On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.
If you travel due north from Holly Springs in Marshall County, Mississippi, you will come to Fayette County, Tennessee, a rather similar county in many respects. Both counties once were extensively cotton-growing regions, both have rugged, hilly terrain, and both have overwhelming Black majorities. But while Marshall County, Mississippi is known for the Hill Country blues, Fayette County, Tennessee has remained little known for music. Bengt Olsson spent some time there in the 1970’s, recording obscure musicians like Lattie Murrell. One afternoon of recording at a bootlegger’s house near Somerville yielded an incredible album that has recently seen release on the Sutro Park label out of San Francisco, which owns all of Olsson’s field recordings. The Tennessee State Archives found fife-and-drum musicians in Fayette County in 1980, recording Ed Harris, Emanuel Dupree and James Tatum both in Fayette County and at the Chickasaw State Park Folk Festival. But aside from Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom most people associate with the town of Como, Mississippi, few blues artists from Fayette County have any degree of fame.
Yet, much like Marshall County to the south, Fayette County is a hotbed of blues, and the best place to experience it is at an authentic club on Highway 76 between Moscow and Williston called Saine’s Place.
On Highway 76, north from Moscow, Saine’s appears on the left-hand side of the road as a low, lighted building with plenty of cars out in front. Occasionally, barbecue smoke fills the air nearby. On the first Saturday of each month, the club features a live band, the Hollywood All-Stars from Memphis, featuring Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. The Hollywood All-Stars have a long, venerable tradition in Memphis blues, and on the night I came, the band had a horn section consisting of trumpet and saxophone, and sounded very good indeed. But would-be visitors need to be aware that Saine’s is technically not open to the public, as signs at the front make perfectly clear. Admission is by permission (the club is officially “members only”), and costs $10. Charles and Terry Saine, the owners, seem welcoming to visitors, but do not permit photography or videography in their club, so be respectful and leave the cameras at home. That rule is something of a pity, though, as Saine’s offers an authentic, rural blues experience that is really not available elsewhere, certainly not in Memphis. The music consists of blues, soul and Southern soul,and by midnight, the dance floor is full. At one in the morning, the party showed no signs of winding down. For true fans of the blues, Saine’s Blues Club is not to be missed.
Saine’s Place AKA Saine’s Blues Club AKA Club Saine’s
4515 Highway 76
Moscow, TN 38057
Live music is the first Saturday night of each month, starting about 9 PM
Club open with a DJ at other times.
South of Turrell, Arkansas along Highway 77 are a string of small rural towns and communities before the county seat town of Marion. The largest of these is Jericho, Arkansas, although “large” is a relative term, as Jericho only has about 116 residents, according to the Census Bureau. It has a former school that looks as if it was most recently a restaurant, a former juke joint that is for sale, a small grocery store that evidently isn’t open on Sundays, and an old city hall and the new and current city hall. Like so many other places in Eastern Arkansas, Jericho has been decimated by the death of American agriculture, the Black migration to the big cities, and the toll of rural poverty. Despite its proximity to West Memphis and Memphis, Jericho seems to be fading away.
Although Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club is not nearly the blues club it once was, booking a lot more rock and country these days, it still occasionally features blues, as on a Saturday night in June when the featured act was the Johnie B. Sanders blues band featuring Inetta. Sanders is from Chicago, but is currently based in Jackson, and his band has been building a following in Central Mississippi and the Delta. One of the things I have always liked about Ground Zero is its juke joint ambiance, and for the first time, I actually noticed the historic posters on the wall of Delta blues events from years gone by. These were so interesting, for mentioning long-forgotten venues like Mr. Fuji’s Ranch in Ruleville or Club Shatto in Renova, and forgotten artists like Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones. I also didn’t know that Hopson Plantation used to sponsor blues shows long before it became the Shack Up Inn. It’s also worth noting that Ground Zero has an excellent food menu as well, and irresistible desserts, so it’s still a must-visit on any road trip to the Delta.
On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I decided to continue my exploration of small towns and backroads in the Mississippi Delta. My first stop was a community called Savage, Mississippi, that Apple Maps showed being tucked between Highways 3 and 4 on the railroad tracks. Although I had heard of the place, I had never been there, and was surprised to encounter a large, abandoned store of some sort, and a small wooden railroad station. Unfortunately, the station was behind fences and today sits on private property, so I was unable to explore it or photograph it close up, but I still managed to get some good photos around the tiny village.
