It is well-known that Mississippi John Hurt was from Avalon, Mississippi in Carroll County, and lived there most of his life, but for most people who travel Highway 7 between Grenada and Greenwood, Avalon is just a set of signs on the road, a crossroads, and a historic marker to Hurt. I had passed through the area a number of times, but I finally decided to venture off into what is left of the little town, which wasn’t all that much. But there were signs of a store, a gin, and perhaps a couple of large commercial buildings of some sort, along what appears to have been an older iteration of Highway 7, now closed off and little more than a track through the wilderness. Signs warn that the former town is basically private property, but I succeeded in grabbing some pictures of the place. Supposedly, there is a Mississippi John Hurt Museum in Avalon, but I saw no trace of it. Just some ruins of buildings, tall grass, mud puddles, birds and insects.
Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure.
Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered.
The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere.
After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia.
Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians.
Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release.
Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America.
This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes.
Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike.
“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.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
Ted Maclin is a farmer, an anthropology professor, a folk musician, and the owner of the antebellum home Oak Hill at Keeling, between Mason and Stanton, Tennessee, so when he recently announced on social media that he would be holding an Old Time Music Festival in Stanton, I decided it was a must-see event. Of course, being the first year of the event, there was no certainty as to how many musicians would come out to perform, and as it turned out, only a handful appeared, including one of my fellow musicology students from the University of Memphis, Jeffrey Taylor. But it was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, even if a little hot, and a small farmers’ market was going on in downtown Stanton. The assembled musicians played a number of traditional tunes, some from the bluegrass tradition, some from the blues, and even a Leonard Cohen tune “Bird On A Wire” to close things out. While we don’t generally speak of a Tennessee Delta, if we did, Stanton and Mason would be the apex of it, and it is good to see efforts to organize events in these old and somewhat forgotten towns.
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.
After the six months of mentoring under the Tennessee Folklife Arts Program, mentors and apprentices were invited to a reception at the Tennessee Arts Commission office in Nashville in order to highlight what they learned during the program. So Kesha Burton from Brownsville, R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce and Willie Hurt, who had all been involved in the project to reintroduce fife and drum music to West Tennessee, all headed out to Nashville for the reception. Although the weather was stormy and wet in Memphis, we found that Nashville was dry and sunny, with the downtown area extremely busy with various events and festivals. In addition to the fife and drum project, other apprentices learned basket-making, chair-making, guitar-making, Panamanian dress making, buckdancing, Black gospel quartet performance, and square-dance calling. Although the space for the reception was somewhat cramped, everyone had a good time. Afterwards, I took Kesha Burton to Shipwreck Cove out at Percy Priest Reservoir to celebrate. After a stop for gelato at Legacy Gelato, and a run by Trader Joe’s to pick up some items that we cannot get in Memphis, we headed back to Brownsville, and then I to Memphis.
In my ongoing research on West Tennessee fife and drum music, I have focused a great deal on Fayette County, largely because of its demographics and similar features to Marshall County, Mississippi, its neighbor to the south, famous for Hill Country blues. Fife and drum bands are known to have existed in Fayette as late as 1980. Of course, I haven’t ever found any existing fife and drum bands in the county today, and wasn’t expecting to see any as I drove around Fayette County on Easter Sunday afternoon. But I did stumble on a number of old and historic schools, some of them on land that clearly had been donated by churches, which helps to further my theory that the churches were the first institutions of African-Americans during the early days of freedom and Reconstruction. It appears that the churches donated the land for schools to be build beside them, and then the burial societies and fraternal organizations were founded by church members and often met in the church buildings. Once I discovered that Google Maps was showing the location of many former schools in the county, I spent the warm, sunny afternoon driving around to many of them. Some of them were gone without a trace, but it was shocking how many times the location shown by the map was the location of a church. A couple, such as Braden-Sinai and Seymour Schools, have been converted into residences where people are living. Others like Glade Springs School, on the grounds of Pulliam Chapel MB Church, are abandoned and ruined, while at the site of the old Garrett School, nothing remained but the twisted superstructure of a swingset and piles of bricks. A couple of the school sites were in the backyards of private houses, making it impossible for me to visit them. But I did stumble onto another cool find, the Joyner’s Campground, a 125-year-old site near a creek where an old-fashioned camp meeting revival is held every summer. Although the roots of the event seem to be Methodist, all believers are welcome, and the site seems very beautiful and inviting, with plenty of woods and water. Although I saw much in the way of architecture and nature, what I saw very little of was people, which I considered strange compared to previous Easters when I had driven down into the Delta and seen people out in every little town, dressed in their Sunday best to see and be seen. Only the Gilliam place at Fredonia showed signs of a large party or get together, complete with a DJ, but it was clearly a private affair, for the family only, and anyway, no fifes or drums in sight. To end the day, I made my way to the Shelby County town of Eads, which nowadays is part of the city of Memphis, yet seems to have more in common with Fayette County in appearance and atmosphere. I took my last pictures there as the sun was fading. While my primary focus is ethnomusicology, I also think it is important to get photographs of the old Fayette County which is threatened by the onset of suburban tract subdivisions and regional shopping centers. One day, not long from now, Fayette County will look no different than Bartlett or Collierville.
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.
Willy and the Planks is a Nashville-based blues band with strong Hill Country influence, led by Bill Gibbs, whom I met through his friendship with Robert Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. When I heard they would be playing in Memphis, Sherena Boyce and I headed down to the Center for Southern Folklore to see them. The band is something of a power trio approach to the blues, but the musicianship is stellar and they are definitely worth seeing.