“Memphis’ Worldly Fair”: Deciphering Riddles In A Hill Country Blues Lyric

Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.

However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:

Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.

What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.

Fair or Fare?

One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.

The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.

The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair

Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.

The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations

Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.

Conclusion

While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.

The Hill Country Blues Continues: Cameron Kimbrough and Joyce Jones Live at The Dirty Crow Inn

I had seen that Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, would be playing at The Dirty Crow Inn on Saturday night, but I had a gig of my own on the University of Memphis campus, so our decision to go to Cam’s gig was something of a spur-of-the-moment thing after my gig was over. Little did we know that we were in for an amazing blues experience in the little funky dive bar in South Memphis.

Of course, Cameron Kimbrough has been getting attention for several years as a powerful new voice in the blues, and his mother, Joyce Jones, who is an excellent blues singer, has been working on her debut album. But I was surprised to see the venue so packed with blues fans, particularly as it is a venue that doesn’t usually book blues, and it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way location.Cam was performing on drums when we arrived, joined by some local guitarists including Moses Crouch, a really-young harmonica player from North Memphis, and his mother Joyce Jones. They were set up on the enclosed deck, and there was hardly a table available, the crowd a combination of blues fans and basketball fans in town for the sweet sixteen tournament at the Fed Ex Forum. Unlike a lot of blues shows, much of Cam’s set was jamming, with songs being improvised extemporaneously on the spot, Joyce Jones adding vocal riffs that occasionally became something like song titles, perhaps.

When Moses Crouch came back on stage for the second set, the style was a little more orthodox, with familiar Hill Country tunes like “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line” and “Coal Black Mattie”, which Cam played on the guitar. But he also followed the traditional blues song with an original called “I’m Still Standing”, which highlights Cam’s unique ability to craft new material that still belongs firmly to the Hill Country tradition. As midnight approached, the crowd began to dwindle, but the music remained as strong as ever, powerful, relentless. We left, feeling that something of real importance had just happened in a hole-in-the-wall in South Memphis. It just might be possible that Cameron Kimbrough is the future of the Hill Country blues. (You can buy Cam’s debut EP Head For The Hills here and can listen to Cam’s earlier recordings here).




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Memphis Soul Legend Don Bryant Performs With The Bo-Keys at Loflin Yard


Once in a while, a local music show gets announced which I just cannot miss, and the announcement of a Don Bryant show with soul revivalists The Bo-Keys was just such a show. Better yet, it was being held at Loflin Yard, one of my favorite Memphis venues.
Don Bryant is one of Memphis’ forgotten soul geniuses. Originally a member of Willie Mitchell’s group The Four Kings, he recorded a number of soul sides for Joe Coughi’s Hi label during the 1960’s, but ended up becoming better known as a staff writer for the label, with “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, recorded by Ann Peebles in 1973 becoming his biggest hit. Bryant married Peebles in 1974, and soon disappeared from popular music. There were rumors that both Bryant and Peebles had transitioned to gospel music, and a few gospel releases appeared under Bryant’s name. Peebles would occasionally return to blues and soul music, but Bryant did not, at least until embarking on the recording of a new album “Don’t Give Up On Love” for the Fat Possum label out of Oxford.
Friday night’s show at Loflin Yard was primarily a showcase of the new songs, backed by Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, the highlight of which was a funky gospel tune called “How Do I Get There?” which is the single from the forth-coming album. Despite the drizzly weather, the venue was fairly crowded, and Bryant, at 74 years of age, was still in great form and voice, a consummate performer. And thanks to the Bo-Keys ,featuring such Memphis legends as drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie Turner, the backing sound was authentic, with live horns and real instruments, and no modern anachronisms. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear authentic Memphis soul music as it was intended to be heard.

Lundi Gras From New Orleans to Memphis


After the Duwayne Burnside performance on Sunday night, we went for a late-night breakfast at the St. Charles Tavern, one of a handful of 24-hour restaurants along the streetcar route on St. Charles Avenue uptown. The place was crowded in the wake of the Mardi Gras parades, balls, concerts and music events, but the service was relatively quick for the level of crowd, and the breakfast food was really good.
About eight hours later, we woke up and checked out of the condominium on Oak Street where we had been staying. We walked up the street to the Oak Street Cafe for breakfast, and as usual, the place was crowded. But because it was Lundi Gras, they were serving a special and extremely-limited menu, unfortunately. Still we managed to get a brunch, and then headed out on the way back to Senatobia and Memphis, stopping briefly in Ponchatoula. In Jackson, wanting seafood, we stopped at Drago’s, a New Orleans favorite that has since expanded to Jackson, and the workers were busy decorating the restaurant for Mardi Gras as we enjoyed our dinner of oysters and shrimp. It was fairly late when we made it back home, and I was glad that I was off work the next day.

