“Memphis’ Worldly Fair”: Deciphering Riddles In A Hill Country Blues Lyric

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.

Conclusion

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.

A Lakefront Breakfast in Memphis’ Shelby Farms at The Kitchen Bistro

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

Memphis’ showcase suburban park Shelby Farms has had a recent upgrade that was several years in the making, and one of the really great things about it is the addition of a lakeside restaurant called The Kitchen Bistro. For a city with a large riverfront, Memphis has pathetically few places to eat on water or even with a view of water, so this new place meets that need as well as the need for a decent food in the park. On weekend mornings, the attraction is brunch, and there is hardly a table to be had. The brunch menu includes omelettes and other standard breakfast fare, as well as mimosas and coffee, and if the prices are not inexpensive, neither are they outrageous. In the sleek, modern, open, glassy environment, The Kitchen has more the feel of a California restaurant, but it is bright and cheerful, and there is outdoor seating by the lake when weather permits. Although The Kitchen is also open for dinner, so far I have only tried the breakfast. While Memphis has many great options for the morning meal, The Kitchen satisfies with food and the view as well.

The Kitchen Bistro
415 Great View Drive East, Ste. 101
Memphis, TN 38134
(901) 729-9009
http://thekitchen.com/the-kitchen-shelby-farms-park/

Cadillac Funk and Cedric Burnside At The Levitt AMP Summer Music Series in New Albany

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

The Levitt Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting live music opportunities in America, especially outdoor performances. Well-known to Memphians as the organization that helped save the Overton Park Shell, the foundation runs shells and other outdoor stages in a number of American cities, and sets up summer concert series in many more. This year, the Levitt Foundation announced a Summer Music Series in New Albany, Mississippi, taking advantage of the city’s recently renovated Park Along The River (the river in question being the Tallahatchie). On July 2, the series brought the Hill Country blues to New Albany with performances by Oxford-based Cadillac Funk, and then the Cedric Burnside Project, featuring Trenton Ayers (son of Little Joe Ayers) on guitar. A fairly large crowd showed up for the two-hours-worth of funk and blues, with dancers filling up the space in front of the stage. As is his custom, Cedric started his set out with several acoustic guitar songs before moving to the drums and inviting Trenton Ayers to join him. In its more hardcore, electric form, the Cedric Burnside Project performs a large repertoire, from originals that feature a Hill Country edge, to many of the songs made famous by Junior Kimbrough and Cedric’s grandfather, the late R. L. Burnside, such as “Firemen Ring The Bell” and “Goin’ Down South.” All too soon, the show was over, and the crowd was left asking for more.


Al Kapone & Frayser Boy Live at 901 Fest

First Annual 901 Fest / Google Photos

Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.

A Second-Line in Memphis To A Winter Wonderland

047 Memphorleans Street Symphony048 Memphorleans Street Symphony049 Memphorleans Street Symphony050 Memphorleans Street Symphony051 Memphorleans Street Symphony052 Memphorleans Street Symphony054 Memphorleans Street Symphony057 Memphorleans Street Symphony058 Donnon Johnson059 Memphorleans Street Symphony060 Memphorleans Street Symphony061 Memphorleans Street Symphony062 Winter Wonderland063 The Dantones064 Sledding in Memphis065 Sledding in Memphis066 Sledding in Memphis067 Suavo J & Otis Logan068 Winter Wonderland2026 Memphorleans Street Symphony2028 Memphorleans Street Symphony2029 Memphorleans Street Symphony2030 Donnon Johnson2032 Sledding in Memphis
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.



The Tennessee Delta III

001 Gainsville002 Gainsville003 Gainsville004 Gainsville005 Gainsville006 Gainsville007 Gus's Fried Chicken008 Gus's Fried Chicken009 Gus's Fried Chicken010 Gus's Fried Chicken011 Beech Chapel CME012 Beech Chapel CME013 Beech Chapel CME014 Trinity In The Fields015 Trinity In The Fields016 Trinity In The Fields017 Trinity In The Fields018 Trinity In The Fields019 Cotton Fields020 Stanton Masonic Lodge021 Stanton Baptist Church022 Stanton Masonic Lodge & School023 Stanton024 Stanton025 Suga's Diner026 Suga's Diner027 Suga's Diner028 Stanton029 Stanton030 Stanton031 Stanton032 Stanton033 Stanton034 Stanton035 Stanton036 Stanton037 Stanton038 Stanton039 Zodiac Park040 Zodiac Park041 Zodiac Park042 Zodiac Park043 Zodiac Park044 Zodiac Park045 Zodiac Park046 Zodiac Park047 Zodiac Park048 Zodiac Park049 Zodiac Park050 Zodiac Park051 Zodiac Park052 Zodiac Park053 Zodiac Park054 Zodiac Park055 Zodiac Park056 Zodiac Park057 Zodiac Park058 Zodiac Park
For my third photographic journey documenting the blues country of West Tennessee, I stayed mostly in Tipton and Haywood Counties, photographing the historic store in Gainsville, old churches out on the Mason-Charleston Road, and historic buildings in the Haywood County community of Stanton. Perhaps my best find though was a large private ball field out north of Mason, where a Black community baseball team called the Zodiacs once played. Such community ball parks used to be common in Black communities across the South, and were occasionally the sites of Fourth-of-July picnics where fife-and-drum bands or blues musicians played. One such ballfield used to be on Germantown Road near Ellis Road in the Oak Grove community outside of Bartlett when I was a teenager. It has now sadly been torn down.
The Zodiacs Park is in poor condition, and almost looks abandoned, but teenagers from Mason use its basketball courts on warm afternoons, and the fact that some new equipment can be seen on the premises, such as a gas barbecue grill, suggests that the complex is at least still occasionally used. Still, with the park completely empty on a late fall afternoon, it seemed a sad and lonely place indeed.

