Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.
Bentonia, Mississippi is not a big town. It’s not even the biggest town in Yazoo County, yet the unique blues style of musicians from this town has made waves all over the world. Henry Stuckey, a blues guitarist who never made a recording, is said to be the founder of the unique Bentonia style of blues, which scholars say is based on a minor chord tuning, and which seems to have more in common with Hill Country styles further to the north. The Bentonia Blues Festival, which is the oldest continuing blues festival in Mississippi, celebrated its 47th year this year, and dedicated this year’s event to the memory of Henry Stuckey, who was pictured on the official poster and festival T-shirts.
In addition to being Mississippi’s oldest blues festival, the Bentonia festival is also one of the longest, with events beginning on Monday at the Blue Front Cafe, and continuing each night until the actual festival day on the following Saturday. At one time, the festival itself was held in front of the cafe, but it has long outgrown that, having moved to ample space on a Black baseball field north of town.
The Friday night event at the Blue Front seems to be showing signs of outgrowing that location as well. When we arrived at the cafe, there were literally hundreds of people out in front, as well as 60 or so inside the tiny venue where someone was performing. R. L. Boyce, who had ridden down with us was scheduled to perform fairly quickly, so there was no time to go and grab dinner. But there were a number of food vendors stretched out along Railroad Avenue, so getting a bite was not a big problem.
Jimmy Duck Holmes, the owner of the Blue Front and living legend of the Bentonia blues, went on stage at 8 PM, and performed for nearly an hour. His style is to play a nearly-continuous medley of various blues lyrics from the tradition, rather than playing individual songs, and he is a consummate showman, joking and interacting with his audience. That is, in fact, one of the great things about the Blue Front, as its small size and lack of a raised stage creates an intimacy that is lost on the big outdoor festival stage.
Holmes was followed by R. L. Boyce, and indeed, the two men’s style resemble each other to a large extent, despite the distance between Como and Bentonia. Boyce performed a number of his signature tunes, and then he and Holmes played together. Eventually they were joined by a female blues singer known as Lady Australia, who, I was told, is a sister of the late Fat Possum artist Paul “Wine”Jones.
Eventually things began to wind down, and we headed to our hotel rooms in Yazoo City for the night.
San Francisco-based David Katznelson is the owner of Birdman Records, a really cool group of blues and roots labels, which includes subsidiary labels Birdmanophone and Sutro Park, but he once lived in Taylor, Mississippi, seven miles from the Ole Miss campus. Jane Rule, who lives in a big and historic home in Taylor, was mayor of Taylor for 12 years, and just about every year, on his birthday, she throws David Katznelson a party. But not just any kind of party- a veritable blues festival, with artists like Lightnin Malcolm, R. L. Boyce, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and Luther Dickinson.
The last time R. L. Boyce played at the party in Taylor, it was marred by endless monsoon rains, and had to be moved onto Ms. Rule’s back porch. This year, although hot, the weather was perfect for a festival, and a much larger crowd turned out. There were barbecued ribs, and chicken, and grilled corn, as well as two cakes, one yellow and one chocolate. When we arrived, Ms. Rule was giving rides to the little kids on her golf cart, and Lightnin Malcolm and R. L. Boyce were on stage.
Later in the day, there was a performance of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum band, one of the last surviving fife and drum bands in America, and their performance brought a crowd of dancers out to move to the grooves, with the guest of honor, Mr. Katznelson, at the front.
The fife and drum band was followed by Luther Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All Stars and son of the late Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson. It was Luther who produced R. L. Boyce’s first album Ain’t The Man’s Alright for Katznelson’s Sutro Park label, and he gave an enthusiastic performance on this sunny Sunday afternoon.
After some remarks in honor of the birthday guest, the party got back underway, but much of the food and drink was gone, and the sun was beginning to go down. Sherena Boyce and I decided to leave and head back toward Senatobia. Taylor Grocery restaurant was open, but we were so full from the good food at the party that we didn’t think about eating any more food. At Oxford, we stopped for a frozen yogurt on the square at Ya Ya’s, and then headed on back home.
From Drew, I decided to head across to Merigold. I had wanted to see Po Monkey’s juke joint for the first time in real life, and possibly eat at Crawdad’s. I was disappointed on both fronts, as Crawdad’s is not open on Sundays, and Po Monkey’s proved to have been stripped bare. As I told someone later, it would have been better not to have seen it at all than to have seen it like it is now.
I had heard after Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry’s death that the family had decided to have an auction, but I had no idea of the extent. Everything both inside and outside was stripped away and sold, even the signs on the outside. The historic marker seems ironic in front of a boarded-up and stripped building, with draconian “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. The only decorations at the building seem to be votive offerings that fans have left behind, as a sort of commemorative shrine.
I have been told that “it’s complicated,” but given the power of organizations like the Blues Foundation and/or Delta State University, I cannot understand why this most important place could not have been saved. Even now, the building should be restored and redecorated, even if like Club Ebony in Indianola, it is only open at certain special times for special concerts or events. There are people worldwide who would be willing to donate to such an effort. It only needs an organized and co-ordinated effort to make it happen.
I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.
Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.
With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.
By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.
Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.
Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.
Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.
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.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.