After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.
On the first Saturday of the new year, a cold day indeed, my girlfriend and I headed down to Clarksdale to eat at Levon’s and enjoy some blues at Red’s Juke Joint. This was our first occasion trying Levon’s, and in my opinion, it is the fine dining restaurant that Clarksdale has been needing. R. L. Boyce was playing at Red’s, but when we arrived, some of his musicians had not shown up, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. But Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller has recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock, and he agreed to go get his guitar and amp to play with R. L., and soon there was at least a trio of two guitars and a drummer. On some tunes, R.L.’s daughter joined him on stage playing the tambourine and dancing, and toward the end of the evening, they were joined by a musician playing a bass made out of a plastic bucket, a mop handle and a string. By then the crowd had grown fairly large, despite the cold weather outside. It was a great way to start off 2017- with the blues.
In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.
The Clifton Gin was a large building that loomed over the West End neighborhood of Hernando, Mississippi where many blues musicians lived and played their trade in nearby jukes. The Rev. Robert Wilkins, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson all lived in the area for a time, and Mississippi Joe Callicott was from nearby Nesbit, Mississippi. Now each year, the city of Hernando commemorates that musical legacy with an event called the Front Porch Jubilee, held on the grounds of the historic gin, as part of Hernando’s larger Water Tower Festival. This year’s jubilee honored the legacy of the late R. L. Burnside, and members of the Burnside family were presented with a plaque. Performers included Jack Rowell and Triple Threat, Desoto County native Kenny Brown, who was mentored by both Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, rockabilly legend Travis Wammack, and R. L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric, performing with Trenton Ayers as the Cedric Burnside Project. In addition to the great music, there was a considerable amount of great food too, including some excellent pulled pork and the homemade ice cream from Senatobia-based Bliss. A warm afternoon turned to a chilly evening, but a stalwart crowd of about a hundred stayed to the end of Cedric’s last set. It was a great day of blues in Hernando.
Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
R. L. Boyce is really the last of the old-school Hill Country blues musicians, and was a mentor to the young South American musician Carlos Elliott Jr., who came from Colombia to Mississippi to study the traditional music of the Mississippi Hill Country. On his frequent visits back to the United States, Elliott often reconnects with Boyce and other area blues musicians, and usually performs at the Juke Joint Festival each April in Clarksdale.
Clarksdale rarely gets mentioned in the same context as South Beach Miami, the Vegas Strip, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but once a year, in April, people from all over the world flood to the Mississippi Delta for three days of great blues, arts, crafts and food. The Juke Joint Festival has grown from humble beginnings to become the largest festival in Clarksdale, surpassing the older Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and it is not unusual to hear all kinds of foreign accents along Delta Avenue on the weekend of the festival. Not only is Juke Joint Festival a world of fun, but the overwhelming majority of it is free of charge. The night shows on Saturday require a $10 wristband, which is a real bargain when compared to the price of a ticket to the average American music festival. For the lover of blues and American roots culture, Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is not to be missed.
Every April, the Juke Joint Festival takes over Clarksdale, Mississippi, bringing blues fans from all over the world to the small city in the Mississippi Delta, but this year, on the Wednesday before the festival, Memphians were given a taste of the festival in advance, with performances of Garry Burnside, Carlos Elliot Jr. and Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce at the new Tin Roof Memphis in the former Hard Rock Cafe spot on Beale at Rufus Thomas Street. The Tin Roof has pursued an adventurous and better-than-average booking policy since its opening, with heavy blues leanings, and the decision to book two Hill Country blues legends with arguably the best South American bluesman was an inspired one. One of the high points for me was hearing Carlos Elliot’s southern-soulish “Got This Feelin” for the first time. Although the venue’s ambiance was more that of a nightclub than a juke joint, the dance floor was occasionally crowded with jukers, and a good time was had by all.
Como, Mississippi, a little town in the northern extremity of Panola County is historically a center of the Hill Country of Mississippi. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Como, as was Napoleon Strickland, and the Rev. John Wilkins’ church is in Como. Hill Country blues legend R. L. Boyce lives there. More recently, the town has won fame for a couple of great restaurants, and the gospel group The Como Mamas. But strangely, in the modern era there has been no place to hear the blues on a regular basis in Como. That changed early this year when a new juke joint opened called Li’l Poyun’s Place, or the JIC Pool Hall. With Mississippi’s juke scene so endangered, the opening of any new juke joint is to be welcomed, and Poyun’s is first-rate on the weekends when it features live music. On a recent weekend in April, the featured act was the Anthony Turner Band from Memphis, a band with more southern soul tendencies. But the guest artist was Como’s own R. L. Boyce, who played a brief set of classic Hill Country blues, and the dance floor was packed. Poyun’s is an authentic juke, and certainly not for the faint of heart. On certain Saturdays, the place is packed from wall to wall. The surroundings are anything but fancy, and the atmosphere, if electric, can be tense at times, with the occasional fight breaking out once in awhile. But it is an authentic blues experience in one of the blues’ most holy spots.
JIC Pool Hall AKA Li’l Po-Yun’s Place
West Side of Highway 51 near Compress Rd
(Hours can be erratic…may not always have live bands even when open)
The years have not been kind to jazz. In fact, the wonderful creative music that has been called “America’s classical music” was dubbed “the least popular form of music in America” last year, receiving that dubious honor just below its cousin, the Blues. Defenders of the art form point out that the claim of jazz’s current unpopularity was based upon the number of digital downloads broken down by genre, and claim that jazz fans are more likely to prefer vinyl or compact discs. Still, jazz clubs have been closing, too, most recently the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC and the venerable Afterthought in Little Rock, Arkansas. The situation is far grimmer in Memphis, a city where jazz never had all that much of a foothold, and that despite a legacy of producing great jazz musicians. The first great trumpet star in the pre-Louis-Armstrong era was a Memphian, Johnny Dunn. Jimmy Lunceford, Jimmie Crawford, Joe Dukes, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Lowe, Sonny Criss, Hank Crawford, Phones Newborn Jr, Donald Brown, James Williams, Jamil Nasser, Tony Reedus and Mulgrew Miller were all either born in Memphis or developed their careers as young men in the city. But from a high-water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s where jazz could be heard at The Sharecropper,Bill’s Twilight Lounge, or the Gay Hawk, or Sunbeam Mitchell’s hotel, the opportunities to hear live jazz in Memphis on a regular basis have largely dwindled down to one location: Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sunday nights. And the location is oddly appropriate, as Earnestine and Hazel’s was once a second hotel belonging to the same Sunbeam Mitchell who had his main hotel and club on Beale Street. Although Mitchell was said to detest beboppers, most of the city’s great jazz musicians played there on a regular basis. Nowadays, jazz musicians from around the city, including students from the University of Memphis and Rhodes College come down on Sunday nights to sit in, play some standards, and perhaps enjoy a beer or a famous “Soul Burger.” On a recent night in March, a special guest came through, an incredible drummer and former Memphian, Aaron Walker, who for many years was the great Abbey Lincoln’s drummer. Now resident in Wilmington, Delaware, he conducts drumming and percussion classes for young people and continues to perform in the Baltimore/Philly/DC area. Such guests come through frequently, and the jam session scene at Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sundays is not to be missed if you are traveling to Memphis.