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.
Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.
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.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
2166 Central Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
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.
As we headed into the Delta from Jackson, we came to the little town of Bentonia in Yazoo County. Bentonia might be small, but it’s a big place indeed when it comes to blues, being the hometown of legendary Mississippi bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and his famous juke joint the Blue Front Cafe. I have never been inside the cafe, but I have been to the Bentonia Blues Festival, which is great from a music standpoint, yet one of the hottest music festivals ever, held in an open field devoid of trees with no shade to speak of at all. The festival was once held at the Blue Front, but law enforcement harassed attendees, so it moved to a location north of town. It is said that Holmes occasionally opens up the Blue Front and plays there, but I have never been able to determine exactly when that happens.
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.