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.
Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
Funerals in New Orleans are fairly strange. It is common for the family members to hire a brass band for the funeral, and those in attendance often seem to be celebrating rather than mourning, particularly during the processions after the service. Traditionally, the bands were hired to parade with the body from the church or funeral home to the cemetery, and then back to the church again. The band would play slow dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery, and then would play upbeat jazz on the way back. While the boisterous dancing and music on the route back from the burial has often been described as celebration, others have attributed it to a retention of African beliefs- the fear that the spirit of the deceased might attempt to follow the mourners back from the cemetery unless it was warded off by the beating of drums and blowing of horns. For whatever reason, the jazz funeral was invented in New Orleans.
Nowadays, the brass bands rarely parade all the way to the cemetery from the church. Instead, they generally accompany the coffin as it is carried by the pall bearers to the waiting hearse out in front of the church. From there, depending on the plans of the family, they may march to a nearby neighborhood or bar. On this particular morning, the TBC Brass Band was assembled outside Israelites Baptist Church while the funeral service was going on inside. The wait seemed interminable, while dark clouds gathered to the south and west, threatening serious storms. But suddenly, the service was over, and the pall bearers emerged carrying the coffin down the steps of the church. TBC began playing upbeat music, while family members, though obviously grieving, still danced exuberantly on the sidewalk outside. The band and the family members proceeded down a side street to a tiny brick building painted with music notes which turned out to be the Gladys Bar. There we encountered other friends and family members of the deceased, and the vibe was more one of celebration than mourning, with everyone dancing in the street, including young people who had come out from nearby houses and off neighborhood porches. I was especially impressed to see that one of the band members had brought a little boy with him (perhaps his son), who had a toy trumpet that he was blowing. This is the way the tradition is renewed.
The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
The Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi is a beautiful setting for any event, and it makes an awesome setting for the Oxford Blues Festival each July. This year, veteran bluesman R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi performed as part of a supergroup with Lightnin Malcolm (who learned from Boyce) and drummer Cedric Burnside, a grandson of R. L. Burnside who once was part of the Juke Joint Duo with Lightnin’ Malcolm. This hard-hitting trio played a good hour’s worth of Hill Country blues before the onset of a line of heavy showers called the festival to a halt.
I grew up in Bartlett, and went to Bartlett High School. A lot of my friends lived in the Black community along Old Brownsville Road, and I knew some people that lived along the road whose name was Guffin. But somehow, I had never heard of Lum Guffin, and the sadder thing was that he was living during those warm afternoons when I used to walk along Old Brownsville Road visiting friends. I wouldn’t encounter Lum Guffin until much later, after his death in 1993, when I saw a download link for his album Walking Victrola in an online blog, noticed his last name, and wondered if he might have been from Bartlett. I downloaded the album and enjoyed it, did some reading that revealed that Lum Guffin had played the Memphis Country Blues Festival at the Overton Park Shell in 1969, and then had pretty much moved on to other things. But later, in 2015, I began to do some research into Black fife-and-drum music, specifically trying to determine if it had ever occurred in West Tennessee as it had in North Mississippi. For a number of reasons, I considered Fayette County to be the most likely location for fife-and-drum music in Tennessee. Overwhelmingly rural, it has historically been the county with the largest Black majority in the state, and it is directly north of Marshall County, Mississippi, one of the most important blues counties in America. But my research led in a different direction, and to a major shock- there had indeed been a fife and drum band in West Tennessee, one called the United Sons and Daughters of Zion Fife and Drum Band Number 9, and it was located in Bartlett, Tennessee. Furthermore, it had been recorded, by the Swedish blues writer and researcher Bengt Olsson. A check of the liner notes of the On The Road Again compilation that contained the track mentioned that the leader and fife player of the band was none other than Lum Guffin, and he was quoted regarding other chapters of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion having fife-and-drum bands, and about the friendly competition between various fife-and-drum bands at the annual Brunswick Picnic in August. Lum later recorded for Italian musicologist Gianni Marcucci in his front yard in 1978. The recordings were issued in part on the Albatros label in 1979, and more or less completely on the excellent Blues at Home Volume 13 on Marcucci’s own Mbiraphon label.
Years have passed since the summers of 1984 and 1985 when I used to hang out along Old Brownsville Road, and time has not been kind to the Black community that once was there. Most of the small homes and farms which used to line the road have been replaced by suburban tract subdivisions, but I did notice that one of the new subdivisions had a road named Guffin Road. I didn’t really expect to find much, for the area had been so built up, but suddenly, in the middle of an otherwise-ordinary suburban subdivision was a stand of old forest and an old, historic looking home. It was weather-beaten and ancient, and there was no historic marker, but I could not help but imagine that it had been preserved for a reason. Could it have been the homestead of Columbus “Lum” Guffin? I took a few pictures of that house on that pleasant sunny Sunday in July, and posted them on Facebook, and within a day, I learned that the house was indeed the old home of Lum Guffin. I heard from several of Guffin’s descendants over the next few weeks, and learned that many of them are active in gospel music. My next step is to try to set up interviews with many of the remaining members of Guffin’s family in the hopes of making his story fully known.
