After a full day at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival in downtown Memphis, we headed down into Mississippi for the Hurt Family Picnic in the Burdett Hill community west of Sardis, one of two annual events that highlight Black fife and drum music, a pre-blues form of music that is highly endangered in the United States, really found only among two families in two Mississippi counties that we know of. The Hurt Family really does two picnics, one at the Fourth of July, and the other at Labor Day, and it is the second one that draws the largest crowds. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the picnic had been going on for some time. Willie Hurt got the drummers together for one final performance, and then the evening was given over to a DJ, and a band from Memphis called the ATF Band, led by Anthony Turner. Although I was there more for the fife and drum music, ATF proved to be a decent band, and a number of people filled the dance floor as they played a lot of soul and blues covers. While the Hurt Family Picnic is a more close-knit and intimate affair than the large Otha Turner Goat Picnic in nearby Tate County, the Hurts welcome visiting fans of the blues and related musics.
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 second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic was much more crowded than the first, as crowds came out to hear such artists as R. L. Boyce, Kody Harrell, the French blues band Pin’s Downhome Blues, led by Pascal Pinede, and Robert Kimbrough Sr. In addition, of course, there were frequent performances by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, occasionally joined by fife played Willie Hurt from the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band near Sardis. This year’s picnic was free, and some had thought that this fact might cut down on the degree of informal partying along O. B. McClinton Road, but if anything, this year’s Gravel Springs Block Party was bigger than the last. Unfortunately, at about 11 PM, the police moved in to shut down the block party along the road. While enjoying breakfast at the Huddle House in Senatobia afterwards, I overheard that the reason for the police break-up of the block party had been a shoot-out that had occurred at LP’s Ball Field on Hunters Chapel Road between Como and Senatobia. Still, the trouble stayed far away from the annual picnic.
Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
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.
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.
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.
Jazz is not an immensely popular music style in Memphis, so opportunities to hear authentic jazz in our city are few and far between, but some local jazz musicians are branching out and starting their own events. Recently, jazz saxophonist Kelvin Walters and drummer James Sexton have started holding jam sessions on Sunday evenings from 5-8 PM on the first three Sundays of each month at the Midtown Crossing Grill in the burgeoning Crosstown neighborhood one block over from the venerable Hi-Tone Cafe. The building where the grill is located has been all kinds of things, once having been home to Bobby Q’s barbecue restaurant and later Foxcee’s Sports Bar. As a jazz venue, it has the necessary intimacy, and despite its small stage area, it functions fairly well. Walters is at a young age already a decent saxophonist, and James Sexton is one of the city’s best drummers, and the jam session format gives young musicians from Memphis an opportunity to hone their skills in a performance setting in front of an actual crowd. As for the food offerings, the Midtown Crossing Grill has artisan pizzas, and they are pretty decent and reasonably priced. The jam session is not held on the fourth Sunday so as to not conflict with the monthly Sax on Sundays event at Neil’s out in East Memphis, which is another opportunity to hear jazz in Memphis. Take advantage of these events and enjoy.
Midtown Crossing Grill
394 N Watkins
Memphis, TN 38104
Jazz is held on the first three Sundays of each month from 5-8 PM.
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.