Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.
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.
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
Although Memphis’ Black community has an old and deep history of drumlines, the phenomenon has been fading in recent years. A reduced interest on the part of young people, lack of access to drums, lack of available instructors and the preference of dance squads and majorette teams for recorded music and DJ’s have all been factors in reducing the number of drumlines and drummers in Memphis. But a few of the high schools still have drumlines, and this fall, my homeboy Otis Logan is coaching the drummers at Manassas High School, the legendary school where the great big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was the first band director. The Manassas drummers sound good, particularly for it to be as early in the year as it is.
Because rain was predicted, the city of New Orleans had moved up the starting times of both Lundi Gras parades by an hour. That had managed to keep the Krewe of Proteus parade dry, but it did not suffice for the Krewe of Orpheus parade that followed. My homeboy Darren and I were posted up in front of the Krewe du Brew Coffeehouse, checking out bands from Talladega College and Alcorn State University, but when St. Augustine High School’s Marching Band came past (which was a band I had really hoped to see), a sudden blast of icy cold wind hit us in the face, and within a few minutes, it started raining, and not a few drops, but a downpour. My digital camera did not need to be exposed to water, and so we retreated into the coffeehouse. Eventually, the rain let up enough that we were able to make our way to an area under the Crescent City Connection bridge approach, where Darren said a lot of “band heads” gathered each year to see the bands. Because of the heavy winds, we weren’t entirely dry even under the bridge, but we were at least drier. The temperature had also dropped from 73 to 48 in less than a half-hour, but a festive mood continued under the bridge, where one group of revellers had even hired a DJ to play bounce music between bands. I was most intrigued by the use of flambeaux in the Orpheus parade, I suppose due to tradition, and also to illuminate the elaborate floats at night, although Orpheus is one of the newer krewes, dating only back to 1968 or so. The young men bearing torches brought a cheerful but somewhat mysterious ambiance to the whole thing. When it was finally over, we were thoroughly wet and cold, and set about the task of finding something to eat, which was easier said than done. Such places as were open were fairly crowded, but we managed to get into O’Henry’s on Carrollton and enjoy a hamburger before Darren got called to a last minute TBC Brass Band gig on the West Bank.
I knew there was to be a massive majorette jamboree at the Manassas High School gym on Saturday afternoon (February 7), so I rode over there to see if I could capture any last remnants of the old Memphis majorette and drummer tradition. As usual, most of the performing groups involved were using prerecorded compact discs, but there were three contestants that used the traditional drumline instead, the Millennium Maddness Drill Team and Drum Squad, the Crump Elementary Majorettes and Drummers from Hickory Hill, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Diamond Divas and Drumline, the latter being the new name for the former Frayser High School now that it has been taken over by the state and turned into a charter. While I am thrilled that there are still a few groups who uphold the old tradition of dancers and drummers, I miss the old jamborees of my teenage years when everyone did their routine to drummers lined up against the wall of the gym.
Although there are fall jamborees, the cold winter months are the high point of majorette jamboree season in Memphis. Majorette jamborees exist in other cities, but they are a unique part of Memphis culture, at least in their original incarnation, where drill teams and majorettes worked out routines to beats and grooves provided by a squad of drummers. This concept dates at least as far back as the late 1960’s, and at least one such squad, the Klondike Drum and Bugle Corps, was described in a Commercial Appeal article in 1970 as doing a step called the “Moonwalk”, long before Michael Jackson became famous for it. Unfortunately, the majorette jamborees I recall from my teenage years are largely a thing of the past, as today’s majorettes tend to work out their routine to popular songs on compact discs rather than drums and drummers. However, at the Sophisticated Divas jamboree at the JIFF Center in Downtown Memphis last Saturday, at least three of the competing groups included drummers, so the traditional format is at least hanging on by a thread. The Millennium Madness Drill Team has always included drummers, but this year’s squad is larger than what I’ve seen in the past. The Black Diamonds had a drum squad that competed in one category, and Crump Elementary always has a drum squad and a majorette team. The rest of the competitors were working out to recordings, but I was also impressed with a local dance group known as M-Town Image. A number of reasons have been proposed for why drill teams and majorettes have dispensed with drummers, including lack of money or equipment, lack of interested young men wanting to play, and lack of suitable percussion instructors. In a city where there are far too few wholesome activities for young people, particularly young men, here’s hoping that someone steps up to get the young men interested in playing drums, or other musical instruments.
Like everything else associated with Memphis’ traditional inner-city neighborhoods, the city’s marching band culture has been adversely affected by the depopulation of these areas and their schools, but something of a marching band culture still remains in certain schools. Oakhaven High School is a band program that has been showing some success in recent years, and in November they sponsored a Band Showdown, featuring competition between the bands and drumlines from Central High School, Whitehaven High School (always Memphis’ largest high school band), Mitchell High School and Oakhaven High School, as well as an exhibition appearance by the band from Talladega College in Alabama. The event was fairly well attended, and all of the bands made a decent impression, although my opinion was that Whitehaven was clearly the winner.