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.
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.”