West of Sarah, Mississippi, I came to swamps, and a long, oxbow-type lake called Walnut Lake, bordered by a road of the same name. Although I had read of a nightclub called the Pussycat Lounge that was supposed to be next to the lake, I didn’t see it at all, but at the end of the lake and the road was a quaint tin-roofed grocery store called the Three-Way Grocery where a man was barbecuing meat in front, while a few men played chess or checkers on a table nearby. Although the barbecue smelled amazing, I had recently eaten, so I drove back to Highway 3 and continued south through Marks and Lambert and into the town of Sumner, one of two county seats for Tallahatchie County (the other is Charleston).
Sumner sits on the Little Tallahatchie River, and consists of little more than the courthouse, a restaurant called the Sumner Grille, and an art gallery called the Cassidy Bayou Art Gallery. Neither was open on the hot Sunday afternoon, but I took a few pictures on the Tallahatchie bridge and around the courthouse square, noting the historical marker about the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, which took place in the Sumner courthouse. An Emmett Till Interpretive Center is located a block off the square in Sumner.
The next town to the South, Webb, seemed larger and more significant, although most of its fairly large business district along Main Street seemed empty and abandoned. Of note was a weatherbeaten frame train station, and what appeared to be a fairly large juke joint.
From there, I came to the town of Glendora, which clearly had seen better days. Almost all the town stretched along the railroad tracks on both sides, and on the east side, along Burrough Street, was a row of rough-looking jukes, including a rather large place called Club 21. The employee there was amenable to me photographing the place, so I got to take pictures inside and out, and I was especially pleased with the classic pool table indoors. What I saw on the west side of the tracks was sad, the ruins of a large building that by the signs visible appeared to have once been Glendora’s City Hall. Only the building’s shell remained.
Things were similar at Minter City, in LeFlore County, where the massive ruins of T. Y. Fleming School sit along Highway 49E west of the actual townsite, although nothing much is left of the town. From the looks of it, Fleming must have at one time been a high school, but was most recently an elementary school. That it had won awards for student achievement didn’t stop the LeFlore County School Board from closing it down, and one of the more ironic things to see there was school’s sign in front of the buildings facing Highway 49E, which included a “No Child Left Behind” logo. With the school closure and abandonment of the campus, it seems that all of Minter City’s children got left behind.
Because I had to make it back to Memphis for a gig, I didn’t go on to Greenwood, despite the fact that I was close. Instead I turned east on Highway 8, but in coming to a little town called Phillip, I spent some time photographing the old downtown area along Front Street, and then got back on the road heading for Grenada.
After leaving Alligator, we ended up heading down to Drew, and taking Highway 49W through Ruleville, Doddsville and Sunflower into Indianola, to one of my very favorite restaurants in the world, The Blue Biscuit. The Biscuit is owned by renowned chef Trish Berry, who had been the executive chef at Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s ill-fated Madidi Restaurant in Clarksdale. While Madidi was expensive fine-dining, the Blue Biscuit is something altogether different, sort of a cross between a diner and a juke joint. While the restaurant menu is diverse and varied, in my opinion, the pulled-pork barbecue is the star of the show. A few years ago, it was possible to order something called “Biscuits and Barbecue”, which was exactly that, four freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits that were halved, with pulled pork placed between the halves. This was literally one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, we noticed on this visit that the menu has changed, and that biscuits and barbecue is no longer available, but the pulled pork is still on the menu, and just as good as I remember it from previous visits.
An added treat on this visit was live music from a Cleveland, Mississippi band called Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, whose repertoire consists of blues, soul and funk. Somehow, I had not encountered them before, but they are an accomplished and versatile band, and they kept the crowd mesmerized all evening. This was my first time seeing a live music gig at the Blue Biscuit, and I found the location and atmosphere perfectly suited to the music, and everything quite enjoyable.
Although I have passed by Alligator, Mississippi many times on my way to somewhere else, I have never taken the time to venture off the road into the little town to see what was there. Maps of the place intrigued me, as they showed the town sitting on a lake called Alligator Lake, and I wondered if there had really been alligators there. The place seemed a little far north for them, actually. But after I learned that Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s new juke joint is located in the rural area east of Alligator, the area took on a new significance, and so I decided to head into the town and see if there was anything historic. Unfortunately, like so many other Delta towns, the years have not been particularly kind to Alligator. Although the houses across the road from the lake are attractive and well-kept, the downtown area, particularly that along Front Street, has clearly seen better days. While there is a sort of mini-mart that welcomed “Blues Tourists” that is still open on Lake Street, none of the buildings on Front Street seem to be occupied, and one of them is clearly beginning to collapse. It has been boarded up, and the boards are covered with graffiti and strange, gothic symbols, while barrels placed out in front of it warn “Danger” and “Keep Away”. What with the all-seeing eye and other cryptic symbols on the place, I half wondered if the signs were there to keep people away from some center of cultic activity rather than merely a collapsing building. In fact, the word “worship” is spray-painted on the boards along with the symbols. Other than the decaying buildings, there is a blues trail marker discussing the blues history and heritage of the town of Alligator, and Robert “Bilbo” Walker was mentioned in it. With it being Memorial Day, a few men were sitting under a tree downtown having a sort of picnic. As for the town, that was about it.
