Celebrating Mason, Tennessee’s Important Legacy

Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. 

Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city. 

Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991. 

One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely. 

I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason. 

The Tennessee Delta V: Fayette County

On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events. 

One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can. 

Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature. 

Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.

North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville. 

There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It  looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit. 

On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.

Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop. 

An Even Bigger Saturday at Coldwater’s GOAT Picnic

Although Saturday, August 25, 2018 was even hotter than the day before, the crowd that gathered in the late afternoon in Coldwater for the second day of the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was even larger than the one from the day before. The surprise of the early evening was an R & B singer from Coldwater named Felita Jacole, who had a band of talented musicians backing her up, and who, to my surprise, did some original material, including a song called “Weekend.” 

She was followed by the legendary R. L. Boyce, the last of the original Hill Country bluesmen, who performed with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums, and his daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and dancing. 

Later in the evening came exciting sets by Nashville-based Blue Mother Tupelo, and Mississippi bluesman Mark “Muleman” Massey, but as it was the previous night, the most excitement in my opinion was the raw and exuberant processions of Sharde Thomas and her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band between the performances on stage. After dark, the interplay between djembe, bass drum and dancers became truly uninhibited, and the crowd gathered around to watch. 

Confronted with the challenges caused by moving to a new town and venue, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic managed to rise to the occasion. The weather was perfect both days, with the grounds after dark illuminated by a beautiful full moon overhead, and a crowd of several hundred people in front of the stage. 

Celebrating The Legacy of Otha Turner at Coldwater

Back in 1950, Othar Turner, of Gravel Springs, a few miles east of Senatobia in Mississippi’s Hill Country region, decided to hold a picnic for his friends and neighbors in the community. He killed and barbecued goats, and he and his friends ate, drank and danced to fife and drum music, a rural pre-blues form of Black music that had once been found across the South. By the time musicologists like David Evans visited Tate County in 1970, the event had been going on for 20 years, and eight years later, the famed musicologist and documentarian Alan Lomax visited the Turner Family Picnic as well. Othar, whose friends called him “Otha”, went on to make two full-length record albums, and contribute a song to the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York , and by the time of his death on February 27, 2003, he had passed the tradition of his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on to his granddaughter Sharde Thomas.

Unfortunately, last year, a family dispute within the larger Turner family led to the eviction of the annual picnic from Otha’s old homestead, as well as the demolition of most of the structures that had been used for the event. While there was something different about this year’s picnic due to the necessity of relocating it from Gravel Springs, it is also true that Sharde Thomas chose a location in Coldwater that greatly resembled the old location, with a number of old wooden structures. Attendance was somewhat light at the beginning, as the weather had been quite hot on the Friday of the first night, but the crowds soon grew larger, as bands like blues-rockers 78 (named for a major highway in the Hill Country) and artists like Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones and Robert Kimbrough Sr performed on the stage under a tent. The Thomas family’s stand was selling catfish and goat sandwiches, and RC’s Soul Food Restaurant from Como had a stand as well. A large, full moon (some said a “blue moon”) shown overhead. But the high point of the evening, at least for me, were the interludes between stage acts when Sharde Thomas, alternately playing djembe or fife, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, marching across the picnic grounds. Occasionally, these processions developed into djembe vs. bass drum battles between Sharde and Chris Mallory, one of her drummers, and on other occasions, dancers came and got down low to the ground to the rhythms of the bass drum. Despite the new location, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was a success.

Brunch on Full Blast and Murals in the Bywater

Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I headed over to yet another new breakfast spot in New Orleans, this one in a familiar location, 139 South Cortez in Mid-City which was the original location of the Ruby Slipper, now a fairly-popular breakfast chain in New Orleans. The chain had let their original location go as they opened new locations closer to the tourist areas, but I was surprised to see that it had reopened in June as a new restaurant called Fullblast Brunch. Opening a breakfast restaurant in New Orleans would seem to be a foolhardy proposition, as the city seems to have more of them than any other place I have been, and yet, with few exceptions, they seem to fare well despite the obvious level of competition. One must conclude that New Orleanians absolutely love to eat breakfast out rather than at home. One of the things I find so special about the city as well is its tendency to have great restaurants on street corners in otherwise residential neighborhoods, a dynamic that is certainly true of the building where Fullblast is located. The restaurant is still relatively new, and to our surprise, we had no trouble getting a table at all. Both the food and the coffee were great, and although we enjoyed standard breakfast fare, we heard others rave about the crab cakes. 

After breakfast, I wanted to head out along St. Claude Avenue to get some pictures of the neighborhood murals, which are another unique facet of New Orleans life. Every time I visit, it seems that new murals have appeared along the major thoroughfares, celebrating local hip-hop artists, Black history icons like Harriet Tubman, or the musicians and social aid and pleasure clubs of the 9th Ward. The latter mural particularly interested Darren, as it included a painting of TBC’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin, who was from the 9th Ward, but I was somewhat shocked by a building on which seemed to have been painted the slogan “Support Murder.” I am well aware of the problems in America today, but I wasn’t expecting to see so stark and violent a message. But as it turned out, a crucial letter was hidden behind a telephone pole, and when we got closer, the slogan actually read “Support C-Murder,” the former No Limit Records rap artist,  a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly. 

Darren and TBC Brass Band were getting ready for a performance at some beer and barbecue festival at Wollenberg Park along the Mississippi River, but I had to get on the road and head back to Memphis. Leaving New Orleans is never easy for me, and it typical leaves me rather sad. However, I was able to stop at a Rouses in Ponchatoula, and load up on French Market and Mello Joy coffee capsules for my Keurig machine at home. I also picked up a pound of beans from a Baton Rouge coffee roaster called River Road Coffee Roasters, and was quite pleased with the results when I got home. 

