Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Como, Mississippi is a town that sits on the border between the Mississippi Delta and a region known as the Hill Country. The styles of blues from each region are distinct, but elements of them meet in this historic location, famous for both guitar blues,Black fife and drum band music, and gospel singers and musicians. All of these influences shaped the young R. L. Boyce, who began playing drums for his uncle Othar Turner’s fife and drum band in the late 1960’s. Boyce turned 62 this year, and to celebrate his birthday, his daughter organized a large picnic in Como Park featuring barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and a line-up of the best regional blues musicians. The evening’s festivities kicked off with an incredible gospel singer and guitarist named Slick Ballenger, who was mentored by both Othar Turner and R. L. Boyce, and as Boyce was a long-time drummer in fife and drum bands, it was appropriate that there were two fife and drum bands at the picnic, the Hurt Family from Sardis, Mississippi and Sharde Thomas’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. It was possibly the first time the Hurt Family had performed in a place other than their own family picnics near Sardis, and eventually Willie Hurt was playing the fife with Sharde’s band as well. As the evening progressed, Kody Harrell, R. L. Boyce, Duwayne Burnside, Dre Walker, Greg Ayers and Robert Kimbrough all performed on stage until things came to a halt about 11 PM. The first annual R. L. Boyce Picnic drew a crowd of about 600 people, and gave Como something it has not had in many years, a true blues festival.
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.