Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and its county seat of Ripley have a significant blues tradition. Petey Wheatstraw was from Ripley, and Noah Lewis and John Henry Barbee were from Henning, the town made famous by Alex Haley. The blues researcher Bengt Olsson had suggested that there had been fife and drum bands in Lauderdale County, so I drove up to the Lauderdale County Library in the hopes of finding information in the back issues of the weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. Unfortunately, to my shock, the county library did not have any of the back issues of the local newspaper. The microfilm of them is instead kept at the Enterprise office, which of course was not open on a Saturday. I soon came to realize I had come to Ripley for nothing at all, but I called an acquaintance Gwen Blackman, who happened to be a block from the library at an agricultural fair, and who attempted to put me in touch with some community people who were old enough to perhaps remember some fife and drum bands or picnics, but she really could not reach anyone on that particular day. So, with little else to do, I ventured over into the Black neighborhood east of the railroad tracks, where I took some photos of historic spots and locations…old stores, old clubs, and old cafes. It was not the research toward my thesis paper that I had intended, but it was fun.
Although Saturday, August 25, 2018 was even hotter than the day before, the crowd that gathered in the late afternoon in Coldwater for the second day of the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was even larger than the one from the day before. The surprise of the early evening was an R & B singer from Coldwater named Felita Jacole, who had a band of talented musicians backing her up, and who, to my surprise, did some original material, including a song called “Weekend.”
She was followed by the legendary R. L. Boyce, the last of the original Hill Country bluesmen, who performed with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums, and his daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and dancing.
Later in the evening came exciting sets by Nashville-based Blue Mother Tupelo, and Mississippi bluesman Mark “Muleman” Massey, but as it was the previous night, the most excitement in my opinion was the raw and exuberant processions of Sharde Thomas and her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band between the performances on stage. After dark, the interplay between djembe, bass drum and dancers became truly uninhibited, and the crowd gathered around to watch.
Confronted with the challenges caused by moving to a new town and venue, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic managed to rise to the occasion. The weather was perfect both days, with the grounds after dark illuminated by a beautiful full moon overhead, and a crowd of several hundred people in front of the stage.
Back in 1950, Othar Turner, of Gravel Springs, a few miles east of Senatobia in Mississippi’s Hill Country region, decided to hold a picnic for his friends and neighbors in the community. He killed and barbecued goats, and he and his friends ate, drank and danced to fife and drum music, a rural pre-blues form of Black music that had once been found across the South. By the time musicologists like David Evans visited Tate County in 1970, the event had been going on for 20 years, and eight years later, the famed musicologist and documentarian Alan Lomax visited the Turner Family Picnic as well. Othar, whose friends called him “Otha”, went on to make two full-length record albums, and contribute a song to the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York , and by the time of his death on February 27, 2003, he had passed the tradition of his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on to his granddaughter Sharde Thomas.
Unfortunately, last year, a family dispute within the larger Turner family led to the eviction of the annual picnic from Otha’s old homestead, as well as the demolition of most of the structures that had been used for the event. While there was something different about this year’s picnic due to the necessity of relocating it from Gravel Springs, it is also true that Sharde Thomas chose a location in Coldwater that greatly resembled the old location, with a number of old wooden structures. Attendance was somewhat light at the beginning, as the weather had been quite hot on the Friday of the first night, but the crowds soon grew larger, as bands like blues-rockers 78 (named for a major highway in the Hill Country) and artists like Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones and Robert Kimbrough Sr performed on the stage under a tent. The Thomas family’s stand was selling catfish and goat sandwiches, and RC’s Soul Food Restaurant from Como had a stand as well. A large, full moon (some said a “blue moon”) shown overhead. But the high point of the evening, at least for me, were the interludes between stage acts when Sharde Thomas, alternately playing djembe or fife, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, marching across the picnic grounds. Occasionally, these processions developed into djembe vs. bass drum battles between Sharde and Chris Mallory, one of her drummers, and on other occasions, dancers came and got down low to the ground to the rhythms of the bass drum. Despite the new location, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was a success.
Last year marked the first time we had organized a large outdoor birthday party for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, and that first picnic, with limited promotion and budget, attracted an amazing crowd of 500 people. This year, with the involvement of Amy Verdon of Fancy Magazine and Go Ape Records, we were able to plan the event on a slightly bigger level, and despite the threat of rain all around, we enjoyed great weather and a larger attendance.
The event, held on Friday August 17 to avoid conflict with the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic which was being held on Saturday, began with an exhibit opening of photography by Como artist Yancey Allison, who has been documenting the Hill Country blues for many years. Live music began in nearby Como Park at 6 PM, with the performers being documented this year by the Memphis-based Beale Street Caravan radio show. A crowd of around 600 braved the threat of rain to enjoy fife and drum bands like The Hurt Family and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and blues and soul artists such as Andrea Staten, Kody Harrell, Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones, Cameron Kimbrough, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, Willy and the Planks, Dee Walker and Duwayne Burnside. Several times, the guest of honor, R. L. Boyce made his way to the stage to perform, and on one of those occasions the crowd joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
In addition to the five hours of some of the best Hill Country blues and soul, attendees also enjoyed free hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked sausages until they were gone.
It appears that the R. L. Boyce Picnic will be a major event in Como, Mississippi for many years to come.
The Frontline has discussed the legacy of Black fife and drum music at length in the past, but I continue to devote a considerable amount of space to it here because it is an ancient musical tradition that is clearly endangered and threatened. As far as we know, it exists only amongst two families, the Turner family in Tate County, Mississippi and the Hurt family in Panola County, Mississippi. But this year’s Hurt Family Picnic west of Sardis gave me reason for hope, because there I encountered young Hurt family members who were learning the snare drum, bass drum and the fife. Nothing will preserve the culture better than young people getting an interest in it and getting involved. Although the weather was hot, the musicians played for the better part of the day, and toward the evening, there were a number of dancers, too. They were also joined by a guest, Kesha Burton, who recently completed the Tennessee Folklife Arts Apprenticeship with Willie Hurt and R. L. Boyce, and who is accomplished on the snare drum, bass drum and fife.
Since the death of the legendary fife and drum musician Othar Turner, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas has done stellar work in preserving that musical tradition, as well as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band which Turner started, but in addition to the annual GOAT Picnic in August which she sponsors, she has occasionally looked for other opportunities to throw festivals. The new Rising Star JuBallLee this June was held at Cherry Place, a rural complex out from Waterford, Mississippi, and the event seemed geared to the fans of the annual Fool’s Ball, a three-day music festival held every fall at the same location. The venue is a strange one, a former restaurant located in front of what appears to be a horse track and rodeo complex with a grandstand, although it is unclear to what extent the facility is used anymore. Occasional rock, country, blues and Latin events are held outdoors at the site during the warmer months, and this event was very warm indeed, coinciding with some of the hottest weather of the entire year.
The event kicked off around 6 PM with the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band playing in front of the stage, and then Memphis folk/blues/soul songster Moses Crouch appeared. He was followed by the North Mississippi blues/rock band Woodstomp, which features Kody Harrell, a guitarist who has occasionally played with Duwayne Burnside. Sharde and her drummers appeared again after Woodstomp’s performance, and then the band Solar Porch from Isola, Mississippi came on stage. But by that point, heat and fatigue had taken a toll on me. I headed back to Holly Springs and grabbed a late breakfast at the Huddle House before hitting the road back to Memphis.
Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.
Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.