Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce used to be famous for his yard parties, but in recent years he had stopped doing them after some health issues. So when his daughter Sherena informed me that he was having a yard party with live musicians on a Wednesday evening, I made arrangements to get off early from work and head to Como.
The weather was sunny when I arrived at R. L.’s house just across the railroad tracks from Como’s restored downtown area. A cool breeze was blowing, and only a few people had gathered, although the event was supposed to begin at 4 PM. Boyce, Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, and Lightnin Malcolm were on the front porch setting up their equipment, and the drummer Steve Toney was setting up his drums in the yard because there was no room for them on the porch.
When the music got under way, the atmosphere became magical, with Malcolm, Carlos and R.L. playing Hill Country blues in the kind of setting it was intended for, an outdoor house party. One of the out-of-town guests sent someone to purchase hotdogs and charcoal, and fired up Boyce’s grill, cooking hotdogs for the guests and musicians, some of whom were in Mississippi for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which was to be held on the weekend. Soon the crowd in R.L.’s front yard grew larger, with young and old, local and out-of-town folks. A few kids were playing under the trees. As the evening continued, some folks began to dance, and cars slowed down as they drove past the house, trying to see what was going on. After a number of songs from R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, there was a guest appearance from the hot new female blues singer Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones from Potts Camp, and she performed a couple of her original songs with the band. Eventually, around 8 PM, the sun went down, and with no real lighting in R.L.’s yard, things had to come to a halt. Only a handful of people remained at that point, and Sherena Boyce and I decided to head uptown to Windy City Grill for a late dinner, but we could hear R.L. still playing guitar as he sat on his porch in the dark. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.
Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.
However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.
What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.
Fair or Fare?
One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.
The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair
Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.
The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations
Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.
While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.
Once in a while, a local music show gets announced which I just cannot miss, and the announcement of a Don Bryant show with soul revivalists The Bo-Keys was just such a show. Better yet, it was being held at Loflin Yard, one of my favorite Memphis venues.
Don Bryant is one of Memphis’ forgotten soul geniuses. Originally a member of Willie Mitchell’s group The Four Kings, he recorded a number of soul sides for Joe Coughi’s Hi label during the 1960’s, but ended up becoming better known as a staff writer for the label, with “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, recorded by Ann Peebles in 1973 becoming his biggest hit. Bryant married Peebles in 1974, and soon disappeared from popular music. There were rumors that both Bryant and Peebles had transitioned to gospel music, and a few gospel releases appeared under Bryant’s name. Peebles would occasionally return to blues and soul music, but Bryant did not, at least until embarking on the recording of a new album “Don’t Give Up On Love” for the Fat Possum label out of Oxford.
Friday night’s show at Loflin Yard was primarily a showcase of the new songs, backed by Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, the highlight of which was a funky gospel tune called “How Do I Get There?” which is the single from the forth-coming album. Despite the drizzly weather, the venue was fairly crowded, and Bryant, at 74 years of age, was still in great form and voice, a consummate performer. And thanks to the Bo-Keys ,featuring such Memphis legends as drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie Turner, the backing sound was authentic, with live horns and real instruments, and no modern anachronisms. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear authentic Memphis soul music as it was intended to be heard.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
The Home Place Plantation was founded near Como in 1869, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. From then until now, it has belonged to members of the Bartlett family, and was until recently a traditional farm raising cattle as well as cotton, soybeans and similar crops. But the youngest generation of the family has converted the Home Place from a plantation to Home Place Pastures, an organic, sustainable pig farm raising high-quality pork that is sold in regional farmer’s markets. As such they are on the cutting edge of a number of popular movements, including the locavore movement that seeks to source food from areas close to where one lives. The new vision for the Home Place also includes special events, including a live blues experience called the Home Place Throw Down, which this year was held on August 20. Because of periodic rain, the organizers decided to move the stage across the road from where it had been the previous year to a roofed pavilion on the opposite side, and moving the stage was easy, because it was a yellow school bus with its front wall cut away so as to make a stage, and it actually still runs. Despite the risk of rain, more than a hundred people turned out to hear such artists as the Rev. John Wilkins, the Home Place Blues Band (which seemed to be an alter-ego for the Como-tions), the legendary R. L. Boyce and Kenny Brown. In between acts, Sharde Thomas led her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band through the crowd, with Como musician R. L. Boyce on one of the snare drums. With a rather eerie moonlight in the east, the hypnotic drumming gathered a crowd of dancers in the twilight, reaching back before the blues to something more fundamental. Besides the great music, there was plenty of beer, as well as barbecued pork (Home Place pork of course) that was some of the best I’ve ever eaten, and although I was told that the barbecue sauce was a vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce, I surprisingly loved it, and found it to be just sweet enough for me to enjoy. After Kenny Brown’s final rousing set, Sharde Thomas and her drummers were back to lead the crowd out to the front gate to close out the evening’s festivities. It was a truly amazing blues experience in a perfect setting with great food, in a community known for its legacy of blues, Black gospel, and fife and drum music.