Still, I ventured further out to where Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s Wonder City juke joint is under construction, and found that the area still resembles a construction site, and is quite aways off the beaten path, yet I can tell that it will be a popular destination for fans of the blues (Wonder City will open the weekend of June 16th and 17th). The road we took east from Alligator leads back to the New Africa Road (quite an intriguing name in itself), and along that road heading toward Drew, we came upon an abandoned gas station with pumps still intact. There are no signs to indicate what the place was called, but it seems a throwback to an earlier era indeed, out in the wilderness east of Alligator. Not all that far beyond it, the road brought us into Drew.
Each year, Clarksdale becomes the center of attention in the blues world, as fans come from all over the world for the Juke Joint Festival. Although the official festival is only one day, events surrounding it now stretch over four days, and hotels are sold out for more than 75 miles in any direction. Unfortunately, this year, for the first time in memory, the festival was adversely affected by wet weather, showers that continued for much of the morning and early afternoon. Nevertheless, there were still significant crowds at many of the stages, and by the afternoon, the showers had begun to exit the area. In addition to the vendors of artwork, cigar-box guitars, books and more, attendees enjoyed performances by Lightnin Malcolm, the Cedric Burnside Project, Carlos Elliot, the Andre Otha Evans Fife and Drum Band, Garry Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, R. L. Boyce and many other performers from the Hill Country, the Delta, South America, Europe and other parts of the United States. This year also saw a larger number of stages and participating venues. One unfortunate trend this year however was the tendency of local restaurants to offer special, highly-limited menus for guests because of the Juke Joint Festival. We found that as a result, we often could not order what we wanted, and had to settle for things like burgers. I suppose the goal was to make things easier on the kitchen staff, but it ended up making things harder or at least less pleasant for the attendees. Still, it was a day of good music and good fun.
About halfway between Jackson’s Farish Street and Memphis’ Beale Street was Greenville’s Nelson Street, the Main Street of the Black Mississippi Delta. Lined with professional offices, cafes, pool rooms, juke joints and churches, Nelson Street was the place that Black people went in Greenville for nearly everything, from business to pleasure. One place on the street in particular stood out, a legendary blues club called the Flowing Fountain, which had been open just a few short years ago.
Nelson Street began to fall on hard times in the early 1990’s, when crack hit Greenville like a ton of bricks. There had been a lot of comings and goings between the Delta and Chicago, and soon the infamous Chicago gangs were in Greenville streets, and gang graffiti began appearing on Nelson Street bricks. Open-air crack markets and drive-by shootings followed. With Greenville like a war zone, most of the jukes and clubs on Nelson Street closed, and most of the ones that remained decided to shift their focus to a younger crowd, hiring DJ’s to play rap and hip-hop. The one exception was the Fountain, which billed itself “The Blues Capital of the World” and featured local talent like the legendary Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. Occasionally, tourists defied the warnings from their hotel desk clerks, and ventured to the Fountain for an authentic blues experience. But the presence of rap clubs nearby and the frequency of gunfire in the neighborhood took its toll. Stud Ford, the grandson of the late bluesman T-Model Ford said that the Fountain ended up closing because its older patrons were scared to venture into the area because of the kind of clientele the other clubs nearby were attracting.
The building still sits proudly and a little sadly at the center of what was once the business district. The front has been painted with a sort of gallery of important Black Greenvillians including “Boogaloo” Ames and “Booba” Barnes. Nearby, a historic marker explains the significance of Nelson Street. But there is nothing here anymore but nostalgia. A club on Walnut Street a couple of miles away claims to offer live blues on weekends, but it doesn’t book anyone well-known, and tourists have learned to make their way to Clarksdale if they are searching for the blues. Despite a storied past and great potential, Greenville’s Nelson Street is only a memory.
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.