Benton County, Mississippi is due east of Marshall County, and was once a part of it, having been carved out of it and Tippah County by the state legislature during Reconstruction. Demographically similar to the county it was taken out of, Benton is a part of the Mississippi Hill Country, although sparsely populated and somewhat poorer than the other Hill Country counties. Although many great musicians came from Benton County, including Willie Mitchell, Syl Johnson, Joe Ayers and Nathan Beauregard, there has never been a live music scene in the county, mainly for the simple fact that Benton has always been a dry county, and remains so today. Such music as there has been has usually been held at private events such as picnics and yard parties.
However, over the last month or so, Robert Kimbrough, one of the sons of blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has been holding yard parties/jam sessions at his house just outside the Benton County seat of Ashland. The somewhat remote location is an opportunity to hear the music in a setting more like where it originated, in an era where “clubs” or even “juke joints” were still unknown. The atmosphere in the yard is easy going, with musicians taking turns going on stage and then coming off to enjoy food and drink. Musicians like J. J. Wilburn, G-Cutta, Little Joe Ayers and even Robert’s brother David Kimbrough occasionally come through and sit in. Fans bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn while the musicians play under the carport roof. It’s all a rather informal affair. However, the weekend schedule for these events is somewhat erratic, as it depends on Robert’s touring schedule, so if you want to attend, follow Robert on Facebook here so that you know when and where his events are occurring. (I won’t put his address here publicly, although he occasionally does put it on Facebook. Follow him for details on where and when to go).
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.
Como, Mississippi is a town that sits on the border between the Mississippi Delta and a region known as the Hill Country. The styles of blues from each region are distinct, but elements of them meet in this historic location, famous for both guitar blues,Black fife and drum band music, and gospel singers and musicians. All of these influences shaped the young R. L. Boyce, who began playing drums for his uncle Othar Turner’s fife and drum band in the late 1960’s. Boyce turned 62 this year, and to celebrate his birthday, his daughter organized a large picnic in Como Park featuring barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and a line-up of the best regional blues musicians. The evening’s festivities kicked off with an incredible gospel singer and guitarist named Slick Ballenger, who was mentored by both Othar Turner and R. L. Boyce, and as Boyce was a long-time drummer in fife and drum bands, it was appropriate that there were two fife and drum bands at the picnic, the Hurt Family from Sardis, Mississippi and Sharde Thomas’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. It was possibly the first time the Hurt Family had performed in a place other than their own family picnics near Sardis, and eventually Willie Hurt was playing the fife with Sharde’s band as well. As the evening progressed, Kody Harrell, R. L. Boyce, Duwayne Burnside, Dre Walker, Greg Ayers and Robert Kimbrough all performed on stage until things came to a halt about 11 PM. The first annual R. L. Boyce Picnic drew a crowd of about 600 people, and gave Como something it has not had in many years, a true blues festival.
It was a rainy Monday night, and a work night at that, and I was tired and not feeling like doing much of anything. But my friend texted me and said that her dad, R. L. Boyce, had been asked to play a yard party in Taylor, Mississippi with Luther Dickinson, and that we needed to take him there. So we picked R. L. up in Como and made our way through some pretty significant storms to Oxford, and then out along the Old Taylor Road heading to Taylor. The site for the porch party happened to be a beautiful, rambling old house belonging to Jane Rule Burdine, a photographer originally from the Delta who was also a former mayor of Taylor. The house was full of books, about every conceivable Southern subject. There were many books about Mississippi, and many books about William Faulkner, who of course is something of a big deal to Lafayette Countians. Although the reason for the occasion was never stated, the party featured a number of musicians, writers and film makers, including blues/indie musicians Lightnin Malcolm and Luther Dickinson, and Birdman Records owner David Katznelson. Although rain precluded any kind of playing on the front porch, the house also had a back porch which was fully enclosed, and there Lightnin Malcolm, Luther Dickinson and R. L. Boyce set up to begin playing. The small crowd gathered on the back porch to hear a couple of hours of the best Hill Country blues, while thunder and lightning raged outside. My cousin Al Morse, who lives in Taylor came over to hear the musicians, and to my great surprise, my other cousin Reilly Morse, her dad, also showed up, as he had been visiting in Oxford and Taylor. One of R.L.’s friends had come from Como to join us, and the party showed no signs of winding down at midnight, so my friend and I decided to leave and go home, since both of us had to be at work early the next day. All the same, it was a whole lot of fun on a Monday evening.
If you travel due north from Holly Springs in Marshall County, Mississippi, you will come to Fayette County, Tennessee, a rather similar county in many respects. Both counties once were extensively cotton-growing regions, both have rugged, hilly terrain, and both have overwhelming Black majorities. But while Marshall County, Mississippi is known for the Hill Country blues, Fayette County, Tennessee has remained little known for music. Bengt Olsson spent some time there in the 1970’s, recording obscure musicians like Lattie Murrell. One afternoon of recording at a bootlegger’s house near Somerville yielded an incredible album that has recently seen release on the Sutro Park label out of San Francisco, which owns all of Olsson’s field recordings. The Tennessee State Archives found fife-and-drum musicians in Fayette County in 1980, recording Ed Harris, Emanuel Dupree and James Tatum both in Fayette County and at the Chickasaw State Park Folk Festival. But aside from Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom most people associate with the town of Como, Mississippi, few blues artists from Fayette County have any degree of fame.
