Spring is the festival season in North Mississippi, and each small town has some sort of spring festival with games, vendors and live music. Senatobia, Mississippi, in Tate County, has long been nicknamed the Five Star City (I haven’t the slightest idea why), so, not surprisingly, its spring festival is called Five Star City Fest. Como blues musician R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform on the main stage on the Friday night, May 11, but I decided to head to the festival early to see if any other blues performers were scheduled. After all, Tate County is one of only two counties where Black fife and drum music still goes on, and it has a long and storied history of blues and Black gospel music. Unfortunately, I soon learned that almost everyone booked for the festival other than Boyce were country artists. There was a barbecue festival going on in the park along the railroad tracks, but the main festival was going on along Front Street north of Main. The street had been blocked off, and a number of vendors and food trucks had set up in the area, including the local Bliss Ice Cream Company from Senatobia. With the weather so hot, I really wanted some, but they were not set up to take debit cards, so I ended up walking down Main Street to the Sayle Oil Company store, and bought an ice cream Twix bar instead. Nearly a hundred people were running or walking in the 5K run, which had begun around 6 PM, and which started and ended near the main stage. Close to the stage also was the site of the new Delta Steakhouse restaurant, and while it is not open yet, I could see through the windows that the tables and booths and chairs were already in place within the restaurant space, and that the place should be open relatively soon, perhaps in June. R. L. Boyce came on stage at 7 PM, with Steve Toney on drums and the young guitarist Kody Harrell, and with Boyce’s daughter Sherena playing the tambourine and dancing. A small crowd of Boyce fans were in the audience cheering him on as he performed most of his standard compositions and tunes. I had considered staying on after his performance to see who would come on stage next, but I soon found that it was another country band, and I had no desire to see that, so I debated heading to Holly Springs for the first night of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Music Festival, but I ultimately decided to head back to Memphis.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
The annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi has grown into one of the largest music festivals in Mississippi, with four days of live performances, many of them free. Blues musicians from the Delta, the Hill Country, South Mississippi, other states and even other countries come to Clarksdale each April to perform, and hotel rooms are hard to come by.
This year we kicked off our Juke Joint Fest weekend by heading to Bluesberry Cafe on Friday night, where the Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was performing with his band. Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best blues guitarists in America today, and the little cafe with a stage was filled to overflowing with blues fans and fellow musicians. Burnside’s performance was followed by an appearance of R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi, sharing the stage with Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who has taken the Hill Country style of blues back to his home country in South America, and has even brought Hill Country musicians to Colombia. Although the weather outside was nasty indeed, inside Bluesberry was good times and good feelings. It was a great way to start Clarksdale’s biggest weekend of the year.
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.
In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill
The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras Day, is basically a holiday in New Orleans, and thus ordinary things like getting breakfast can become a little complicated. My friend Darren Towns, his wife Jarday, and their children and I had planned to grab a breakfast at a new spot called Cloud 9 Bistro uptown at Magazine and 9th, a place that was supposed to specialize in liege waffles. Unfortunately, because of Lundi Gras, the restaurant had both cooks and servers not show up for work, and the owner stated it would be 45 minutes before he could even take our order. As a result, we walked around the corner to the Red Dog Diner, but they stated that the wait for a table would be at least two hours. Desperate, not to mention starving, I suggested that we try further uptown at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, and although we did have to wait, it was a reasonable length of time, and we got seated. The breakfasts there are always great, and this day was no exception. However, the delays in finding a place and in getting seated meant that when we were through with breakfast, Darren only had about an hour before he was supposed to play at his afternoon gig.
I had traveled to many gigs with Darren and other members of the TBC Brass Band, and almost all of them had been fun, but this one on this particular day was not much fun at all. For one thing, it wasn’t a TBC gig, but rather a pickup band that had been hired for this particular event, and for another, the event had been put together by a certain celebrity performance artist who is often in New Orleans. Her desire to protect her privacy and not disclose her whereabouts meant that I was not to use my phone to film or photograph the goings-on, and that in fact I was to keep my distance from the whole thing. The organizers had given several different addresses to the musicians, perhaps another step in trying to keep paparazzi and other unwelcome guests at bay, and we had gone first to a location in the French Quarter before ending up on a rather desolate street in the 9th Ward neighborhood known as Holy Cross.
The organizers had hired both some Mardi Gras Indians, and musicians, for some sort of outdoor event. They wanted everyone other than the Indians to wear white, and one of the women explained to Darren that they were going to “build an altar” for their ritual, and that they would then walk to the river with the Indians and musicians to “make their offerings.” None of us were quite sure what exactly was going on there, whether voodoo, or New Age, or neo-paganism, but it was all quite strange, to say the least. The weather was bitterly cold as well, and eventually I retreated to the car, where I turned on the heat and sat there for the hour and a half or so that the procession and ceremony continued.
When it was finally all over, Darren and I decided to go and get dinner. Perhaps because of the cold, it never even occurred to me to suggest that we go to the parades. Instead we headed to the new Saltgrass Steakhouse in Metairie, where we enjoyed a steak dinner, and then we stopped by the Cafe du Monde on Veterans Boulevard for after-dinner beignets and coffee. Thoroughly exhausted, we decided not to go out for live music, but to head to the house and get rested up for the big day on the morrow.
Amy Verdon, the New York-based owner of the online magazine Fancy! and its record-label offshoot Go Ape Records has been quite a contributor to the cause of the Hill Country Blues, helping to record artists such as Robert Kimbrough and R. L. Boyce and helping to put on last year’s Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. This year, she put together a special exhibit of photographs intended to highlight the role of women in the blues in Mississippi. The exhibit was displayed at the Leontyne Price Library on the campus of Rust College in Holly Springs, and since I had photographs in it, I made plans to attend the opening reception, despite the extremely cold and miserable weather we were having.
Photos celebrated Hill Country musicians such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as a number of dancers. I was amazed by the schedule of the 1983 Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which proved that legendary Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin had headlined a gospel group on one of the stages. Several of the performers scheduled to play the next night at The Hut were present, including Johnny B. Sanders and Iretta and Robert Kimbrough Sr, and a few people came through to check out the photos. The exhibit will remain up through the end of February.
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.