The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
I was exhausted enough that I didn’t wake up early on Mardi Gras morning, and I barely stirred when my friend’s wife got the kids dressed to take them to her mother’s condo uptown so they could watch the parades. I had hoped to go to breakfast with Darren, assuming we could find a place open, which is not easy to do on Mardi Gras Day, but when I saw that he was not going to wake up any time soon, I got dressed and headed down the road to an IHOP that was open near the Oakwood Mall at the border between New Orleans and Gretna. I felt sorry for the people there having to work, but it was nice to be able to get some coffee and a good bacon and cheese omelette. After breakfast, I called Darren and found that he had woken up, but the price I paid for my breakfast was missing the Zulu Parade. But Darren and I headed across the bridge and uptown, and on Washington Avenue, we actually caught up with a portion of the Zulu Parade. Even though rain had been predicted, instead the sun was out, and the temperature was a pleasant 72 degrees. In fact, it seemed as if we had gone from winter to spring in 12 short hours. There were huge crowds along the parade route, and to my disappointment, the float riders in the Zulu parade were quite stingy with their throws, perhaps because they were getting to the end of the parade route. We still managed to catch 30 or so of the Zulu floats, and then we made our way down to the corner of 6th and St. Charles, where we were able to park at Darren’s mother-in-law’s condominium complex in order to catch the Rex parade. Although there were a few bands in the Rex parade, it was less bands and more floats, but the floats were interesting, as they had to do with New Orleans and Louisiana history. It seemed as if there were more beads being thrown in the Rex parade, and eventually, due to the hot weather, I got thirsty, so I walked across the street to the Gracious Bakery and Cafe, which surprisingly was open, and I got an iced coffee. When the Rex parade was over, it was immediately followed by a truck parade sponsored by the Krewe of Elks, but that parade soon came to a halt and stayed stopped for nearly an hour. We didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a shooting along the parade route on St. Charles Avenue, and a teenager had died. But I was not as interested in the truck parade, and hoped to run into the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians, so Darren and I left St. Charles Avenue and headed to the vicinity of Second and Dryades, a known location for the Indian tribes.
Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras Day, is basically a holiday in New Orleans, and thus ordinary things like getting breakfast can become a little complicated. My friend Darren Towns, his wife Jarday, and their children and I had planned to grab a breakfast at a new spot called Cloud 9 Bistro uptown at Magazine and 9th, a place that was supposed to specialize in liege waffles. Unfortunately, because of Lundi Gras, the restaurant had both cooks and servers not show up for work, and the owner stated it would be 45 minutes before he could even take our order. As a result, we walked around the corner to the Red Dog Diner, but they stated that the wait for a table would be at least two hours. Desperate, not to mention starving, I suggested that we try further uptown at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, and although we did have to wait, it was a reasonable length of time, and we got seated. The breakfasts there are always great, and this day was no exception. However, the delays in finding a place and in getting seated meant that when we were through with breakfast, Darren only had about an hour before he was supposed to play at his afternoon gig.
I had traveled to many gigs with Darren and other members of the TBC Brass Band, and almost all of them had been fun, but this one on this particular day was not much fun at all. For one thing, it wasn’t a TBC gig, but rather a pickup band that had been hired for this particular event, and for another, the event had been put together by a certain celebrity performance artist who is often in New Orleans. Her desire to protect her privacy and not disclose her whereabouts meant that I was not to use my phone to film or photograph the goings-on, and that in fact I was to keep my distance from the whole thing. The organizers had given several different addresses to the musicians, perhaps another step in trying to keep paparazzi and other unwelcome guests at bay, and we had gone first to a location in the French Quarter before ending up on a rather desolate street in the 9th Ward neighborhood known as Holy Cross.
The organizers had hired both some Mardi Gras Indians, and musicians, for some sort of outdoor event. They wanted everyone other than the Indians to wear white, and one of the women explained to Darren that they were going to “build an altar” for their ritual, and that they would then walk to the river with the Indians and musicians to “make their offerings.” None of us were quite sure what exactly was going on there, whether voodoo, or New Age, or neo-paganism, but it was all quite strange, to say the least. The weather was bitterly cold as well, and eventually I retreated to the car, where I turned on the heat and sat there for the hour and a half or so that the procession and ceremony continued.
When it was finally all over, Darren and I decided to go and get dinner. Perhaps because of the cold, it never even occurred to me to suggest that we go to the parades. Instead we headed to the new Saltgrass Steakhouse in Metairie, where we enjoyed a steak dinner, and then we stopped by the Cafe du Monde on Veterans Boulevard for after-dinner beignets and coffee. Thoroughly exhausted, we decided not to go out for live music, but to head to the house and get rested up for the big day on the morrow.
My love affair with New Orleans brass bands actually began with a disappointment during the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference back in 2010. Hearing of a place called Donna’s Brass Band Headquarters on Rampart Street, I walked all the way from my hotel room at the Westin Canal Place to it, only to find that it had closed for good, its owners relocated to Florida. I really wasn’t sure what New Orleans brass band music sounded like, but I wanted to find out.