Yet, much like Marshall County to the south, Fayette County is a hotbed of blues, and the best place to experience it is at an authentic club on Highway 76 between Moscow and Williston called Saine’s Place.
On Highway 76, north from Moscow, Saine’s appears on the left-hand side of the road as a low, lighted building with plenty of cars out in front. Occasionally, barbecue smoke fills the air nearby. On the first Saturday of each month, the club features a live band, the Hollywood All-Stars from Memphis, featuring Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. The Hollywood All-Stars have a long, venerable tradition in Memphis blues, and on the night I came, the band had a horn section consisting of trumpet and saxophone, and sounded very good indeed. But would-be visitors need to be aware that Saine’s is technically not open to the public, as signs at the front make perfectly clear. Admission is by permission (the club is officially “members only”), and costs $10. Charles and Terry Saine, the owners, seem welcoming to visitors, but do not permit photography or videography in their club, so be respectful and leave the cameras at home. That rule is something of a pity, though, as Saine’s offers an authentic, rural blues experience that is really not available elsewhere, certainly not in Memphis. The music consists of blues, soul and Southern soul,and by midnight, the dance floor is full. At one in the morning, the party showed no signs of winding down. For true fans of the blues, Saine’s Blues Club is not to be missed.
Saine’s Place AKA Saine’s Blues Club AKA Club Saine’s
4515 Highway 76
Moscow, TN 38057
Live music is the first Saturday night of each month, starting about 9 PM
Club open with a DJ at other times.
Holly Springs and Marshall County, Mississippi are a frequent destination for blues tourism. Two of Mississippi’s greatest blues families, the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs are from the county, and Foxfire Ranch, the Blues in the Alley concert series, and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic attract blues fans, particularly during the summer months. But up until recently, tourists wanting an upscale dinner had to make their way to Oxford or to the Memphis area. That changed in July with the opening of Marshall Steakhouse on Highway 178 between Red Banks and Holly Springs.
Marshall Steakhouse is as much a destination as a restaurant, featuring a truly-massive park-like setting that includes an outside stage and plenty of seating. On the night of my visit, a bluegrass group was playing on the stage to a small crowd.
The restaurant, which had only been open a week, was incredibly crowded, with probably around fifty or more people waiting for seating. But, to my surprise, I suppose because I was only one person, I was seated immediately. It needs to be noted however that there are no small, intimate tables for two, and that parties of one or two are usually seated at the opposite end of a long table from other guests. Although Marshall Steakhouse is not cheap, they have some very reasonably-priced entrees, including two cuts of sirloin. I ordered the small sirloin, and was quite impressed with its flavor. Sirloin steaks can be tough, but this one was extremely tender, and easy to cut. The yeast bread was hot and delicious, and the baked potato was very good as well. I was also impressed by the fact that the price of my steak included all the accompaniments as well, something that is definitely not the case at a lot of steakhouses these days. I have to mention too that Marshall Steakhouse has a challenge- a 72-ounce steak with salad and baked potato that is free if a person can finish ALL of it within an hour. If not finished within an hour, it costs $89! I have not heard whether anyone has taken the challenge, and whether anyone has actually won it. As for the service, it was friendly, but fairly erratic, with lots of people being offered other people’s orders, but that is not necessarily surprising one week in. Corrections were made promptly, and everybody made happy. One thing to note, though- the Marshall Steakhouse is not a place to be caught up in your cellphone. Made entirely out of metal, the building is a true deadzone inside, and most phones get no signal. There is currently no public wi-fi. But there is plenty of decor, and large-screen televisions hanging from the walls. Besides, who stays buried in their phone at dinner anyway?
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.
As I have discussed before in this blog, Black fife and drum music is an endangered form of pre-blues that probably played a role in the development of jazz as well as blues. Although the tradition persisted in some parts of Georgia and Tennessee into the 1980’s, it appears to be limited entirely to two families in two counties of Mississippi today. While Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of Otha Turner, runs the best-known band, the Rising Stars, the Hurt and Burdett families in Panola County continue the tradition in a much more clandestine way. Their picnics, although open to the general public, usually consist of family members and friends, and are held on a remote hill on Burdett Road west of Sardis. Outside recognition of the Hurt family has been minimal, so much so that some writers have proclaimed the Rising Stars in nearby Tate County the only fife and drum band remaining, but the Hurt family holds their picnics generally twice a year, at the 4th of July and at Labor Day. The goal of fife and drum music is fairly simple- to set up trance-inducing drum patterns that motivate dancing. The bass drum beat is the motivator, with people in the crowd exhorting the drummer to “beat that thing” and the dancers going lower and lower to the ground with each beat. Although the fife would seem to be a mandatory part of the proceedings, occasionally at the Hurt picnics, only the drummers come out, and their repetitive grooves are punctuated by the yells of the dancers. As the drummers proceed across the picnic grounds, the event seems something like a rural version of a second-line.
For those wanting to experience Mississippi fife-and-drum music in its authentic settings, Sharde Thomas holds the Otha Turner Picnic each year, usually a week before Labor Day. It is held on O. B. McClinton Road in the Gravel Springs community of Tate County, east of Senatobia. The Hurt Family holds fife and drum picnics in the Mount Level community west of Sardis, generally on the July 4th weekend and again on Labor Day. The place is west of Sardis out Highway 315, right on Mount Level Road and left on Burdett Road. The picnic ground is on a hill.