My friend Sherena Boyce was not ready to go home after the Beale Street Caravan Blowout event came to an end, so I suggested that we go up to Wild Bill’s in North Memphis. Even before Beale Street started charging an admission fee, Wild Bill’s juke joint was a great, authentic blues and soul alternative to the disappointing tourist-oriented entertainment district downtown. Of course, despite its history, Bill’s had been through a string of ownership changes, and a couple of closures, so I wasn’t exactly sure what we would find, as the place was under new management since the last time I had been.
When we arrived, I soon found that the parking lot was completely full, and we had to park on the street nearby. We were welcomed in, and found places at one of the long tables, but the place was nearly packed to overflowing. A good soul and blues band was on stage, with an especially-funky drummer as the rock-hard foundation. Several singers took turns getting up to sing with this band, including the Memphis female blues singer Joyce Henderson.
Although there was hardly room to dance, people got up and did so, including Sherena, who had brought her tambourine with her, and jammed onstage with the band. Unlike a few previous visits where there had been a lot of Midtown hipsters, the crowd on this night was mostly people from the neighborhood…old regulars, and long-time blues fans.
For those wanting to visit Wild Bill’s, you will be welcomed, but some awareness is needed…this is not a hipster bar. There is no beer on tap, and certainly no craft beers. They sell 40 ounces, and they have chicken wings to eat. You will have to sit at tables with people you don’t know. They allow smoking, as most juke joints do. But it is by far the best authentic music and the best authentic atmosphere that the Bluff City has to offer. Don’t miss it.
West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.
The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.
As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.
I recalled Pace, Mississippi being the site of some degree of controversy in my younger days back in the 1980’s. Like the similar town of Tchula, Mississippi, the transition from white government to Black government did not sit well with some of the town’s white residents. I recall that some of the controversy was over the renaming of Pace streets for prominent Black citizens. But Pace today is a fairly sleepy and quiet town, although with several juke joints, probably one that jumps late at night on weekends. The local supermarket is vacant, and the downtown consists mainly of clubs- Club Escape, the Brass Rail and Bradley’s Place. The men sitting in front of the Brass Rail were friendly and amenable to my taking photos of the jukes, and told me a little bit about the town. There might have been live music at one time in Pace, but nowadays the clubs strictly have DJ’s, I was told. Although food was being grilled outside, I had decided to have dinner in Cleveland before heading back to Clarksdale for the blues show, and as it was nearly 5 PM, I got back on the road toward Cleveland.
The map showed a road called Pemble Road, a direct route from Merigold to a community called Symonds, which I had never been to, and which had enough streets on the map to suggest that it was worth a visit. Unfortunately, the map did not show that Pemble Road was gravel, and the further west I headed, the worse its condition got. Past a crossroads at Oak Tree Road, there was a farmhouse, out from which came two large dogs, chasing my car and barking furiously. I did not notice that the road was increasingly rutted and muddy, and I soon found myself hopelessly bogged down in a mudhole. The man whose house it was soon came out and offered to try to help pull me out of the hole, explaining to me that even if I hadn’t gotten stuck, it would have done me no good to have gone on, as the bridge was out ahead, and there was no way to get to Symonds from there.
He went to look for a rope, but soon another truck pulled up, driven by a deputy sheriff and his wife, who were on their way to a fishing hole and did not know the bridge was out. He had a chain on the back of his truck, and with that, he was able to pull me out of the mud. I thanked both men profusely, and then headed back to Oak Tree Road, and, giving up any ideas of going to Symonds, I headed for Pace instead.
The man who had first come to my rescue had mentioned an abandoned church on Oak Tree Road, and I soon found it near its intersection with Pemble Road. There was no indication of its name, but it seemed an old and historic place.
Just to the west of the current Highway 49 beyond Clarksdale is the old Highway 49, the road that runs past Hopson Commissary and the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. It is an old road indeed, passing old churches and small Delta towns and plantation centers. South of the crossroads at Hopson is this iconic church, which looks a little the worse for wear. It is not clear whether this congregation still exists at all, but the church looks old and historic.
I had no phone service at all while I was at Swiftown, but as I approached Belzoni, my phone started ringing. Blues musician Duwayne Burnside, for whom I play keyboards, was calling frantically from the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni because we were about to go on stage in less than a half-hour. Getting to Belzoni was no big deal, because I was only about five miles away. But what I hadn’t counted on was how gridlocked everything was because of the festival. Hayden Street, the main street of the town, was blocked off in the downtown area, and it was only with great difficulty that I was able to find a way to drive behind the stage area. Fortunately, Duwayne had talked to the festival people and I was allowed to park in the sheriff’s department parking lot at the Courthouse.
A blues artist named Mississippi Marshall was performing a solo acoustic set on the Humphreys County Courthouse steps as we unloaded our equipment. The weather was grey and overcast, but the rain had held off, and it was warm, so there was a fairly large crowd on the courthouse grounds, and even more along the downtown streets where vendors had set up tents. Marshall’s performance was followed by a Miss Catfish Pageant, and then we got to go on stage, set up our instruments and perform. As for food, there was, of course, catfish. And pretty good catfish it was too, provided by Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena, some 30 miles up the road.
As the Blackwater Trio went up on stage next, I took the time to walk down Hayden Street, looking at the various stores and vendors. Belzoni, like all Delta towns, had suffered hard times in the modern era, but they had experienced something of a renaissance with the advent of aquaculture, specifically farm-raised catfish. As a result, the downtown area was dotted with various catfish statues, painted in brilliant colors. But even the catfish industry had grown old in Belzoni now. Many of the statues were located in front of vacant, decaying storefronts. Even the posh digs of the Catfish Institute proved to be vacant- the institute relocated to the “big city” of Jackson some years ago. A few clothing shops were having “Catfish Festival sales” but otherwise, the downtown area seemed to be in poor shape, despite the crowds of people walking around.
