“They Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”: Mardi Gras Indians Uptown and Downtown

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.

To New Orleans Across The Mississippi Delta

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.

A Fife-and-Drum Workshop in Brownsville, Tennessee

Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.

Remembering the Legacy of Bartlett’s Shadowlawn High School

Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.

Celebrating the Hill Country Tradition at Como’s Annual Day

Each October, the City of Como, Mississippi sponsors a large, daylong festival and picnic called Como Day, featuring vendors, food trucks, custom cars and excellent live music. Como Day is one of a number of “town days” that are held in predominantly-Black Mississippi towns. These are held throughout the year, generally bear the name of the town, feature live music, and often become an excuse for those who moved away to return home for a day or a weekend. Although most small towns have some sort of festival, these town days are unique, functioning almost like a homecoming for these communities, many of which no longer have high schools due to consolidations, and which have lost many residents to bigger cities. Como’s massive day is one of the largest, and also serves as something of an annual end to the blues festival season, as the last big blues event of the year. Uniquely situated at the place where the Hill Country meets the Delta, Como has a long blues tradition, and its local gospel, blues, soul and funk are highlighted at Como Day each year.
This year’s Como Day featured a crowd of well over a thousand people, coming out to enjoy barbecue, live gospel music, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, the Duwayne Burnside Band featuring Garry Burnside and J. J. Wilburn, Deandre Walker and his band, and the headliner Terry Wright from Memphis, whose single “I Done Lost My Good Thing” has been popular in the Mid-South for more than a year. I was particularly impressed by Deandre Walker, a former gospel singer, who delivered a very soulful reading of a country song “Tennessee Whiskey”, which he then blended seamlessly into Etta James’ timeless “I Would Rather Go Blind.” Such epiphanies are the rule rather than the exception at Como Days, as are the elderly townspeople who suddenly feel young enough again to get low to the ground as the bands or the drummers are playing. Perhaps the whole day was best summed up by the slogan on the back of many of the T-shirts: “Together We Stand.”

R. L. Boyce, Lightnin Malcolm & Jimbo Mathus at Clarksdale’s Deep Blues Festival

Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.

The Legacy of Gulfport’s Shady Grove

Hewes Avenue, named for the first mayor of the modern city of Gulfport, Mississippi, was and is a major thoroughfare that leads from the East Beach neighborhood, where some of my relatives lived, to Bayou View, where other relatives of mine lived, so we were always heading up that street during my summers with my grandparents in Gulfport. But in between those two neighborhoods was another neighborhood that fascinated me as a boy. North of the railroad along Hewes Avenue was a Black neighborhood with some old juke joints on both sides of the street, with sandy, dirt parking lots and big, ancient oak trees shading the yards and the buildings. Old Barq’s Root Beer and Coca-Cola signs out in front announced the places, and in nice weather, groups of young men sat in chairs under the trees out in front, some of them occasionally shirtless. Looking inside one of the establishments, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a pool table, or a man with a cue stick. My grandmother seemed to consider the place disreputable, but I was strangely attracted, although I never ventured up there, even once I was a teenager and could have.
I never really knew the name of that community in those days, but I have come to realize that it was called Shady Grove. Because there has never really been a good, definitive history of Gulfport, I have no idea how the community came to be, but I wonder if it was formed by African-Americans that had been employed by the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad as it was building its rails and the city of Gulfport. Sadly, the colorful, vibrant community I recall is largely a thing of the past, as I learned on a recent visit to the area. Old clubs like the Shady Corner Cafe, the Lullabye Inn and the King Edward Bar are gone without a trace. The musicians, players and hustlers that once populated the area have vanished, and no crowds hang out under the trees. But amazingly, one establishment still survives, Holder’s Nightlife, a rough and weatherbeaten juke that looks at if it could have never stood through Hurricane Katrina and yet somehow did. It’s not really a blues spot, more of a DJ club apparently, judging from their profile on social media. Yet it still has the classic image of what the whole neighborhood once looked like when I was young.

From Benton County to Fayette County on Labor Day

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.

Around the Tennessee Delta on Labor Day Weekend

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.

Preserving the Fife and Drum Tradition With The Hurt Family at Burdette Hill

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.