New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
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.
I knew there was to be a massive majorette jamboree at the Manassas High School gym on Saturday afternoon (February 7), so I rode over there to see if I could capture any last remnants of the old Memphis majorette and drummer tradition. As usual, most of the performing groups involved were using prerecorded compact discs, but there were three contestants that used the traditional drumline instead, the Millennium Maddness Drill Team and Drum Squad, the Crump Elementary Majorettes and Drummers from Hickory Hill, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Diamond Divas and Drumline, the latter being the new name for the former Frayser High School now that it has been taken over by the state and turned into a charter. While I am thrilled that there are still a few groups who uphold the old tradition of dancers and drummers, I miss the old jamborees of my teenage years when everyone did their routine to drummers lined up against the wall of the gym.
Although there are fall jamborees, the cold winter months are the high point of majorette jamboree season in Memphis. Majorette jamborees exist in other cities, but they are a unique part of Memphis culture, at least in their original incarnation, where drill teams and majorettes worked out routines to beats and grooves provided by a squad of drummers. This concept dates at least as far back as the late 1960’s, and at least one such squad, the Klondike Drum and Bugle Corps, was described in a Commercial Appeal article in 1970 as doing a step called the “Moonwalk”, long before Michael Jackson became famous for it. Unfortunately, the majorette jamborees I recall from my teenage years are largely a thing of the past, as today’s majorettes tend to work out their routine to popular songs on compact discs rather than drums and drummers. However, at the Sophisticated Divas jamboree at the JIFF Center in Downtown Memphis last Saturday, at least three of the competing groups included drummers, so the traditional format is at least hanging on by a thread. The Millennium Madness Drill Team has always included drummers, but this year’s squad is larger than what I’ve seen in the past. The Black Diamonds had a drum squad that competed in one category, and Crump Elementary always has a drum squad and a majorette team. The rest of the competitors were working out to recordings, but I was also impressed with a local dance group known as M-Town Image. A number of reasons have been proposed for why drill teams and majorettes have dispensed with drummers, including lack of money or equipment, lack of interested young men wanting to play, and lack of suitable percussion instructors. In a city where there are far too few wholesome activities for young people, particularly young men, here’s hoping that someone steps up to get the young men interested in playing drums, or other musical instruments.
The day after the big band battle took place at Oakhaven, there was another band battle between Melrose High School, Oakhaven High School and Fairley High School, this time at the gymnasium at Fairley in Whitehaven. The three high school bands and drumlines battled, and then there was an exhibition by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South band. Since all the bands (including UAPB) had arrangements of Memphis rap artist Snootie Wild’s single “Yayo”, they closed out the event by attempting to have all the bands play it together. Keeping it together was somewhat difficult, but it was a cool way to close out the event.
Like everything else associated with Memphis’ traditional inner-city neighborhoods, the city’s marching band culture has been adversely affected by the depopulation of these areas and their schools, but something of a marching band culture still remains in certain schools. Oakhaven High School is a band program that has been showing some success in recent years, and in November they sponsored a Band Showdown, featuring competition between the bands and drumlines from Central High School, Whitehaven High School (always Memphis’ largest high school band), Mitchell High School and Oakhaven High School, as well as an exhibition appearance by the band from Talladega College in Alabama. The event was fairly well attended, and all of the bands made a decent impression, although my opinion was that Whitehaven was clearly the winner.
The annual Southern Heritage Classic is far more than a football game. Each year, on the Saturday morning of the game at 9 AM, the Southern Heritage Classic Parade begins from the corner of Park Avenue and Haynes Street, and proceeds along Park through Orange Mound to the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. The parade usually includes the Jackson State University and Tennessee State University bands, along with majorettes, drill teams,drumlines, Cowboys and Steelers fan clubs, car clubs and many others. There used to be more marching bands in the parade as well, but for the last few years, the parade has conflicted with the Southern Heritage Classic Battle of the Bands in Whitehaven, so there have been fewer bands recently, but the hometown favorites, the Melrose High School Sound of the Mound Marching Band always closes out the parade. It’s always a lot of fun, family and food.