Founded in 1988, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival is the older of Clarksdale’s two main annual blues festivals, but in recent years it has seemed to struggle as the Juke Joint Festival in April has grown in popularity. Nevertheless, it still attracts many people to Clarksdale each August, and after an ill-fated expansion effort in 2012, the festival has finally returned to its roots as a regional blues festival in downtown Clarksdale. This year, I was thrilled to see that the fencing around the festival grounds in previous years had been done away with, allowing free access to and from the festival to the surrounding streets and venues of downtown Clarksdale, and attendees again had access to the front of the stage, unlike 2012 when the whole area had been reserved for VIP’s who had donated large sums of money to the festival. Unfortunately, we were late in getting to Clarksdale this year, but when we arrived at the main stage, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram was on stage, amazing the crowd with his guitar skills, backed by Chris Black on drums and Paul Rogers on bass. He was followed by Terry “Big T” Williams, a perennial favorite in Clarksdale, whose Family Band includes the prominent Delta saxophonist Alphonso Sanders. The crowd seemed somewhat smaller than in previous years, but that may have been due to the threat of rain, which persisted all day Saturday.Nevertheless, the rain stayed away while we were there, and with the barricades gone, festival-goers swarmed around the downtown Clarksdale, visiting shops and restaurants, and several venues sponsored their own performances to coincide with the festival weekend.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
I used to pass the old Loflin Safe & Lock Company on Carolina Avenue in Memphis for years, and never thought much about it, but unexpectedly a few months ago, the place was transformed into a hot new Memphis bar and grill called Loflin Yard, with a primarily-outdoor focus that resembles Austin, Texas a lot more than it does Memphis. While there are a few tables and a bar indoors, and a few more tables on a deck outside, the central emphasis is on a huge backyard, filled with plenty of chairs and fire pits, an outdoor stage and bar,a waterfall and the only visible portion of historic Gayoso Bayou, most of which has been paved over elsewhere in Memphis. The effect is something like an urban equivalent to Mississippi’s Foxfire Ranch, and the booking policies are somewhat similar as well, with Loflin Yard featuring a lot of roots music groups, from blues to bluegrass. On the day we went, the featured artist was the Rev. John Wilkins, an artist whose dad was a blues legend in the 1920’s, and whose music bridges the gap between Hill Country blues and gospel music. On a somewhat cool and pleasant day, we found the place packed to overflowing, and we could barely find outdoor seats. Wilkins, backed by two and later three female singers, performed his dad Robert Wilkin’s signature tune “Prodigal Son” AKA “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and he performed many of his best-known tunes as well, including “You Can’t Hurry God.” We had to wait until after Wilkins’ performance to find table space in order to eat. Food, by the way, is ordered from an outdoor window and then picked up to eat at one of the tables, and the menu is extremely limited. There is no traditional bar food here, only beef brisket, pork tenderloin and salads, although there has been some talk that the menu might eventually be expanded. With such an emphasis on barbecue, there is plenty of wood stacked near the kitchen, and the smell of roasting meat pervades the whole place, but we found that the food was primarily little plates, a currently popular trend, and the prices seemed steep for the quantity of the food. Altogether it was a great afternoon and evening for me and my friend, although we personally enjoyed the atmosphere and music more than the food.
7 W. Carolina Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
Mon – Tues: Closed
Wed – Thurs: 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Fri: 11:30 am – 12:00 am
Saturday: 12:00 pm – 12:00 am
Sunday: 12:00 pm – 9:00 pm
On a weekday afternoon, I had driven up to Mason, Tennessee after work to eat at Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, and had noticed signs around the little town announcing a “Unity Fall Fest” on September 19.
I remembered years ago in the early 1990’s driving out to Mason with a couple of friends and having a lot of fun at a large festival in the town’s square along the railroad tracks and Front Street, a neighborhood of cafes traditionally called “The Lower End.” That day, there were several hundred people out, live bands, singers and rap artists, and we had had a ball. But the times had not been kind to Mason. Although Mason was somewhat famous for Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, it was more famous for its rural version of Beale Street along Front Street. Tipton County was technically a dry county, so the clubs along the street were euphemistically called “cafes”, but they ran wide open day and night. Although the town was still in those days controlled by whites, they allowed the Black night life to operate without limits. Prior to the 1970’s, it was probably seen as a social safety valve, preventing the kind of racial schism that had wracked Fayette County, only a few miles to the south. And it was also lucrative. Most towns either didn’t allow such clubs at all, or had closing hours, so Black people came to Mason from Covington, Jackson, Memphis, Brownsville, Somerville, Dyersburg, sometimes even as far away as Cairo, Illinois. One true “club” (as opposed to a cafe) was across the tracks on Main Street, named for a famous Chicago blues club, the Tay-May. It booked acts of national importance, such as Al Green, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, and local folklore had it that Rufus Thomas first demonstrated the funky chicken there. But by the 1990’s, the music in the cafes had switched from soul and blues to rap and hip-hop, and the level of crime and discomfort to local residents from the Lower End had grown significantly. The city decided to change their ordinances to require the cafes to close at 2 AM, as clubs did in almost every other city and town in America. The results were immediate, and devastating to Mason. Tay-May burned in a spectacular fire and was never rebuilt. One by one, as cafes closed, the city condemned the buildings and had them demolished. Soon only three or so remained. A hoped-for Federal prison provided some jobs, but was not the salvation that Mason residents had hoped for. Soon, many of their retail stores were closing as well. Mason was dying.
