Saturday is generally the biggest day of the Otha Turner Picnic each year, and this year was no exception, with a bigger crowd inside the gates, and a much bigger crowd at the informal block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as well. Although the police were stopping all cars coming and going on Highway 310 near the picnic, I was eventually able to make it to the grounds, arriving just before R. L. Boyce went on stage. Several other acts performed, including a decent blues/rock band called Mississippi Shakedown, with whom I was not familiar at all. But as always, Sharde Thomas and her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band were the stars of the show, marching through the crowd motivating a number of dancers, and even playing across the fence to the young people at the block party along the road. All too soon, the picnic came to an end for another year, but the block party was still in full swing along the road outside.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.
Although this year’s Blues In The Alley line-up of performers was largely disappointing, to say the least, the weekly summer concert series in Holly Springs ended on a high note last Thursday night with Memphis southern soul artist Gerod Rayborn, who is also president of the Beale Street Corvette Club. Needless to say, many of his club members came to the square in Holly Springs with their beautiful cars, and a significantly larger crowd showed up than what I had seen on previous weeks. The crowd was also more exuberant, with a lot more dancing and jooking, and it almost seemed like the vibe from previous years of the event. After a brief intermission, then another blues band from Memphis took the stage, Fuzzy Jeffries and the Kings of Memphis, and the crowd partied long past the usual ending time of 10 PM. Here’s hoping that the event organizers will book more of these kind of artists next year.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
The event calendars for New Orleans showed something called the Midsummer Mardi-Gras that was supposed to take place at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street far uptown, in the part of the city called Carrollton. I had imagined something like a little Mardi-Gras-themed summer block party, but what I found proved to be far more elaborate. Operating out of the Maple Leaf, and somewhat affiliated with it is an organization called the Krewe of OAK, which I soon learned stands for Outrageous and Kinky. The Krewe sponsors a regular Mardi-Gras parade through Carrollton during the Carnival season, but also sponsors one during the Midsummer Mardi-Gras in August, and this turned out to be quite an event. Several hundred people were already out in the middle of Oak Street in front of the bar when I arrived, and there were a number of marching units. The Krewe had hired the All For One Brass Band to play for the parade, and this was a band I had heard of, but never heard. They provide to be a fairly good band, and with a speech from the King and Queen of OAK from a balcony on Oak Street, the parade was soon under way. The New Orleans police had blocked off Carrollton Avenue, and I had assumed we would march up Oak Street to Carrollton and stop, but to my surprise, we turned up Carrollton Avenue and kept rolling. Crowds were everywhere, along both sides of the street, and in the neutral ground, and fireworks were being shot off from in front of an old mansion on a corner. It seemed we might roll all the way to Earhart Boulevard, but we ended a little sooner, turning into the main entrance to Palmer Park. Inside the park, another stage had been set up where a jazz band was already playing. They had a tuba instead of an electric bass, but they had set drums instead of the traditional snare, bass drum and cowbell rhythm section of the streets. As the parade arrived into the park, the All For One posted up near the entrance and kept playing until everyone had entered the park. It was now thoroughly dark, and brightly-colored lights were being projected into trees in the park. I decided to walk back toward my car, and soon found that there were still significant crowds on Oak Street. I grabbed an iced mocha from the Rue de la Course, and then continued on my way. The festive mood continued in the area, but I set out to catch up with my homeboys in the TBC Brass Band.
It was Satchmo Summer Fest weekend in New Orleans, and my friends in the To Be Continued Brass Band, or TBC, had invited me to spend the afternoon with them going around to their various gigs. They had already played several gigs before I got to New Orleans and caught up with them in the Treme neighborhood around 3:30 in the afternoon. I quickly learned that there’s really no better way to get a crash course in the unique culture of New Orleans than to spend a day with one of the city’s brass bands. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I rolled with the TBC from a repast in Treme to a memorial block party in honor of someone who had died recently in Gert Town, to a birthday in another part of Gert Town, to a wedding in New Orleans East, to the Divine Ladies Ball at the Mardi Gras Ballroom of the Landmark Hotel in Metairie before winding things down at the Sportsmen’s Ladies event at the Autocrat Social Aid and Pleasure Club on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward. Along the way I saw much of the unique “buck-jumping” dance of New Orleans second-lining, members of various social aid and pleasure clubs, and even a few of the Indians in their elaborate hand-sewn regalia, all accompanied by the festive music of one of New Orleans’ best brass bands. The long day of music and celebration ended at 1:30 AM, as the band members and I all headed our separate ways for some badly-needed rest.
Each year Memphis rap artist Lionheart sponsors a block party on Tate Avenue in South Memphis, featuring live rap performances and free barbecue. The purpose of the Tate Street Block Party is both to encourage youth against violence and also to promote and showcase local music talent. This year, the high points included a young rapper named Tve Bandz (pronounced “Tae Bandz”) who performed along with his even younger sister Breeze, as well as an appearance from the group AirBorn Academy from South Memphis. But there were also a number of newer artists, including one young man called This Some Major. The afternoon was full of music, food and fun, with no incidents whatsoever.
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Every summer in June, the Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta sponsors a South Memphis Block Party on McMillan Street in honor of a neighborhood youth named King Craddy that was killed a few years ago. It usually is a fun time for the kids, with a bounce house, and there is usually a DJ, plenty of good food and lots of dancing. This year, things took a turn for the worse when out of nowhere, a young man pulled out a gun and began shooting. I hadn’t even heard any arguing or confrontation leading up to it. We ended up having to get down, run to the back of the houses and then struggle through the underbrush and out the chain link fence on the other side on Ely Street. The gunshots continued from over on the other street before we finally heard the sirens of the police coming. We soon learned that a 3-year-old boy had been shot. There is absolutely nothing that can justify shooting into a crowd including women and children during a neighborhood block party. Nothing whatsoever.
MemShop is a local effort to revitalize Memphis neighborhoods by placing temporary shops in vacant store space in strategically located areas. The organization has recently been involved in trying to turn around the intersection at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker near the LeMoyne-Owen College campus, and Saturday MemShop held a block party at the intersection to celebrate the opening of two new shops, Klassy Chics and @ Home Computer Service. The block party featured performances by Memphis alternative/neo-soul singer Apollo Mighty, and the dance team from Knowledge Quest Kids Camp. The hope is that the temporary shops will encourage permanent tenants to move into the space.