of significance in Black New Orleans before the interstate was built, and the ground remains important to the community today, even in spite of what has been done to it. Outside of some establishments were large groups of people, particularly at Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge near the intersection with St. Bernard Avenue. On the last stretch of parade down St. Bernard Avenue, there was some question as to whether we would be allowed to continue, because the parade had run past its permitted time of 5 PM, but the police finally relented and allowed the parade to continue to its end.
Second-line crowds are always reluctant to disperse, and that is even more true of the ones downtown. Lots of people come out with custom cars and motorcycles, cruising up and down North Claiborne Avenue, despite the efforts of the police to break it up. An hour later, there was still a street party in full swing under the bridge. As the sun sets, it gradually breaks up naturally most of the time, the revelers headed home tired but happy until the whole process is repeated the next Sunday.
Old Man Winter had other ideas when the Stooges Brass Band was supposed to play at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis a few weeks ago, but Memphis had another opportunity to enjoy some New Orleans music last Wednesday when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed at the same venue. The Dirty Dozen was one of the young bands that appeared in the early 1980’s as brass bands began a strange renaissance in New Orleans after near extinction in the early 1970’s, and for awhile the Dirty Dozen played the second-lines, funerals and weddings that are the mainstays for brass bands, but eventually they moved away from that to focus almost strictly on touring and club dates. Toward that end, while the bass lines are provided by a tuba, the Dirty Dozen employs a set drummer rather than the traditional rhythm section of bass drum, snare drum and cowbell, and adds an electric guitarist as well. Nor did traditional New Orleans songs make up much of the evening’s repertoire, although they did play a version of “Li’l Liza Jane”. Primarily, the sound of the Dirty Dozen these days is much more funk oriented, and much of the material had that feel and direction. For that style, a funky drummer is mandatory, and Julian Addison proved up to the task, providing a firm backing for the band, and a groove that soon filled the dance floor in front of the stage. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (the latter familiar to fans of the TV series Treme) took turns bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping a jovial and upbeat mood. Many of the songs were taken from the band’s most recent album Twenty Dozen, including a rousing reading of the song “Tomorrow.” At show’s end the crowd was still begging for more, and an encore featuring baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis closed out the show.
Just across the Hardeman County line from LaGrange, Grand Junction should have fared better than it did. Its name referred to the fact that it was located at a place where the Memphis & Charleston railroad line heading toward Chattanooga met what was then the Mississippi Central Railroad heading from Jackson, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi by way of Bolivar and Holly Springs. Both railroads were important, and while Bolivar was the county seat, one could have expected that a town of some significance would have grown up there, and indeed, some of the buildings suggest that Grand Junction was once a little bigger than it is today. But like all the towns I had seen on this particular Saturday, Grand Junction’s downtown was largely dead, if not quite as abandoned as some of the other towns. Again, there was a certain amount of commerce along Highway 57, which probably contributed to the problems in the old business district, and there was the National Bird Dog Museum, which is probably what the town is most famous for, as the national field trials are held annually nearby on the Ames Plantation. But downtown Grand Junction is largely empty, with a number of buildings that look as if they haven’t changed in 60 years. Unlike many of the other towns, there is also a train depot that still exists, although it seems to be undergoing renovations, and is far smaller than I would have expected in a town where two important railroads met. Here’s hoping that someone begins to think about restoring the historic downtown buildings. They would work well as restaurants or cute boutiques and antique shops.
Unlike the other towns along Highway 57, LaGrange did not come about because of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. It was platted in 1829 and developed by early settlers, and its original street plan was supposedly patterned after that of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Memphis & Charleston Railroad reach LaGrange in 1838, but a financial “panic”, as recessions were called in that day, led to the railroad going into bankruptcy. Since LaGrange was very much a going concern before the railroad arrived, it is not surprising that the business district is on the opposite side of town from the railroad, and there are still a number of historic homes and business buildings, many of which predate the Civil War. Unfortunately, only 133 people actually live in the town, and Main Street, though much better preserved than that at Moscow, was equally empty.
Further east along Highway 57 is Moscow, Tennessee, a town that looks as if it had been completely abandoned. The name of its main street, Charleston Street, reflects the importance of the Memphis & Charleston railroad in the town’s history, but on a Saturday afternoon, the street is devoid of cars or people. Few of the buildings along the street seem to be occupied at all, and the same is true of what was obviously once a massive town square along the railroad tracks. The gigantic Moscow Mercantile Company once presided over the spot, but it has been closed and abandoned, too. It is hard to tell what has brought about such dramatic decline in Moscow. A large plant of the Troxel Corporation just outside the town makes Flexible Flyer swing-sets, and there is a small scattering of businesses still open along the highway, including a branch of Brad’s Bar-B-Que. The town has several hundred residents, and is far from a ghost town, but for some reason the downtown has been totally abandoned, and it has an empty and eery feel.
In 1838, early investors dreamed up the idea of a railroad east from Memphis to the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, South Carolina. Such a railroad would connect the cotton-growing areas along the Mississippi River with an Atlantic port, where such goods could be exported to Europe or the Caribbean. Economic downturns killed and delayed the plans repeatedly, and the railroad initially only got to the Fayette County town of LaGrange, Tennessee. Yet, by 1857, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was a reality, and this rail line was to have a profound influence over a number of the towns that today are located along Highway 57, which runs from Collierville to Pickwick Landing. Rossville, the first town of any significance after crossing over into Fayette County, was a beautiful town when I was young, and still is. Despite its proximity to booming Collierville, it doesn’t seem to have grown all that much, perhaps due to the lack of schools (the nearest public high school is almost 20 miles away in Somerville, although there is a private academy). Old houses, some of them elaborate line the few streets, and there is a newly-restored town square, and the Wolf River Cafe, a restaurant that I haven’t tried yet but which I’ve heard good things about. Sadly, one thing I remember from my youth is long gone, the row of Black jukes on the north side of the railroad opposite the square. As I recall one of them was called Phase II, but they are all gone without so much as a trace.