Oak Street, New Orleans, Sunday Afternoon on Mardi Gras weekend


Although New Orleans is my favorite city, and it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were in town primarily for a Duwayne Burnside concert that I was playing keyboards on, so we didn’t have the opportunity to really get out and enjoy the parades or other performances. In fact, the parades ended up being more of a bother, as they made it hard for us to get from our condominium to the venue. But where we were staying, on Oak Street, was remarkably quiet and empty on the Sunday afternoon, apparently because everyone was further down St. Charles along the parade route. The holiday also wreaked havoc on our food options, with some places closed altogether and others on three-hour waits. But Pizza Domenica is a great stand-by, as it is just about the best pizza in the city anyway, and usually open even on Sunday or at Mardi-Gras. When we arrived, it was largely empty, but after we were seated, it started quickly filling up with people who were making their way back from the parade, and the place went from dead to crowded in less than a half hour, but we were satisfied and comfortable as we headed to the show venue.

Sunday Morning Coffee at Steampunk Coffee Roasters in Natchez


After R. L. Boyce’s show in Leland, we headed on down Highway 61 to Natchez and checked into the Hotel Vue. Duwayne Burnside had a show at the Circle Bar in New Orleans on Sunday night, and we wanted to get as close to New Orleans as we could get, so that our drive down the next morning would not be bad. Our room was big and comfortable, and better yet, it came with a free breakfast buffet for the next morning. Arriving at 2 AM, we hadn’t seen much of the decor, but on the next morning, we were able to see amazing views of the city of Natchez and the Mississippi River from the rather steep hill on which the hotel was built. After we checked out, we both wanted coffee, so we headed downtown to a place called Steampunk Coffee Roasters, which turned out to be directly behind Smoot’s Grocery, the local blues venue in Natchez. The coffee roastery and cafe was housed in an historic brick cottage that dated back to the 19th century, and was fairly crowded, a mix of local people and those coming or going from New Orleans Mardi Gras. Although the previous Saturday had been cold, the weather was warming up on Sunday, and people were walking along the Mississippi River, and enjoying the outdoor tables at the coffee bar. We took a table inside, and enjoyed our coffee drinks, and I purchased three bags of beans to take home, some Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan varieties. Across the street from the coffee bar was a large warehouse with a mural promoting a different kind of coffee, the Interstate Coffee Company of Natchez, and its brands of coffee, Double Eagle Coffee and Chicory, and Alcafe Coffee. The company was long out of business, sadly, but the mural had been beautifully restored by the building’s current owners, and we were told that it would soon become Natchez Brewing Company. Fueled with light food and coffee, we soon headed out to New Orleans.

Fine Dining and Blues at Leland’s Vince’s Restaurant


R, L, Boyce’s second show of the night was an hour south of Clarksdale in Leland, Mississippi, a rough Delta town just outside of Greenville. Leland, with lots of projects and apartments, and a largely abandoned downtown, is not the sort of place one would expect to find fine dining, and yet, amidst all the decay and ruin is a jewel of a restaurant called Vince’s. Pulling up at night, you’ll notice it, because it’s the only building on Main Street where any cars are parked. It looks small and unassuming from the outside, but inside, it is white tablecloths and great steaks, seafood, and Italian dishes. But what makes Vince’s even more special is what happens next door in the bar area- a decidedly non-upscale style of music, Mississippi blues. At least one travel site says that Vince’s features music 5 nights a week. I’m not sure about that, but they have blues on weekends for sure, so you can enjoy your ribeye or spaghetti while listening to some of the best bluesmen from the Delta or the Hill Country. Prices are reasonable, and the service is first-rate as well. Vince’s is certainly worth a stop whenever you are in the Mississippi Delta.

Vince’s Restaurant
207 N Main St
Leland, MS 38756
(662) 686-2112
Closed Monday and Tuesday

Sean “Bad” Apple & R. L. Boyce at The Bin at Shacksdale Motel


It’s not at all unusual for Sean “Bad” Apple and R. L. Boyce to perform in Clarksdale, but on the last Saturday in February, they performed in a rather unusual place. The Bin is a former grain elevator used as a music venue on the grounds of the Shacksdale Motel ,a motel of cottages across the road from the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, just outside of Clarksdale. The motel and inn are popular with out-of-town visitors on blues pilgrimages, so live blues performances on the grounds make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it was quite cold on this particular afternoon, and the venue was somewhat open to the outside. But a good crowd was present, including singer Libby Rae Watson, who was scheduled to perform after Apple and Boyce, who were aided by Stud Ford on drums and Sherena Boyce on tambourine. The afternoon consisted primarily of Boyce’s unique compositions, as well as some Hill Country standards like “Poor Black Mattie” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The fun continued until 5 PM, and then Boyce had to leave for another show elsewhere in the Delta.