Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and its county seat of Ripley have a significant blues tradition. Petey Wheatstraw was from Ripley, and Noah Lewis and John Henry Barbee were from Henning, the town made famous by Alex Haley. The blues researcher Bengt Olsson had suggested that there had been fife and drum bands in Lauderdale County, so I drove up to the Lauderdale County Library in the hopes of finding information in the back issues of the weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. Unfortunately, to my shock, the county library did not have any of the back issues of the local newspaper. The microfilm of them is instead kept at the Enterprise office, which of course was not open on a Saturday. I soon came to realize I had come to Ripley for nothing at all, but I called an acquaintance Gwen Blackman, who happened to be a block from the library at an agricultural fair, and who attempted to put me in touch with some community people who were old enough to perhaps remember some fife and drum bands or picnics, but she really could not reach anyone on that particular day. So, with little else to do, I ventured over into the Black neighborhood east of the railroad tracks, where I took some photos of historic spots and locations…old stores, old clubs, and old cafes. It was not the research toward my thesis paper that I had intended, but it was fun.
Tunica County, Mississippi once had dreams of greatness. After all, it bordered the most important navigable stream in North America, and had some raised hills along the banks that would provide for a protected townsite, so the early settlers imagined that there would be a bustling metropolis on the Mississippi River in their county. They chose the site for it near an Indian mound, and, appropriately enough, named it Commerce. It was quickly made the county seat of the new county, and for awhile, it lived up to its name as a fairly busy river port. But the river began to eat away at the bluff on which the town was built, and in 1843, part of Commerce sank into the river. The Board of Supervisors chose to move the county seat to Peyton, another river landing to the south, but a few years later, they moved it back to Commerce. With the river continuing to threaten Commerce, a permanent solution was needed, and eventually the decision was made to move the county seat even further south to Austin Landing, which became known as the town of Austin.
I had never heard of Austin Landing or Austin, Mississippi, but one day, while researching the Black fraternal organization known as the Independent Pole Bearers, I came across a Mississippi corporate charter for a Pole-Bearers chapter at “Austin Landing” in Tunica County. That captivated my interest, and a check of my phone showed that the name still appeared at a place near the levee on a road due west of Evansville, another ghost town that I had discovered on a previous journey through the Delta.
So, on a rather grey and overcast winter day, I headed west from Evansville to see what if anything remained at Austin. Online maps showed about two streets, a cluster of houses and supposedly a church. The road from Evansville was beautiful despite the dreary day, running alongside dark swamps on its southern edge, with seemingly historic homes on the northern side. The journey took awhile, but Austin soon appeared dead ahead, a small cluster of houses and trees against the levee.
I soon found that there are no businesses in Austin whatsoever, although I noticed a building that looked as if it might have once been a store. There is also a sort of community building that looks as if it might have once been the post office, and is probably now used as a voting precinct. Although the maps showed a church, I saw no trace of it when I was actually there, and few of the houses seemed old enough to warrant interest, with one exception. That house, an abandoned house on the northern street of Austin looked as if it had been there since the late 1890’s or early 20th century. Other than that, there was no trace of the courthouse, any businesses, the old street grids or, for that matter, the river, which was now safely behind levees and several miles further west.
I later learned that Austin had also been the scene of a massive race riot in August of 1874, caused by a white store owner attempting to shoot a thief. Instead of shooting the thief, he fatally wounded a 5-year-old Black child, and was arrested and charged. But the decision of the sheriff to release him on bond outraged the Black people of Tunica County. Reinforced by Blacks from Friars Point in Coahoma County further down the river, they armed themselves and marched on Austin in an effort to seize the town. In their initial capture of the downtown area, they took over the store whose owner had shot the girl, and seized him and locked him back up in the jail.
Memphis, only 40 miles to the north had been the scene of racial tension all summer, heightened by a racially-charged election between Democrats and so-called Radical Republicans, most of whom were Black, and this election had occasioned the establishment of white militias such as the Chickasaw Guards. At the news of an uprising in Austin, these militias commandeered boats from the Memphis harbor and headed to Austin to put down the Black uprising, which they succeeded in doing after several days. Several Blacks were killed, and many were arrested in both Tunica and Coahoma Counties. Austin would soon lose the county seat to a new town that had formed when the railroad came through the county- Tunica. Today it is a sleepy and forgotten place in the middle of nowhere, and one could not possibly imagine any noise or confusion there. Several of the homes are for sale, for the person that really wants to get away from it all.
Since the closure of Anderton’s Restaurant in Midtown some years ago, Memphis has had a noticeable lack of decent seafood restaurants, and several attempts at it in recent years have not fared well. Nevertheless, good seafood, especially Gulf seafood, is something that I always crave, so when I heard that the good folks at Elwood’s Shack had opened a new place called Elwood’s Shells which specializes in seafood, I had to try it.
Elwood’s Shells sits in an old house next door to Tsunami in the trendy Cooper-Young neighborhood, amidst a very small parking lot. With nearby lots restricted to other establishments, parking is the restaurant’s biggest challenge. But the space is attractive, its interior a riot of coastal and tropical colors, with folk art by local Memphis artist and musician Lamar Sorrento.
The menu is remarkably large, and fairly unique by Memphis standards. There is fried shrimp of course, but also croaker (a kind of fish), grouper and redfish. There are entrees prepared in both the pontchartrain and meuniere styles that visitors to New Orleans or Biloxi have learned to love, and there is also a selection of po-boys and sandwiches. On my first visit, I tried the fried shrimp, and found them delicious, although they were far larger than the medium gulf shrimp that one usually finds in Pensacola or Mobile. They had a delicious breading, and the french fries that accompanied them were equally delicious. A slice of key lime pie to follow was the perfect ending to the lunch. Service was fairly slow but cheerful.
Unfortunately, my one big disappointment was the price. Elwood’s Shells is relatively expensive, doubtless because of the cost of bringing in quality seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. The food is good, and probably worth the price, but I will have to reserve Elwood’s Shells for special occasions or times when I have extra money. But it certainly deserves a visit.
915 S Cooper St.
Memphis, TN 38104
If Memphis rap were a nation, Al Kapone would be the unanimous choice for an ambassador’s position. One of the earliest Memphis rappers, he has in more recent years become a Memphis icon, popular with constituencies that don’t necessarily get enthused by rap music on a daily basis.
For the same reason, Kapone fits neatly onto the kind of Midtown shows where other rap artists might be awkward. For example, this pre-holiday lineup at the amazing Railgarten venue was kicked off by the nostalgic Memphis soul band The City Champs featuring Joe Restivo, whose fan base probably doesn’t listen to a lot of rap. But everyone knows Al Kapone. Anyone who has ever been to a Grizzlies game or watched the movie Hustle and Flow knows him.
By the time the band launched into their third song, there were at least a hundred people in the club, with more arriving all the time. After they finished their nearly hour-long set, they were followed by up-and-coming Memphis rapper Tune C. performing his song “Naturally” and R & B singer Kameron Whalum performing his new single. After Uriah Mitchell performed a couple of songs, Al Kapone came on stage, performing a number of his more recent hits with a live band. On occasions, he introduced local rappers onto the stage to perform specific songs, including Muck Sticky and Lil Wyte, who also recently released a new album.
Despite the dismal weather outside, the standing room only crowd was full of holiday cheer, and a good time was had by all.
Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure.
Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered.
The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere.
After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia.
Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians.
Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release.
Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America.
This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes.
Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.
30 Jernigan Dr
Somerville, TN 38068
Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.