Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
Later in the evening, my homebody Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band had a gig with a pick-up band of musicians from various brass bands for a birthday party at Vaso, a club on Frenchmen Street. Since the City of New Orleans had put a stop to brass bands playing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter around 2009 or so, bands often frequent Frenchmen, a funky, music street that appeals more to locals than tourists, although the police will occasionally run brass bands away from the Marigny neighborhood as well. On this occasion, the birthday girl wanted the band to parade up Frenchmen Street from Vaso to the intersection with Chartres Street and back, but at Chartres, there was another brass band playing at the entrance to a brightly-colored building that has always reminded me of the Caribbean. At least one of their musicians was wearing a shirt for the Young & Talented Brass Band, but Darren told me that the band was comprised of musicians from several different brass bands. As is often the case in New Orleans, the two bands confronted each other, although in a friendly manner, and they quickly locked in with each other on a version of the brass band standard “Tuba Fats”. The crowds of locals and tourists in the intersection near The Praline Connection were thrilled. Eventually, our band headed back down toward Vaso, leaving the other one on their corner. It was one of those serendipitous musical moments that happen frequently in the Crescent City.
Funerals in New Orleans are fairly strange. It is common for the family members to hire a brass band for the funeral, and those in attendance often seem to be celebrating rather than mourning, particularly during the processions after the service. Traditionally, the bands were hired to parade with the body from the church or funeral home to the cemetery, and then back to the church again. The band would play slow dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery, and then would play upbeat jazz on the way back. While the boisterous dancing and music on the route back from the burial has often been described as celebration, others have attributed it to a retention of African beliefs- the fear that the spirit of the deceased might attempt to follow the mourners back from the cemetery unless it was warded off by the beating of drums and blowing of horns. For whatever reason, the jazz funeral was invented in New Orleans.
Nowadays, the brass bands rarely parade all the way to the cemetery from the church. Instead, they generally accompany the coffin as it is carried by the pall bearers to the waiting hearse out in front of the church. From there, depending on the plans of the family, they may march to a nearby neighborhood or bar. On this particular morning, the TBC Brass Band was assembled outside Israelites Baptist Church while the funeral service was going on inside. The wait seemed interminable, while dark clouds gathered to the south and west, threatening serious storms. But suddenly, the service was over, and the pall bearers emerged carrying the coffin down the steps of the church. TBC began playing upbeat music, while family members, though obviously grieving, still danced exuberantly on the sidewalk outside. The band and the family members proceeded down a side street to a tiny brick building painted with music notes which turned out to be the Gladys Bar. There we encountered other friends and family members of the deceased, and the vibe was more one of celebration than mourning, with everyone dancing in the street, including young people who had come out from nearby houses and off neighborhood porches. I was especially impressed to see that one of the band members had brought a little boy with him (perhaps his son), who had a toy trumpet that he was blowing. This is the way the tradition is renewed.
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.
Although New Orleans is my favorite city, and it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were in town primarily for a Duwayne Burnside concert that I was playing keyboards on, so we didn’t have the opportunity to really get out and enjoy the parades or other performances. In fact, the parades ended up being more of a bother, as they made it hard for us to get from our condominium to the venue. But where we were staying, on Oak Street, was remarkably quiet and empty on the Sunday afternoon, apparently because everyone was further down St. Charles along the parade route. The holiday also wreaked havoc on our food options, with some places closed altogether and others on three-hour waits. But Pizza Domenica is a great stand-by, as it is just about the best pizza in the city anyway, and usually open even on Sunday or at Mardi-Gras. When we arrived, it was largely empty, but after we were seated, it started quickly filling up with people who were making their way back from the parade, and the place went from dead to crowded in less than a half hour, but we were satisfied and comfortable as we headed to the show venue.
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.
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.
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.
When I got up early for breakfast on Grambling’s Homecoming Day, the weather was grey, but it wasn’t raining, so I was hopeful as I went to Lea’s of LeCompte in Monroe for breakfast. But no sooner had I left Monroe headed toward Ruston than the rains came down fiercely, and it was a cold and miserable rain at that. Even though I made my way to the area of Grambling where the parade was to begin, I could not find any place to park, and the rains were coming down so heavily that I decided to forego the parade and head to the Lincoln Parish Library in Ruston instead to do some historical research. About noon or so, I left the library, but the rains were continuing, so I headed over to Johnny’s Pizza House on Cooktown Road for a pizza buffet lunch. After that, it was still raining, and evident that the storms were not going to let up enough to let me attend the football game. I had no umbrella, no raincoat and no poncho. So I headed back to West Monroe, visiting the antique malls along Trenton Street, but really not finding much of anything of value. At dinner time, I headed to the Waterfront Grill, my favorite restaurant in Monroe, for a shrimp dinner, and then headed back over to Grambling to briefly hang out with my friend Dr. Reginald Owens, a journalism professor on the faculty at Louisiana Tech. But the rainy day had also been election day, so he had to go and comfort his cousin, who had lost his campaign for the Lincoln Parish Police Jury. Even worse, David Vitter had won the primary for governor, and was attacking his opponent on television as a proxy for Barack Obama. Altogether, it was a thoroughly depressing day.