Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.
Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.
However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.
What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.
Fair or Fare?
One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.
The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair
Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.
The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations
Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.
While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.
I had seen that Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, would be playing at The Dirty Crow Inn on Saturday night, but I had a gig of my own on the University of Memphis campus, so our decision to go to Cam’s gig was something of a spur-of-the-moment thing after my gig was over. Little did we know that we were in for an amazing blues experience in the little funky dive bar in South Memphis.
Of course, Cameron Kimbrough has been getting attention for several years as a powerful new voice in the blues, and his mother, Joyce Jones, who is an excellent blues singer, has been working on her debut album. But I was surprised to see the venue so packed with blues fans, particularly as it is a venue that doesn’t usually book blues, and it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way location.Cam was performing on drums when we arrived, joined by some local guitarists including Moses Crouch, a really-young harmonica player from North Memphis, and his mother Joyce Jones. They were set up on the enclosed deck, and there was hardly a table available, the crowd a combination of blues fans and basketball fans in town for the sweet sixteen tournament at the Fed Ex Forum. Unlike a lot of blues shows, much of Cam’s set was jamming, with songs being improvised extemporaneously on the spot, Joyce Jones adding vocal riffs that occasionally became something like song titles, perhaps.
When Moses Crouch came back on stage for the second set, the style was a little more orthodox, with familiar Hill Country tunes like “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line” and “Coal Black Mattie”, which Cam played on the guitar. But he also followed the traditional blues song with an original called “I’m Still Standing”, which highlights Cam’s unique ability to craft new material that still belongs firmly to the Hill Country tradition. As midnight approached, the crowd began to dwindle, but the music remained as strong as ever, powerful, relentless. We left, feeling that something of real importance had just happened in a hole-in-the-wall in South Memphis. It just might be possible that Cameron Kimbrough is the future of the Hill Country blues. (You can buy Cam’s debut EP Head For The Hills here and can listen to Cam’s earlier recordings here).
It’s not at all unusual for Sean “Bad” Apple and R. L. Boyce to perform in Clarksdale, but on the last Saturday in February, they performed in a rather unusual place. The Bin is a former grain elevator used as a music venue on the grounds of the Shacksdale Motel ,a motel of cottages across the road from the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, just outside of Clarksdale. The motel and inn are popular with out-of-town visitors on blues pilgrimages, so live blues performances on the grounds make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it was quite cold on this particular afternoon, and the venue was somewhat open to the outside. But a good crowd was present, including singer Libby Rae Watson, who was scheduled to perform after Apple and Boyce, who were aided by Stud Ford on drums and Sherena Boyce on tambourine. The afternoon consisted primarily of Boyce’s unique compositions, as well as some Hill Country standards like “Poor Black Mattie” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The fun continued until 5 PM, and then Boyce had to leave for another show elsewhere in the Delta.
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.
Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans.
The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.
The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.
On the first Saturday of the new year, a cold day indeed, my girlfriend and I headed down to Clarksdale to eat at Levon’s and enjoy some blues at Red’s Juke Joint. This was our first occasion trying Levon’s, and in my opinion, it is the fine dining restaurant that Clarksdale has been needing. R. L. Boyce was playing at Red’s, but when we arrived, some of his musicians had not shown up, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. But Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller has recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock, and he agreed to go get his guitar and amp to play with R. L., and soon there was at least a trio of two guitars and a drummer. On some tunes, R.L.’s daughter joined him on stage playing the tambourine and dancing, and toward the end of the evening, they were joined by a musician playing a bass made out of a plastic bucket, a mop handle and a string. By then the crowd had grown fairly large, despite the cold weather outside. It was a great way to start off 2017- with the blues.
When a young Lebanese man from Port Arthur, Texas named Clifford Antone got kicked out (or perhaps dropped out, depending on who you ask) of the University of Texas after a marijuana arrest in 1970, it seemed like an end to a promising career. The Antone family were prominent businessmen in Houston, owning an import firm and a chain of sandwich shops that specialized in po-boys. Other young men might have fallen into a depression, or started on a downward spiral into harder drugs and ruin, but Clifford Antone decided to open a night club. Yet when Antone’s opened in 1975 on a then-moribund East Sixth Street in downtown Austin, it was hardly the kind of club that people would have expected success from, for it was a blues club, and the blues revival had fizzled out by the end of the 1960’s. Nor was Austin well-known for blues, despite a Texas blues legacy that was primarily centered around Houston. But all of the best names in blues from around the country played at Antone’s, and by the time of Clifford Antone’s death in 2006, his empire had added a record store and a record label as well. The record store belongs to other owners now, and the record label was sold to Warner Brothers after a bankruptcy, but the club, despite occasional closures and numerous relocations, remains the absolute best blues club in Texas, and probably one of the best blues clubs in the world. So it was quite an honor for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce to be invited to play there, along with Marshall County bluesman Lightnin’ Malcolm, who has increased in popularity over the last several years. The club was packed to overflowing, despite the cold, rainy weather, and the crowd enjoyed every minute of the proceedings. The drum chair was held by the late T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud Ford, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena provided the juke joint dancing and played the tambourine. Seen in the crowd was noted music journalist Matt Sonzala. It was a great night indeed.