As we headed into the Delta from Jackson, we came to the little town of Bentonia in Yazoo County. Bentonia might be small, but it’s a big place indeed when it comes to blues, being the hometown of legendary Mississippi bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and his famous juke joint the Blue Front Cafe. I have never been inside the cafe, but I have been to the Bentonia Blues Festival, which is great from a music standpoint, yet one of the hottest music festivals ever, held in an open field devoid of trees with no shade to speak of at all. The festival was once held at the Blue Front, but law enforcement harassed attendees, so it moved to a location north of town. It is said that Holmes occasionally opens up the Blue Front and plays there, but I have never been able to determine exactly when that happens.
Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.
However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.
What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.
Fair or Fare?
One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.
The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair
Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.
The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations
Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.
While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.
Although New Orleans is my favorite city, and it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were in town primarily for a Duwayne Burnside concert that I was playing keyboards on, so we didn’t have the opportunity to really get out and enjoy the parades or other performances. In fact, the parades ended up being more of a bother, as they made it hard for us to get from our condominium to the venue. But where we were staying, on Oak Street, was remarkably quiet and empty on the Sunday afternoon, apparently because everyone was further down St. Charles along the parade route. The holiday also wreaked havoc on our food options, with some places closed altogether and others on three-hour waits. But Pizza Domenica is a great stand-by, as it is just about the best pizza in the city anyway, and usually open even on Sunday or at Mardi-Gras. When we arrived, it was largely empty, but after we were seated, it started quickly filling up with people who were making their way back from the parade, and the place went from dead to crowded in less than a half hour, but we were satisfied and comfortable as we headed to the show venue.
The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.
The Clifton Gin was a large building that loomed over the West End neighborhood of Hernando, Mississippi where many blues musicians lived and played their trade in nearby jukes. The Rev. Robert Wilkins, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson all lived in the area for a time, and Mississippi Joe Callicott was from nearby Nesbit, Mississippi. Now each year, the city of Hernando commemorates that musical legacy with an event called the Front Porch Jubilee, held on the grounds of the historic gin, as part of Hernando’s larger Water Tower Festival. This year’s jubilee honored the legacy of the late R. L. Burnside, and members of the Burnside family were presented with a plaque. Performers included Jack Rowell and Triple Threat, Desoto County native Kenny Brown, who was mentored by both Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, rockabilly legend Travis Wammack, and R. L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric, performing with Trenton Ayers as the Cedric Burnside Project. In addition to the great music, there was a considerable amount of great food too, including some excellent pulled pork and the homemade ice cream from Senatobia-based Bliss. A warm afternoon turned to a chilly evening, but a stalwart crowd of about a hundred stayed to the end of Cedric’s last set. It was a great day of blues in Hernando.
After the Rebirth Brass Band performance, I walked back through the crowds on Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Many of the vendors were beginning to take down their displays for the night, but there was still a lot going on. At an outdoor performance spot, a group of younger blues musicians was performing, and it was actually really good music. A sign nearby explained that the group was Mookie Cartwright, Josh Parks and Friends. I am not sure who any of them were, but presumably, they are local Helena area artists. After checking them out for a moment, I stopped in Southbound Pizza nearby for a pepperoni and bacon pie before making the drive back to Memphis.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
63-year-old Robert Finley is from Bernice, Louisiana, near Ruston, and is well-known to the people in the Monroe, Louisiana area where he often performs. But he never made a record until his recent debut Age Don’t Mean A Thing on the Big Legal Mess subsidiary of Fat Possum Records out of Oxford. The Fat Possum imprint started with blues artists, and slowly seems to be heading back in that direction, having signed the 83-year-old Leo Bud Welch a couple of years ago for his debut album, and finding a similar artist in Finley.
This year’s King Biscuit Blues Festival found Robert Finley performing on Cherry Street in downtown Helena and signing copies of his new debut album, which I highly recommend.
Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.