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.
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.”
I was late in getting to the second day of the King Biscuit Blues Festival because I had visited the massive Coldwater Trade Day sale in Coldwater, Mississippi first, but what I found when I arrived in Helena was not much different than what I had seen the night before. If anything, the daylight revealed more of the deterioration and dilapidation that has overtaken downtown Helena, including perhaps the most shocking ruin, an old motel on Walnut Street with shattered windows and gutted rooms. I did manage to catch a few decent blues acts, including the Jesse Cotton Stone Blues Band on the stage at Thad Kelley Courtyard, and Hill Country great Duwayne Burnside at the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street near Bailee Mae’s Coffee. Behind him came the Phillip Stackhouse Band, which drew the largest crowd I had seen all day, including some enthusiastic dancers out in the street in front of the stage. Afterwards, the barbecue fest seemed to be winding down, and there were literally no other acts I had ever heard of scheduled to appear, so, although I considered trying the new Southbound Tavern for dinner, I decided to leave and drive down to Sumner, Mississippi to the Sumner Grille for dinner instead. At Sumner, there was some sort of an outdoor music concert in the square, with a country-rock band performing, but the restaurant itself wasn’t very crowded, and I my filet mignon was delicious as always.
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.
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!
Black fife-and-drum music is endangered, and everybody knows it. But there may be more of it in remote rural areas than was thought just a few years ago. I had not heard of the Hurt Family and their fife-and-drum picnics near Sardis, Mississippi until I read something about them at a superb blog called 50 Miles of Elbow Room. While they have had a Fourth-of-July picnic in the past, nowadays they are focused on growing their two-day Labor Day Picnic, which they have at a small picnic grounds constructed on a knoll in the Mount Level community, west of Sardis. The spot is not particularly easy to find. One has to start in Sardis, ride west on Highway 310 to the Mount Level Road, then take a right on the Mount Level Road up to Burdett Road. There on the corner is a small space with a bar/food preparation area, and some outdoor wooden picnic tables and benches. Unlike the better-known Otha Turner Picnic, the Hurt Family Picnic is a smaller, more intimate and low-key affair. There is no admission charge at the door, and in the early afternoon, even the food and drink are free (they begin charging for them later). There also are no tourists or out-of-town blues fans here, mostly members of the Hurt family and their friends and neighbors from the area. When I arrived this year, the Greg Ayers Band from Senatobia was on the outdoor stage performing. But when they took a break, Larry and Calvin Hurt came out with the snare and bass drum, beating a powerful cadence as they paraded around the grounds. Someone near me said that the fife player had not been able to come on Saturday (he had apparently been there the night before), but that there were quite a few people present who knew how to “beat the drums”. As the day progressed into evening, there were several cycles of DJ music, the live blues band, and the drums, producing more and more enthusiasm from the dancers. Although I was the only “outsider” present, I was welcomed warmly, and told that the family picnics had once been huge affairs and that the goal was to grow them again and to recover that tradition. Certainly, I enjoyed the opportunity to encounter the fife-and-drum music tradition in what must be its authentic setting. It was truly a rewarding experience indeed, and proof that there may be far more fife and drum picnics surviving than those we know about.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.