Celebrating the 4th of July and the Legacy of Fife and Drum Music at the Hurt Family Picnic


The Frontline has discussed the legacy of Black fife and drum music at length in the past, but I continue to devote a considerable amount of space to it here because it is an ancient musical tradition that is clearly endangered and threatened. As far as we know, it exists only amongst two families, the Turner family in Tate County, Mississippi and the Hurt family in Panola County, Mississippi. But this year’s Hurt Family Picnic west of Sardis gave me reason for hope, because there I encountered young Hurt family members who were learning the snare drum, bass drum and the fife. Nothing will preserve the culture better than young people getting an interest in it and getting involved. Although the weather was hot, the musicians played for the better part of the day, and toward the evening, there were a number of dancers, too. They were also joined by a guest, Kesha Burton, who recently completed the Tennessee Folklife Arts Apprenticeship with Willie Hurt and R. L. Boyce, and who is accomplished on the snare drum, bass drum and fife.




The Tennessee Delta IV: Tipton County


On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June, I decided to head out around some of the backroads in Tipton County in search of things to photograph, focusing primarily on the part of the county between Highway 51 and the Mississippi River. Some of what I hoped to see I just didn’t find, such as the site of the old gambling casinos near the Shelby/Tipton county line. Presumably they had been torn down. Likewise, I could see no trace of the ill-fated Riverbend land development along Highway 59 near Randolph, nor any remnant of the old community of Richardson Landing, which apparently vanished after a land cave-in at the foot of Highway 59, sometime in the 1980’s or 1990’s. But I did find some historic churches, the Gilt Edge Cafe (which was crowded and seems worthy of a more thorough investigation), beautiful views of the Mississippi River near Randolph, old school buildings next to Black churches like St. John MB Church outside of Covington, or Canaan Grove near Mason, and old country stores like the Anderson Store at Detroit. With Tipton County being a fairly large and diverse county, including two islands in the river that can only be accessed from Arkansas, there is still much ground to cover.

The Tennessee Delta IV: Ruins of George Ellis High School in Munford


Abandoned schools in the South always depress me. There is hardly a region of the country that needs education more than ours, and I can never understand why such a considerable investment as a school campus would just be abandoned and allowed to collapse, yet it happens all the time, particularly to schools that were earmarked for Black students prior to integration. South of Munford,Tennessee in Tipton County, I came upon the ruins of George Ellis High School, which had been the Black high school for the south end of Tipton County prior to integration. The school had been closed in 1970, and then served as a junior high school for Munford for a time, yet eventually it was sold off to some recycling firm, which later went out of business, and now the buildings are completely abandoned. It seemed to me as I walked around the decrepit and collapsing buildings that the campus could have been renovated to serve as a community center. From the outside, it appeared to have two gymnasiums, and could have been a great place for people of all ages to enjoy themselves during the summer, if Tipton County leadership had made a better decision. Next to a church in front (had they once given the land for the school?) was a sign placed by the Class of 1964 that proclaimed the ruins “Ellis Munford Junior High School,” which was likely the name at that class’s ten-year-anniversary in 1974 when the sign was likely dedicated. One of the peculiarities about George R. Ellis High School was that it was one of the few Black high schools in the South whose name honored a local white man rather than a Black educator. Apparently George R. Ellis was a prominent local man who eventually became a United States Marshal, but I could not determine what he had to do with the school or why it was named for him. I imagine that when Ellis graduates come back to what should be a sacred spot for them, it is not particularly a happy occasion. They deserve better.

Celebrating West Tennessee’s Lost Fife and Drum Tradition


Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.









The Taste of History at Williams’ Bar-B-Que in West Memphis


Tourists flock to Memphis for Beale Street, Graceland, the Stax Museum, the Rock-N-Soul Museum, and many other musical and artistic attractions, but oddly, they rarely venture across the river to the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, unless it is to gamble at Southland Gaming and Racing. But the city on the Arkansas side has a vibrant music history as well, with the Black community centered around South Eighth Street, a wide-open equivalent of Beale Street, where musicians, pool-hustlers and gamblers frequented establishments like Sam Ervin’s Cafe, the Harlem Inn, Jones Hotel and Cafe or Lucille Perry’s Cafe Number 1. Howlin’ Wolf once lived in West Memphis, and occasionally played live on KWEM Radio Station, where a young Jim Dickinson once heard him, fascinated. Some of Memphis’ best Black musicians played nightly at the Plantation Inn, at the far east end of Broadway near the river bridge.
In this vibrant environment, in 1963, William Maxwell decided to open a barbecue joint near the intersection of South 14th Street and Broadway, which in those days was Highway 70. Experts tell us that most new restaurants don’t make it two years, but 55 years later, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is still going strong, even if its hours are a little more erratic. After all, Mr. Maxwell is now 84 years old, and has health issues, so the restaurant is only open when a relative is available to run it day to day. Still, on the day I visited, after several attempts over the last few years when they were closed, Mr. Maxwell was sitting in the restaurant as people came in to buy their pork shoulder or bologna sandwiches. Of course, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is nothing fancy, and I learned the hard way that they don’t take credit or debit cards, but they do make some tasty barbecue in an authentic down-home environment.

Williams’ Bar-B-Que
106 S 14th St
West Memphis, AR 72301
(870) 735-0979
(Call before visiting, as the hours have become somewhat unpredictable)