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.
Authentic blues in an authentic environment is hard to come by these days, and when the Memphis juke joint Wild Bill’s closed in December, it became just that much harder to find. But in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the occasions when The Hut is open, great blues musicians hold forth for a local crowd in the kind of rough, non-descript setting that is appropriate.
The Hut is a former American Legion post in the Black community of Holly Springs. Located near the intersection of West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street, it is a small, white building set down in a ravine far from the street, a structure which looks as if could only hold about a hundred people. Yet it is cozy, has a kitchen, has ample graveled parking, and on a recent Friday night was full to the rafters, with the great Robert Kimbrough Sr. on stage as I walked in.
Robert, a son of the late Junior Kimbrough, is a favorite musician around these parts, but despite all the enthusiasm for his performance, the order of the night was to highlight female blues performers, an event organized by Fancy! Magazine owner Amy Verdon called “Lady’sNight at The Hut.” The original band consisted of Robert Kimbrough, J. J. Wilborn and Artemas Leseur, aided occasionally by Johnny B. Sanders, who had come up from Jackson. These men backed singers Iretta Sanders, and Lady Trucker, whose performances brought many dancers out, including R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. There were also a number of visitors from other parts of the country who traveled to Holly Springs to see the show. Robert Kimbrough came back on stage to close out the first set with a version of his dad’s song “You Better Run”, and then the band took a break.
Unfortunately, during the intermission, two women in the crowd got to fighting, which led to the police being called, and an early end to the evening, as a lot of people chose to leave. But that too has always been part of the blues. Authenticity is not for the squeamish.
Although fife and drum bands once were common in West Tennessee, the phenomenon had largely died out by 1980. The Tennessee State Archives created a mentorship program that was designed to reintroduce fife and drum music to Haywood County by having R. L. Boyce teach the traditional drumming styles to a young Brownsville resident, Kesha Burton, who in turn can teach it to other young people in her community. Because Boyce was primarily a drummer, his daughter Sherena arranged for a fife player, Willie Hurt, from Sardis, Mississippi to come and teach the fife to Kesha, although he also is a skilled snare and bass drummer. Although lessons had been occurring since December, on January 27th, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center sponsored the Sleepy John Estes Blues Jam, and the public finally got to hear the first results of the lessons, with Willie Hurt, Kesha Burton and Sherena Boyce playing snare drum, bass drum, fife and tambourine, with various switching of instruments. R. L. Boyce had been nominated for a Grammy and was on his way to the Grammy Awards in New York.
As for the blues jam, it ended up being more about Americana music than the blues per se. There was a considerable amount of folk and bluegrass, and a little bit of blues-inflected music. But sadly, there are few of the original generation of blues musicians left in West Tennessee, the exception being harmonica player Linzie Butler, who was present at the event. The fife and drum music was something of a surprise at this year’s jam, but it was well-received all the same.
Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.
Each October, the City of Como, Mississippi sponsors a large, daylong festival and picnic called Como Day, featuring vendors, food trucks, custom cars and excellent live music. Como Day is one of a number of “town days” that are held in predominantly-Black Mississippi towns. These are held throughout the year, generally bear the name of the town, feature live music, and often become an excuse for those who moved away to return home for a day or a weekend. Although most small towns have some sort of festival, these town days are unique, functioning almost like a homecoming for these communities, many of which no longer have high schools due to consolidations, and which have lost many residents to bigger cities. Como’s massive day is one of the largest, and also serves as something of an annual end to the blues festival season, as the last big blues event of the year. Uniquely situated at the place where the Hill Country meets the Delta, Como has a long blues tradition, and its local gospel, blues, soul and funk are highlighted at Como Day each year.
This year’s Como Day featured a crowd of well over a thousand people, coming out to enjoy barbecue, live gospel music, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, the Duwayne Burnside Band featuring Garry Burnside and J. J. Wilburn, Deandre Walker and his band, and the headliner Terry Wright from Memphis, whose single “I Done Lost My Good Thing” has been popular in the Mid-South for more than a year. I was particularly impressed by Deandre Walker, a former gospel singer, who delivered a very soulful reading of a country song “Tennessee Whiskey”, which he then blended seamlessly into Etta James’ timeless “I Would Rather Go Blind.” Such epiphanies are the rule rather than the exception at Como Days, as are the elderly townspeople who suddenly feel young enough again to get low to the ground as the bands or the drummers are playing. Perhaps the whole day was best summed up by the slogan on the back of many of the T-shirts: “Together We Stand.”
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.