In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.
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 not an official act on any of the festival stages, the Memphis-based Baby Blues Drumline is a popular crowd pleaser at the annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, usually appearing in the late afternoon and early evening on the downtown streets. Comprised of young men from the inner-city neighborhoods of Memphis, the drumline is both a musically rewarding organization, and a deterrent to crime and the street life. As the young men play funky cadences and grooves, a crowd gathers, and occasionally people dance.
Of course the Southern Heritage Classic is a football game, and I love football, but truth be told, a lot of us go to enjoy the band battle instead. The Jackson State Sonic Boom of the South and the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands are two of the best Black college bands in America, and their annual battle is very much worth seeing. In addition, they both have first-rate percussion sections that battle, the War and Thunder from Jackson State, and the Rat Patrol from Tennessee State. After some games, there is an event known as the “Fifth Quarter”, in which the bands battle back and forth for a significant period of time, but that didn’t occur at this year’s classic.
The Southern Heritage Classic Parade is a lot more than just another parade. Held on the early Saturday morning of the Southern Heritage Classic game, the parade proceeds down Park Avenue through the historic Orange Mound neighborhood, and becomes a rallying point for the neighborhood. Parade entries include local school bands, the bands from Jackson State and Tennessee State, custom cars, Memphis fan clubs for NFL teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys, drill teams, drumlines and politicians. The Melrose High School Sound of the Mound band always brings up the rear, and draws a large cheer from the crowds along the sidelines.
Southwind High School in Southeast Shelby County is a relatively new school, so when I saw that they were playing Fairley on the Friday night before the Southern Heritage Classic, I decided to go out there to watch the two bands battle. I had no idea that the band from Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee would also be there as a special guest, since Southwind’s band was not marching on the field yet this year. Fairley High School has of course had a dominant band program for years, but the band is smaller these days since the school has been taken over by the state and made part of the Achievement School District. Their band still sounded good, however, especially the percussion section. Southwind also has made tremendous progress since the last time I heard their band. Unfortunately, during the middle of the game, storms and rain came up, and I had to go under the bleachers to protect my camera equipment. But the rain was gone by halftime, and never returned. There was no “fifth quartet” for the bands to battle afterward, but a small crowd remained to watch both bands march out of the stadium.
Although Memphis’ Black community has an old and deep history of drumlines, the phenomenon has been fading in recent years. A reduced interest on the part of young people, lack of access to drums, lack of available instructors and the preference of dance squads and majorette teams for recorded music and DJ’s have all been factors in reducing the number of drumlines and drummers in Memphis. But a few of the high schools still have drumlines, and this fall, my homeboy Otis Logan is coaching the drummers at Manassas High School, the legendary school where the great big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was the first band director. The Manassas drummers sound good, particularly for it to be as early in the year as it is.
It took me nearly an hour to get from Metairie to the North Claiborne Avenue area where TBC Brass Band was supposed to be playing, and where, incidentally, Darren had told me I might run into some of the Mardi Gras Indians. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find any parking, but out north of the Interstate bridge, I found a vacant lot across from a church where nobody was charging any money and lots of people were pulling in and parking. It meant a long walk across a long, vacant commons towards the new Lafitte Project, but the sun had come out and the weather seemed a bit warmer. Under the I-10 bridge, the crowds were truly massive. There was a large stage on St. Bernard Avenue, where bounce rappers were performing, but I could not find any of the TBC Brass Band members anywhere. Since it was more than an hour after they were supposed to start playing, I might have missed them. There were vendors and food trucks, a DJ spinning on a street corner, people zooming around on motorcycles and four-wheelers, and up at the far end, elaborately-costumed Mardi Gras Indians, as I had hoped. I soon found, however, that eager crowds pressed around them so that it was hard to shoot pictures or capture video. But still, seeing the Indians in their beautiful costumes up close was amazing in itself, and I was able to follow one tribe and its drummers down into the Treme neighborhood as they were on their way home, and got some better pictures and footage there.
Choosing the area under an interstate bridge for a festival site may seem strange, but the evidence is that the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue was a festive site for New Orleans’ Black community long before the interstate was built. Community leaders in the Treme neighborhood had tried to halt the interstate construction, but had failed. More recently, since Hurricane Katrina, some activist white kids had suggested removing the interstate in that area, redesignating I-610 as I-10, and restoring the neutral ground of Claiborne as the grassy, tree-lined site it once was, but with the Superdome so nearby, that is unlikely. Black residents resent the overhead interstate, but continue to use the space during Mardi Gras and also after second-lines, when large crowds often gather there. The one positive thing that I’ve had people tell me about the bridge is that brass bands sound really good under there.
Gradually, it got dark, and the crowds began to gradually disperse, so I left as well, headed Uptown to see if I could find any of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
Proteus is one of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes, and the only one of the old original ones to stage a parade on the streets of New Orleans. The other two, Comus and Momus, quit parading after the city passed an ordinance requiring organizations to not discriminate on the basis of race as a condition of receiving a parade permit. The ordinance was later found unconstitutional (primarily because it required all krewes to submit their membership lists to the city), but only Proteus returned to parading. For people used to second-lines, Mardi Gras parades are far different. They are not at all participatory events, and there is no second-lining, and such bands as there are are the more traditional marching bands from local schools and colleges. Still, there is a considerable amount of good music and fun, and of course the beads and medallions that people want. Fortunately, the rain held off through the Proteus parade, and the Krewe of Orpheus parade was lined up to roll directly behind it.
When Memphis rapper Tune C and I headed downtown for the album release party for Frayser Boy’s new album Not No Moe, we heard a drumline playing on Beale Street. There had been a Grizzlies game in the FedEx Forum, so at first I thought it was the Grizzline drummers, but the beats they were playing didn’t quite sound right for that. As it turned out, it was just a random line of local youths, playing a very funky series of cadences indeed. Such drumlines had been common on Beale during its first ten years or so, when there were no barricades or ID checks, and buskers were common along the street, but this was the first time I had seen such drummers on Beale in nearly 20 years. It felt (and sounded) good.