Fortunately, while I was in town for the conference, I saw that the Stooges Brass Band were playing a gig at a place called the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, and drove out there to catch it. In those days, the Hi-Ho had a decidedly inner-city vibe about it. People parked on the neutral ground in the middle of St. Claude, and there was a truck out front with a huge oil barrel smoker on the back cooking chicken wings and such. Inside the dark and steamy lounge, a standing-room-only, predominantly-Black crowd was enjoying brass band music, with a large crowd of buckjumpers in front of the stage. I had heard the traditional brass bands at Preservation Hall, but this music was at once rawer, newer and quite different. The rhythms of it were more African or perhaps Caribbean, the attitude more of young Black New Orleans than jazz tradition. I found both the music and the vibe thrilling, and then, unexpectedly, the band decided to take a break. As they walked out the front door to the sidewalk, I heard the beat of drums, and suddenly a brass band materialized from the dark neighborhood behind the lounge. They marched up to the Hi-Ho and called out the Stooges to a battle right in the intersection of the streets, and as the two bands battled back and forth, I was especially impressed with the band that had marched up to challenge the Stooges. As they played a tune that I later would learn was called “Why You Worried About Me”, I asked a young white girl if she knew who they were. She handed me her business card, which said she was Lisa Palumbo, and told me that they were called TBC Brass Band. That night, TBC became my favorite brass band in the world.
Within a year, the Hi-Ho had come under different owners, and brass bands were out. DJ’s, bounce rappers and electronic music were in, and the owners were clearly going for a different crowd. So I never would have imagined in a million years that I would be seeing a brass band in the Hi-Ho Lounge again, and certainly not To Be Continued. But Mardi Gras does strange things, and as I came into New Orleans from my day-long trekk across Mississippi, Brenard “Bunny” Adams texted me that they were playing at the Hi-Ho, so I made my way to the spot as quickly as I could. Finding a place to park was not as easy as it had been eight years before, but I could hear the unmistakable sounds of my favorite brass band coming from the club from several blocks away as I walked up. Unfortunately, as I walked up to the entrance to see about going inside, I heard them announce that the last tune had been their final one, and to wish everyone good night. Although I was disappointed, the TBC band members were glad to see me, and we spent nearly an hour out in front of the club getting caught up and talking, while other bands set up and played for the party crowd that was gearing up for the holidays. Because Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras are actual holidays in Louisiana, lots of people are off work, so the Sunday night parties go on into the wee hours of Monday. But I was exhausted, so I ended my night early at the house of a friend on the West Bank.
Originally, I was to have headed out to New Orleans on Saturday, which would have enabled me to go to Houma for a parade with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band, but I was still under the weather on Saturday, and so I decided not to head out until the next day which was Sunday. And although I felt better Sunday morning, I was still not exactly well yet. But I decided to leave out early in the morning, and to head across the Delta, down Highway 61 and Highway 1, in the hopes of finding some pictures worth taking, and although it was a grey and dismal day, I did have some success in that regard. Taking Highway 1 from Lula brought me through some communities that really were headquarters for some of the large plantations, which almost always nowadays are called “farms.” The first one I came to was a community called Stovall, where there was an abandoned store. The Stovalls were a prominent family in Coahoma County, and Muddy Waters had once lived on their land. As I photographed the old brick store, I wondered how many times Muddy Waters had been inside it. The old Stovall home was to the right, near the river, but I didn’t recognize it as such because it had been renamed Seven Chimney Farms. The house actually does have seven chimneys, and seems to be in the process of being restored. Further down was a community called Sherard, which, if the store is to be believed, dates from 1874. The place consisted of the abandoned store, several elegant houses in a grove of trees, a church, and some smaller houses along the highway. At Rena Lara, I stopped for a soft drink at the Great River Road Store, which I was surprised to see serves also as a bar, pool hall and on weekends, upscale restaurant with steaks. I made a mental note to come back some Friday or Saturday to try the steaks. Perthshire was the next community I came to, and like some of the others, it appeared to be the headquarters for a farm, which I learned had been the Knowlton Plantation. What was once a company store was clearly evident on the little street that paralleled the highway. I could make out a rather elaborate house at the end of the east-west street off the highway, but it seemed to be at the end of a long private drive, so I photographed only a glimpse of it from the public street. Gunnison was the first town of any size that I came to along Highway 1, and I was eager to photograph there, as I had once seen some interesting-looking jukes there, and had failed to photograph them because of the groups of young men standing around outside them that I feared would object. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much to be seen in Gunnison nowadays. One of the jukes from my visit years ago had turned into a motorcycle club, and there was no trace of the other. A club I didn’t recall from the past was operating on a side street, with a fair number of cars in front of it, but it had no signage whatsoever, and was operating more or less I suppose under the table. A well-preserved and still open vintage service station on Highway 1 was perhaps the best find in the little town. Beulah was even more desolate than Gunnison had been, although I found a few old downtown structures to photograph. Benoit had the Last Call Bar and Grill, with the words “Mississippi” and “Blues” on its side for good measure, and just to the south was the Monsanto-owned company town of Scott, Mississippi, with its beautiful setting between Lake Bolivar and Deer Creek. Scott had been the headquarters town for the Delta Pine and Land Company, which was once the largest cotton plantation in the world. D P & L was later acquired by Royal Dutch Shell for a period of time, before it was sold to Monsanto in St. Louis. Scott is laid out around a peaceful square across from the large building that houses the post office and which must have once been the company store. There is now an upscale restaurant called Five O’Clock On Deer Creek which is located on the main road, adjacent to the creek. Down from there, I passed through decrepit communities called Lamont and Winterville and into the city of Greenville, where I decided to stop for a lunch. Greenville has a Frostop location, and there I had quite a delicious bacon cheeseburger. From there I made my way to Highway 61 at Arcola, and took pictures there, in Estill, where there was an old collapsing wooden church which looked historic, in Hollandale, at Panther Burn, and in the old ghost town of Nitta Yuma, which is being carefully preserved by the descendants of the family that founded it. Past there, I basically ran out of light, and headed on into Jackson, and down to McComb, where I stopped for dinner at a Santa Fe Steak House, before continuing my journey down to New Orleans.