Segregation of the races was the law in most of the Southern United States from around 1890 on, but as the Progressive era dawned in the early 20th Century, attitudes hardened even further. As developers planned new townsites in the South, they began to conceive of the concept of building entirely separate towns for Blacks, rather than having them live in a particular neighborhood of the same town that white people lived in. So Harlem, Florida was built for the Black community outside of Clewiston, Florida, and West Amory, Mississippi was built for the Black community of Amory, and North Gulfport and North Tunica were built for Blacks who lived near Gulfport and Tunica respectively. Likewise, when developers started platting the Sunset Addition to the town of Marion, Arkansas, as a place for Blacks to buy land and build homes, the city officials in Marion decided to exclude the new subdivision from the city limits. Although the developers showed their intentions to build a community destined to be part of Marion when they chose the name “Sunset Addition”, the city excluded the community, and that decision had long-term impacts on the availability of electricity, water and city services in the Sunset area. Sunset was never a big place, and in fact was only three streets wide, but it had a number of churches, a gin, a few stores, and perhaps its most important institution, the James Sebastian Phelix High School, founded in 1946 and named for a local undertaker. The Phelix School provided education for a Black community desperate for learning, but while white students in Marion were provided a free public education, parents of Phelix students in the high school grades had to pay tuition when the school first opened. In 1970, Phelix High School was closed under court order, and its students transferred to Marion High School. Despite the importance of Phelix High School in the history of Marion and Sunset, the buildings have been abandoned, and the oldest building is deteriorating rapidly and being reclaimed by the wilderness.
After many years of Marion refusing to annex Sunset Addition, and fed up with the lack of public services, the people of the community voted in 1971 to incorporate Sunset as a town. Although they were hopeful about the opportunity for Black self-government, the new town faced many hurdles. Its small size, the relative lack of retail business, the lack of any employers or jobs, and the low property values within the city limits all reflected the fact that Sunset was intended to be a subdivision within Marion, not a separate town. The years since 1971 have seen scandals, financial problems, and a rapidly dwindling population. It seems likely that Sunset will eventually become part of Marion.
For reasons lost to history, at some point, there was a little wide place in the road north of Marion, Arkansas called Harvard. It wasn’t exactly a town, but the Frisco railroad had a large switching yard there, which they predictably named Harvard Yard. In the late 1970’s, a local developer decided to build a community there, which he also named Harvard Yard. He envisioned his subdivision as meeting a need for poor, working families, and built homes and apartments in angular, modern designs with a weathered wood finish. The subdivision was interspersed with parklands and pavilions, and the streetnames reflected something of a British flair. Home prices were low, and houses were small, but the community really didn’t look all that different from similar subdivisions elsewhere in Crittenden County.
The seeds of a problem occurred, however, in the fact that Harvard Yard was not part of any incorporated town. Located just to the north of the tiny, cash-strapped town of Sunset, Harvard Yard received no city services from Sunset, nor from the larger city of Marion. Sunset had always been an all-Black community, and over time, Harvard Yard also became all-Black. Many of the houses had become owned by corporations or absentee landowners. When people moved out, houses were often abandoned. Fires were common, and the burned-out ruins were left standing, until the trees and undergrowth simply grew up around them. There was no trash pickup in unincorporated Crittenden County, and some people began throwing their trash into the abandoned houses dotted throughout the community. With so much abandonment, drug dealing and violent crime became a problem in the community as well.
Nowadays, Harvard Yard is a bizarre landscape, a former suburban community that has become a disaster area, not through any weather event, but through the toll of poverty, absentee ownership, lack of services and crime. The streets show a handful of inhabited dwellings surrounded by wrecks and ruins, but children play exuberantly in the streets. In the dead center of the community is a small foreign-owned grocery store that seems popular with the local residents and children. It is the only business in the community.
What to do about Harvard Yard is a subject that has bedeviled the leadership of Crittenden County for many years. Many of the houses need demolition, but the county’s annual fund for demolitions is easily depleted each year, as one house costs $3000 to demolish. The county managed to arrange for garbage pickup in 2016, and residents have praised that step, but a July tour of the community showed that a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps Harvard Yard and Sunset would be better off as part of the nearby city of Marion.