The decision to call the new festival a “Unity” festival was also interesting to me. Despite its unusual culture and folklore for such a small town, Mason hadn’t been all that unified through my teenage years. Spiritually more attuned to adjacent Fayette County than Tipton, where it was located, Mason was an overwhelmingly Black community ruled by whites, and while it had not had the protracted discord that Fayette County had, things were still not great. Mason had never had a high school for white children, but it had had a Black high school, Gailor, which closed in 1965. In 1970 or so, the Black Fields Elementary School and white Mason Elementary School had been merged at the Mason campus. Fields was abandoned. In 1979, the principal of the school, Nevill Seay, allegedly kicked a Black parent. When WHBQ’s news crew came out from Memphis to the campus, he kicked a reporter with the cameras rolling. Dr. Isaac Richmond of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appeared in Mason, and soon the elementary school was being boycotted. A few weeks later, so were many businesses in Mason, including the mayor’s grocery store, although strangely, many of the targeted businesses soon bought ads in Richmond’s newspaper, the Clarksville Voice. Dr. Richmond considered himself an educator, and soon announced the formation of a Black private school, the Mason Community School. Meeting in a former funeral home near Club Tay-May, it attempted to educate the students who were boycotting the elementary school, and it did so while flying the red, black and green flag of Black liberation. The school lasted a couple of years, and then it closed, as did Mason Elementary School, and the Tipton County Schools started busing everyone to Covington schools instead. In addition, old-time residents could speak of other divisive legacies. Although laws said differently, most Black people would not go into Bozo’s to order food or sit down, as they remembered when they were required to order food to go and not permitted to eat inside. And the old-timers shuddered as they crossed a bridge on the Gainesville Road west of town, where they knew a mob had lynched a man back in 1937. By some accounts, the members of the mob had been the leading men of the town of Mason. Perhaps the lack of unity was part of the reason Mason was dying.
September 19 proved to be a bright, blue, sunny and warm day, perfect for an outdoor festival, and so I drove up to Mason and started my day with lunch at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken. Then heading down Front Street, I saw where the downtown area had been roped off, and some tents, tables and children’s bounce houses had been set up. But sadly, the attendance was rather sparse, compared to what I recalled of the festival in the 90’s, and a check of the tents and vendors revealed that the majority of them were sponsored by churches, and only a handful by businesses, and of the ones that were sponsored by businesses, most were from towns other than Mason, where there were now few businesses. One tent, for example, was run by Suga’s Diner, a restaurant about eight miles or so up Highway 70 in the Haywood County town of Stanton. Although music was supposed to be part of the Mason festival, there was mainly just a DJ,and a few local church choirs. No bands or musicians appeared at all. The newly-elected Mayor of Mason was a woman, and she spoke briefly, speaking of the town’s challenges, and reminding her hearers that “with God nothing is impossible.” Kids were doing dances called the “whip and Nae-Nae” and “hitting the quad” out in the square, while the younger kids were bouncing in the bounce house, and their elders were going in and out of the two remaining cafes, the Log Cabin and the Green Apple. I had thought that the festival might provide me with an opportunity to finally see the inside of the cafes, but this proved to be disappointing. I did briefly walk into the Log Cabin, but it was easy to see that I had interrupted the everyday routine of the place. The privacy felt palpable there, and I certainly would not violate it by taking pictures. After that, I chose not to enter the Green Apple. Yet outside, a few people asked me to take their picture. Some of them seemed to think I was working for the Covington Leader and thought my pictures would be in the paper. I had to explain to them that I was a blogger, not a reporter, but they wanted their picture taken anyway. Toward the early evening, kids began competing in a basketball shooting contest, and gospel choirs began singing a cappella on the one microphone near the DJ’s tent. The blues musician Big Don Valentine had posted on Facebook that he would be performing in Mason on Saturday and I had naively assumed that he meant at the Fall Festival. But people were now taking down the tents and the festival was winding down. Wherever Valentine was going on stage at 7 PM, it wasn’t at the Festival. So I left and headed over to Bozo’s Bar-B-Que for a dinner. While the Festival was rather sparsely attended, it had brought a lot of people together, both white and Black. And there had been no fighting or arguing to mar the day. Even the police were cordial. So in that sense, the Fall Unity Fest in Mason had been a success.
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
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