Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.
As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.
The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.
The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.
Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.