Amy Verdon, the New York-based owner of the online magazine Fancy! and its record-label offshoot Go Ape Records has been quite a contributor to the cause of the Hill Country Blues, helping to record artists such as Robert Kimbrough and R. L. Boyce and helping to put on last year’s Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. This year, she put together a special exhibit of photographs intended to highlight the role of women in the blues in Mississippi. The exhibit was displayed at the Leontyne Price Library on the campus of Rust College in Holly Springs, and since I had photographs in it, I made plans to attend the opening reception, despite the extremely cold and miserable weather we were having.
Photos celebrated Hill Country musicians such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as a number of dancers. I was amazed by the schedule of the 1983 Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which proved that legendary Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin had headlined a gospel group on one of the stages. Several of the performers scheduled to play the next night at The Hut were present, including Johnny B. Sanders and Iretta and Robert Kimbrough Sr, and a few people came through to check out the photos. The exhibit will remain up through the end of February.
On November 4, 2017, Senatobia launched its inaugural Blues and Brews festival in Gabbert Park, in unusually warm and wet weather. In fact, dense fog enveloped the whole park, and made it hard to see the crowd from the stage area. But a small crowd braved the wet (although not technically rainy) weather to celebrate the unveiling of an historic marker in honor of Sid Hemphill, and the rededication of another to Black country pioneer O. B. McClinton, as well as beer, good food, and great blues. Of particular interest was the opening performer, Glen Faulkner, a master of the one-string guitar from the Gravel Springs community, which was also home to the better-known Otha Turner and his fife-and-drum band. Faulkner has been recorded little, perhaps because he doesn’t sing, and clearly was not feeling his best, having to be helped onto the stage. But once on stage, he demonstrated his absolute mastery of his somewhat unusual instrument, treating the audience to his version of Hill Country standards like “My Babe” and “When I Lay My Burdens Down.” Faulkner was followed by Little Joe Ayers, one of the original generation of Hill Country bluesmen who for many years was part of Junior Kimbrough’s band, and then by Kent Burnside, one of R. L. Burnside’s grandsons, who rarely appears in this part of the country, although he performs frequently in the Midwest and internationally. Mark “Muleman” Massey was next on the lineup, followed by Garry Burnside and his girlfriend Beverly Davis, along with the seldom-seen guitarist Joe Burnside, to close the evening’s festivities. There were quite a few local food vendors as well, including Alma Jean’s Southern Kookin and Bliss Handcrafted Ice Cream. It was a memorable night of blues on an unusually warm day in November.
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.”
Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.
Like all of Eastern Arkansas, Helena had seen better days by the late 1970’s, but the worst was yet to come. When the Mohawk Tire Company decided to close its West Helena plant in 1979, the local economy completely collapsed. While both Helena and West Helena had about 10,000 people each in 1980 or so, by the time they agreed to merge in 2003, they barely had 12,000 people together, and merger was fraught with so many roadblocks that they could not agree to name the resulting city “Helena”, but rather the unwieldy name of “Helena-West Helena.” Nowadays, the only real income generator for the area is tourism, and tourism is pretty much limited to one week of the year, the October week of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Unfortunately, this year’s King Biscuit festival left a lot to be desired. For one thing, Arkansas’ veteran bluesman Cedell Davis died unexpectedly, leaving a vacancy in the lineup. Secondly, with no apparent irony, under a heading that proclaimed the festival as the “real deal”, were pictures of this year’s headliners- J. J. Grey & Mofro, Government Mule and Tab Benoit, hardly a triumvirate of blues musicians, to say the least. But what I noticed this year more than last year was the extent of abandonment, decay and devastation in Helena, particularly downtown. Although many buildings on Cherry Street have been restored, the bulk of them are largely vacant. Crowds thronged the street of course during the festival, but it was largely to go to and from the stages, or to patronize the food trucks and temporary vendors. Things were even more devastating along Walnut Street, the street where the barbecue festival was going on. North of the festival area were eviscerated buildings, and an abandoned motel whose rooms were largely open to the wind and cold, one wall of which had been turned into a mural in honor of the late Cedell Davis. Even finding something to eat other than a food truck took some doing, although last year’s Southbound Pizza had turned into a slightly-more-upscale place this year called Southbound Tavern, and the local coffee bar Bailee Mae’slocation behind the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street made it a popular place for festival-goers. Odder yet was the difficulty I encountered in finding any roots blues music around the festival. Blind Mississippi Morris was playing on a stage at Walnut Street to a small crowd, but the best blues of the evening was actually to be found in a small square called Thad Kelley Square along Cherry Street, located on the footprint of a demolished building, where Taildragger and others performed to a moderate but enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, when I returned to my car, I found that it had been entered and rifled through, although nothing actually appeared to be missing.
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.
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.
Como, Mississippi is a town that sits on the border between the Mississippi Delta and a region known as the Hill Country. The styles of blues from each region are distinct, but elements of them meet in this historic location, famous for both guitar blues,Black fife and drum band music, and gospel singers and musicians. All of these influences shaped the young R. L. Boyce, who began playing drums for his uncle Othar Turner’s fife and drum band in the late 1960’s. Boyce turned 62 this year, and to celebrate his birthday, his daughter organized a large picnic in Como Park featuring barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and a line-up of the best regional blues musicians. The evening’s festivities kicked off with an incredible gospel singer and guitarist named Slick Ballenger, who was mentored by both Othar Turner and R. L. Boyce, and as Boyce was a long-time drummer in fife and drum bands, it was appropriate that there were two fife and drum bands at the picnic, the Hurt Family from Sardis, Mississippi and Sharde Thomas’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. It was possibly the first time the Hurt Family had performed in a place other than their own family picnics near Sardis, and eventually Willie Hurt was playing the fife with Sharde’s band as well. As the evening progressed, Kody Harrell, R. L. Boyce, Duwayne Burnside, Dre Walker, Greg Ayers and Robert Kimbrough all performed on stage until things came to a halt about 11 PM. The first annual R. L. Boyce Picnic drew a crowd of about 600 people, and gave Como something it has not had in many years, a true blues festival.
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.
If Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is sort of a family-friendly approach to the Mississippi Blues, at least during the daytime, the Goat Fest, now in its fourth year, is something wilder. After all, its slogan is “Sin, Repent, Repeat.” Yet despite the adult image, the main focus is blues and other forms of roots music, over two days, at two venues in the greater Clarksdale area, one the open-air New Roxy theatre, the other, the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, a few miles out from Clarksdale proper. On Friday, June 2, the focus at the Juke Joint Chapel location was classic Mississippi Hill Country blues, with excellent performances from Cedric Burnside, the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band, and Lightnin’ Malcolm, and the chapel, with its odd array of historic signs, instruments and artifacts made a perfect venue for the musical happenings of the evening. Adding to the good-time vibe was excellent pulled-pork barbecue, as well as containers of Clarksdale’s superb Sweet Magnolia gelato. And the only thing really wild was some of the dancing!