On the last weekend of September, Memphis-based blues and southern soul singer Gerod Rayborn asked me if I would play keyboards with his band for a blues show taking place at Como, Mississippi. The show turned out to be the Bikers’ Rally and Blues Show at LP’s Ballfield on the Hunters Chapel Road, east of Como, a location which has a rich history in regards to the Hill Country blues.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, LP’s was a place where Black fife and drum bands came together to perform at picnics or in friendly competitions, and there are historic photographs of Otha Turner, R.L. Boyce and other Hill Country musicians that were taken at the ball park.
Unfortunately, the venue was inherited by a son of the original owner, who has redirected it away from the traditional Hill Country music in favor of rap and hip-hop, car shows and southern soul.
Although fans of southern soul often refer to themselves as “blues fans”, and the terms “blues” and “southern soul” are used interchangeably, there is a vast difference between Hill Country blues and the kind of music that is performed at a southern soul performance, such as the one I was playing at. Southern soul could best be described as a modern genre that seeks to continue a vein of Black music that was largely abandoned elsewhere with the coming of disco, funk and ultimately rap. Lyrically naughty, and often concerned with cheating, southern soul is rural music for rural Black folks. Of course, through migration and family relationships, the genre has a following in larger cities as well, even in the north, but references to things like “trail rides” clearly establish the country frame of reference.
Working for Select-O-Hits Music Distribution for 20 years, I knew a lot about southern soul, but I didn’t expect the absolutely tremendous crowd that showed up for the event on this particular Saturday afternoon. Bikes were everywhere, and a lot of the new bike/car hybrids known as Slingshots. The warm weather was perfect for the event, and lots of people had come down from Memphis, particularly to see the headliner, Big Pokey Bear, whose song “My Sidepiece” was currently the hottest thing going. In addition to bikes and near-bikes, there were classic Corvettes and large RV’s, where some people had made themselves at home, watching college football in between the acts on stage.
Bev Johnson of Memphis radio station WDIA was the master of ceremonies for the event, and she soon brought up the first act, a band called the Smooth Groove Experience from Memphis, which featured a female singer. They were quite good, but as we were the next band up, I had to start getting ready to go up on stage.
After our performance, I hung around the event for awhile, as I had intended to check out all of the various performers. But my girl was in Hernando at the Front Porch Jubilee, and when she called and told me she was missing me, I decided to leave and meet her at the other event, which I did. She and I ended the evening at the Brick Oven Pizza Company in Hernando, after which I headed back home to Memphis, thoroughly tired but with a sense of satisfaction.
After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.
Sherena had never been to a second-line, so on our weekend trip to New Orleans, I wanted her to experience one first-hand. And by chance, we ended up going to the biggest second-line of the year, the four-hour Young Men Olympian second-line, with its five divisions and five bands. As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the YMO is the oldest social aid and pleasure club still existing in New Orleans, and would seem to be the largest as well. One of the divisions had hired the TBC Brass Band to play with them, so when we got to the starting point for the second-line after a leisurely breakfast at Slim Goody’s Diner on Magazine Street, we looked for TBC and quickly fell in behind them. Sherena had brought her tambourine, and though it was all new to her, she fell into the rhythm perfectly as if she had been doing it all her life. Despite the hot weather, the turnout was truly large, with hundreds of people buck-jumping behind the various bands. The division behind us had hired the New Creations Brass Band, and I met some of their members when we stopped at the Sportsman’s Lounge at Second and Dryades. When we passed by a cemetery on Washington Avenue, some young boys were actually dancing on top of tombs along the fenceline, an example of the tendency of dancers to look for elevated locations where they can be seen, although there may be further significance to dancing on graves. The act might be a defiance of death itself. But the heat took its toll on Sherena, and the large crowds made it hard for us to keep up with one another. When we got back to Simon Bolivar Street, we decided to leave the second-line and find something indoors and cooler to get into.
My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
Robert Kimbrough Sr. calls his style of music “cotton patch blues”, but he is the son of one of the biggest legends of what blues scholars often call Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough. The Hill Country is generally considered to be Marshall, DeSoto, Tate, Panola, Lafayette and Benton Counties, and perhaps the most important city in the region is Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi. Music fans in Oxford love the cotton patch or Hill Country styles of blues, and they often go to Rooster’s Blues House when regional blues artists are booked, so there was a large, enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night in September when Robert Kimbrough performed with his band the Robert Kimbrough Sr Blues Connection. Kimbrough treated the crowd to a mix of original compositions and Junior Kimbrough standards like “All Night Long”, and the dance floor in front of the stage stayed full. It was a great way to kick off a big Oxford football weekend.
Due north of Marshall County, the quintessential county of the Mississippi Hill Country is Fayette County, Tennessee, which perhaps could be considered Tennessee’s only Hill Country county as such. Geographically and demographically similar to the county in Mississippi below it, Fayette should have been a hotbed of blues, and apparently was, but was much less studied than its Mississippi counterpart. Otherwise, the two counties are remarkably similar, right down to their charming county seat towns with courthouse squares that could be the setting for some epic movie of the American South. Holly Springs in Marshall County is known for its Blues in the Alley events each Thursday night in July and August, so when Fayette County began announcing Music on the Square events on Thursdays in September, I decided to drive out to Somerville and see what was going on. The weather was beautiful and perfect for such an event, and a crowd of about a hundred people had gathered on the northwest corner of the courthouse square along Market Street, where a stage had been set up. There were cookies and lemonade provided by local business sponsors, and some custom cars and trucks had been parked closer to Fayette Street on the west side of the square. Unfortunately, the band that had been chosen to play on this particular Thursday was a country band, and country music is not my cup of tea, but at least this particular country band was from Fayette County, and had a certain rock edge to their style. Somewhat disappointed in the music, I spent the rest of the evening walking around the tiny downtown in Somerville, snapping pictures of a number of landmarks before heading back to Memphis. Even so, the court square makes an excellent background for live music performance, and those who attended had a great time.
On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.
After a full day at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival in downtown Memphis, we headed down into Mississippi for the Hurt Family Picnic in the Burdett Hill community west of Sardis, one of two annual events that highlight Black fife and drum music, a pre-blues form of music that is highly endangered in the United States, really found only among two families in two Mississippi counties that we know of. The Hurt Family really does two picnics, one at the Fourth of July, and the other at Labor Day, and it is the second one that draws the largest crowds. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the picnic had been going on for some time. Willie Hurt got the drummers together for one final performance, and then the evening was given over to a DJ, and a band from Memphis called the ATF Band, led by Anthony Turner. Although I was there more for the fife and drum music, ATF proved to be a decent band, and a number of people filled the dance floor as they played a lot of soul and blues covers. While the Hurt Family Picnic is a more close-knit and intimate affair than the large Otha Turner Goat Picnic in nearby Tate County, the Hurts welcome visiting fans of the blues and related musics.
New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.