Around the corner on Jackson Street, things seemed a little livelier, because of a place called Belzoni Sports Bar & Grill, which was actually the club we were scheduled to play at later in the evening. The place was a sports bar, restaurant and pool hall, and already had some people inside. A man was passing out flyers on the street for Duwayne Burnside’s performance there later in the evening.
Down the next street, which led back toward the courthouse and the main stage, I came upon a beautiful brick building, with the Coca-Cola logo worked into its facade on two sides. Although it was now being used as a daycare, I imagine that it had once been the Coca-Cola bottling plant for Belzoni.
When I returned to the courthouse, I managed to get my equipment loaded into the car, and then drove around through the neighborhood behind the courthouse along George Lee Street (the name commemorates a Black man who was murdered in Belzoni in 1955 for organizing a voter registration drive) and around to Jackson Street, where we were to play. But now the rain had begun to fall, and by the time I began to load into the club, it was pouring down.
Despite the rain outside, the little sports bar was soon jam-packed as we played. Their posters announced several upcoming blues shows, and it seems as if they are going to try to keep the live music going in Belzoni, which is a good thing. Afterwards, I got quite wet putting my instrument and amp back into the car, but I was soon on my way through the storm up Highway 7 toward Itta Bena, Greenwood, and hopefully dinner.
One evening, while sitting at a table at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason, I was looking at topographic maps of the Mason area on my phone, and I noticed that the map (which was from 1965) showed a cemetery on the St. Paul Road north of Highway 59, and I was surprised, because I had never noticed a cemetery in that area. So on a subsequent trip to Mason, I decided to drive up that road to see if I could find a cemetery there, and all I could see was a fairly dense wooded area surrounded by farmers’ fields.
Upon parking, I walked up into the woods as best I could, finding that the area had become overgrown, and that dumpers had left all kinds of old appliances and trash in the area as well. But I soon found what I was looking for- a gravestone, and then another, and then at least one more. They were hard to read, as they had been half buried in mud- apparently the area floods frequently, but I was able to make out the name “Taylor” on two of the three stones, and the word “Mother” on one of them. The one I could read the full name of belonged to “Charlie Taylor.”
Area historian John Marshall indicated to me that the cemetery had been adjacent to the original site of St. Paul Episcopal Church, a Black congregation which had moved out to a new building at Gailor near Keeling in 1965. The church still owned the old location, but many of the gravestones had been carried away by flooding, or perhaps buried in mud.
The current condition of the cemetery is disgraceful, and the area is desperately in need of clearing, cleaning and restoration. People’s loved ones are buried in this historic site, and it should be maintained.
After a late lunch in Halls, I drove on to Dyersburg. One of the reasons was that a few years ago, I had seen a listing for a cafe that I suspected was a juke joint in a neighborhood on the southeast side of Dyserburg that was surrounded by railroad tracks. I had never been in this area of the city, and wanted to see if there was anything historic in it. As far as where the cafe had been indicated, along the railroad tracks, I found nothing there, and I assume the building had been demolished. But I soon learned that this was the neighborhood where Bruce High School had been, the high school for African-American students in Dyersburg prior to integration. And while I didn’t find anything that looked like a juke joint, I did find some interesting historic structures; the Balboa Lodge was undoubtedly a Masonic body within the Prince Hall F & AM, and the bright-yellow Panama Food Mart stood out against the blue sky overhead. With the sunlight slipping away, I then headed out Highway 412, making my way to Brownsville for dinner at the Mindfield Grill.
A while back, I had crossed paths on Facebook with the Rev. T. Ray Greer, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in the countryside just to the north of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County. He was interested in the research that I and John Marshall were doing into the history of Mason, and so he reached out to invite us to come to a breakfast at his church, meet some of the older members, and perhaps gain new information into the history we were working on.
So on the Sunday morning after my journey to the state archives in Nashville, I drove out Austin Peay Highway, and made my way to the historic church, which was founded in 1868, although the current building was built in 1913. There was a huge quantity of cars outside, and my friend John Marshall was already there when I arrived.
Inside, we were warmly welcomed, and there was coffee and breakfast. John Marshall had brought a copy of the church’s deed, which he had copied from the county courthouse in Covington, and he was sitting and talking with a woman that was said to be 94 years old.
After breakfast, there was a rousing and joyful service, with a choir, and a drummer and a keyboard player. Although the congregation was fairly small, the members filled the stage area in front of the pulpit with all kinds of donated food goods for the needy and poor of the Mason area. When it was time for the offering, the keyboard player took a break, and to my surprise, a young man sang a song accompanied only by the drummer, who impressed me with his funky playing style.
Then it was time for John Marshall to get up and make his historical presentation. He outlined what he knew of the church’s history and property boundaries, and named many of the notable families that had helped to found the church, He also discussed the Salem School, which had been across the road from the current church.
Afterwards, I made a brief presentation regarding my research into Black fife and drum music in the Mason area. I mentioned the horse races at Booster Pete’s on the Tabernacle Road, and the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band, and a few people in the church recalled what I was talking about. I ended up leaving with about three phone numbers of people that might be willing to be interviewed on the subject of the horse races, trade days, fife and drum bands and picnics, and then headed back to Memphis.
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.