Authentic blues in an authentic environment is hard to come by these days, and when the Memphis juke joint Wild Bill’s closed in December, it became just that much harder to find. But in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the occasions when The Hut is open, great blues musicians hold forth for a local crowd in the kind of rough, non-descript setting that is appropriate.
The Hut is a former American Legion post in the Black community of Holly Springs. Located near the intersection of West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street, it is a small, white building set down in a ravine far from the street, a structure which looks as if could only hold about a hundred people. Yet it is cozy, has a kitchen, has ample graveled parking, and on a recent Friday night was full to the rafters, with the great Robert Kimbrough Sr. on stage as I walked in.
Robert, a son of the late Junior Kimbrough, is a favorite musician around these parts, but despite all the enthusiasm for his performance, the order of the night was to highlight female blues performers, an event organized by Fancy! Magazine owner Amy Verdon called “Lady’sNight at The Hut.” The original band consisted of Robert Kimbrough, J. J. Wilborn and Artemas Leseur, aided occasionally by Johnny B. Sanders, who had come up from Jackson. These men backed singers Iretta Sanders, and Lady Trucker, whose performances brought many dancers out, including R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. There were also a number of visitors from other parts of the country who traveled to Holly Springs to see the show. Robert Kimbrough came back on stage to close out the first set with a version of his dad’s song “You Better Run”, and then the band took a break.
Unfortunately, during the intermission, two women in the crowd got to fighting, which led to the police being called, and an early end to the evening, as a lot of people chose to leave. But that too has always been part of the blues. Authenticity is not for the squeamish.
Amy Verdon, the New York-based owner of the online magazine Fancy! and its record-label offshoot Go Ape Records has been quite a contributor to the cause of the Hill Country Blues, helping to record artists such as Robert Kimbrough and R. L. Boyce and helping to put on last year’s Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. This year, she put together a special exhibit of photographs intended to highlight the role of women in the blues in Mississippi. The exhibit was displayed at the Leontyne Price Library on the campus of Rust College in Holly Springs, and since I had photographs in it, I made plans to attend the opening reception, despite the extremely cold and miserable weather we were having.
Photos celebrated Hill Country musicians such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as a number of dancers. I was amazed by the schedule of the 1983 Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which proved that legendary Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin had headlined a gospel group on one of the stages. Several of the performers scheduled to play the next night at The Hut were present, including Johnny B. Sanders and Iretta and Robert Kimbrough Sr, and a few people came through to check out the photos. The exhibit will remain up through the end of February.
Although fife and drum bands once were common in West Tennessee, the phenomenon had largely died out by 1980. The Tennessee State Archives created a mentorship program that was designed to reintroduce fife and drum music to Haywood County by having R. L. Boyce teach the traditional drumming styles to a young Brownsville resident, Kesha Burton, who in turn can teach it to other young people in her community. Because Boyce was primarily a drummer, his daughter Sherena arranged for a fife player, Willie Hurt, from Sardis, Mississippi to come and teach the fife to Kesha, although he also is a skilled snare and bass drummer. Although lessons had been occurring since December, on January 27th, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center sponsored the Sleepy John Estes Blues Jam, and the public finally got to hear the first results of the lessons, with Willie Hurt, Kesha Burton and Sherena Boyce playing snare drum, bass drum, fife and tambourine, with various switching of instruments. R. L. Boyce had been nominated for a Grammy and was on his way to the Grammy Awards in New York.
As for the blues jam, it ended up being more about Americana music than the blues per se. There was a considerable amount of folk and bluegrass, and a little bit of blues-inflected music. But sadly, there are few of the original generation of blues musicians left in West Tennessee, the exception being harmonica player Linzie Butler, who was present at the event. The fife and drum music was something of a surprise at this year’s jam, but it was well-received all the same.