It had rained all day, but T. DeWayne Moore of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund had sent me an invitation to the dedication of a new headstone for the late Memphis bluesman Charlie Burse at the Rose Hill Cemetery in South Memphis, and as the sun was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds, I decided to go. There was a considerable amount of mud, and only a small crowd, but Charlie Burse’s daughter was present, and my mentor Dr. David Evans, retired professor from the University of Memphis, and a number of local musicians, including the Side Street Steppers. So I stayed long enough to see the marker unveiled and dedicated, with remarks by Mr. Moore, but I had then stepped into a mudhole, and at the same time, I got a call from Kesha Burton, the fife and drum musician in Brownsville, and she wanted to meet up with me. I had already eaten, but I agreed to meet her up at the Mindfield Grill, and we hung out for awhile before I headed back to Memphis.
A while back, I had crossed paths on Facebook with the Rev. T. Ray Greer, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in the countryside just to the north of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County. He was interested in the research that I and John Marshall were doing into the history of Mason, and so he reached out to invite us to come to a breakfast at his church, meet some of the older members, and perhaps gain new information into the history we were working on.
So on the Sunday morning after my journey to the state archives in Nashville, I drove out Austin Peay Highway, and made my way to the historic church, which was founded in 1868, although the current building was built in 1913. There was a huge quantity of cars outside, and my friend John Marshall was already there when I arrived.
Inside, we were warmly welcomed, and there was coffee and breakfast. John Marshall had brought a copy of the church’s deed, which he had copied from the county courthouse in Covington, and he was sitting and talking with a woman that was said to be 94 years old.
After breakfast, there was a rousing and joyful service, with a choir, and a drummer and a keyboard player. Although the congregation was fairly small, the members filled the stage area in front of the pulpit with all kinds of donated food goods for the needy and poor of the Mason area. When it was time for the offering, the keyboard player took a break, and to my surprise, a young man sang a song accompanied only by the drummer, who impressed me with his funky playing style.
Then it was time for John Marshall to get up and make his historical presentation. He outlined what he knew of the church’s history and property boundaries, and named many of the notable families that had helped to found the church, He also discussed the Salem School, which had been across the road from the current church.
Afterwards, I made a brief presentation regarding my research into Black fife and drum music in the Mason area. I mentioned the horse races at Booster Pete’s on the Tabernacle Road, and the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band, and a few people in the church recalled what I was talking about. I ended up leaving with about three phone numbers of people that might be willing to be interviewed on the subject of the horse races, trade days, fife and drum bands and picnics, and then headed back to Memphis.
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.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
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.
Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.
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.