Lost Towns: In Search of Fulton and Ashport, Tennessee

1742 Mississippi River at Fort Pillow009 Pop's Place, Ashport008 Pop's Place, Ashport007 Pop's Place, Ashport006 Pop's Place, Ashport005 Pop's Place, Ashport004 Pop's Place, Ashport003 Pop's Place, Ashport002 Pop's Place, Ashport001 Pop's Place, Ashport
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.

Dinner in a Hidden, Magic Place: Chisholm Lake Store

053 Chisholm Lake054 Chisholm Lake055 Chisholm Lake056 Chisholm Lake057 Chisholm Lake058 Chisholm Lake Store059 Chisholm Lake060 Chisholm Lake061 Chisholm Lake062 Chisholm Lake063 Chisholm Lake Store064 Chisholm Lake Store065 Chisholm Lake Store1711 Chisholm Lake Store1712 Chisholm Lake Store
Chisholm Lake in Lauderdale County, Tennessee is not the kind of place you find by accident. In fact, were it not for a small sign along Highway 51 just north of Ripley, I might never have heard of it at all. But on a trip back from Dyersburg one evening, I noticed a sign for the Chisholm Lake Store Restaurant, boasting of steaks and seafood, so I had been telling myself for several years that one day I would try it, and the other evening, I finally made a deliberate trip to Ripley to do so. Once in Ripley, finding the way to get to the restaurant is not difficult, as the road is called Chisholm Lake Road, but the lake is fairly far away from the town, and it takes awhile to get there. Once you enter the state’s wildlife management area, the road narrows, and soon you see Chisholm Lake, a beautiful oxbow lake surrounded by woods that once was a channel of the Mississippi River. Here and there are isolated fishing cottages and cabins, and then at the end of the road, a small collection of cottages and one obviously commercial building surrounded by cars, the Chisholm Lake Store. Despite the name, the store is actually a restaurant and bar, with a fun, convivial spirit and sports on the flat screen TV’s. There are no menus on tables, as you actually walk up to the bar and order before getting seated. The choices are fairly limited, but steak and crab are what people come for, and the ribeye steak dinner with baked potato and a salad bar is a great deal, although keep in mind that they have no cuts of steak other than ribeyes, and they take only cash, no credit or debit cards. Because you’re literally off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, there’s also limited phone access and no internet to speak of, but it’s worth it for the good food, fun, and views of the setting sun over the lake. The Chisholm Lake Store is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It’s probably a good idea to call ahead to confirm that they are open.

Chisholm Lake Store
23 Chisholm Lake Camp Rd
Ripley, TN 38063
(731) 221-5999

Thunder on Water at Grenada Lake

001 Thunder on the Water003 Thunder on the Water004 Thunder on the Water005 Thunder on the Water006 Thunder on the Water007 Thunder on the Water008 Thunder on the Water009 Thunder on the Water010 Thunder on the Water011 Thunder on the Water012 Thunder on the Water013 Thunder on the Water015 Thunder on the Water016 Thunder on the Water017 Thunder on the Water018 Thunder on the Water019 Thunder on the Water020 Thunder on the Water021 Thunder on the Water022 Thunder on the Water023 Thunder on the Water024 Thunder on the Water026 Thunder on the Water027 Thunder on the Water028 Sherena029 Thunder on the Water030 Thunder on the Water031 Thunder on the Water032 Thunder on the Water033 Thunder on the Water034 Thunder on the Water035 Thunder on the Water036 Thunder on the Water037 Thunder on the Water038 Grenada Dam039 Grenada Lake040 Grenada Beach041 Grenada Lake042 Grenada Lake043 Grenada Dam044 Grenada Lake046 Grenada Dam047 Thunder on the Water048 Fireworks063 Fireworks064 Fireworks065 Fireworks067 Fireworks068 Fireworks089 Fireworks090 Thunder on the Water091 Thunder on the Water
I had never heard of Thunder on the Water until my friend Sherena Boyce mentioned it to me a month or so ago as a festival where blues artists were supposed to be performing. So when I saw that the festival was being held on the weekend of June 12th and 13th, I told Sherena and we decided to go to Grenada Lake. Ironically, we never found the music stage, as the Thunder on the Water event was spread out at several locations near Grenada Lake and Grenada Dam. But what we did find was an absolutely gigantic festival at Grenada Lake, with a midway as large as the Mid-South Fair, and plenty of food and fun. Up on the dam, people had chosen spots overlooking the lake to set up tents and chairs for the fireworks, which were set off over the lake at 9 PM. In addition, a large number of pleasure boats were dotted all over the lake, which is not surprising given that Thunder on the Water started as a water safety awareness event. After a brief stop by the barbecue festival, we headed to Jake & Rip’s in Grenada for a late-night dinner before heading back to Senatobia.

Honoring the Legacy of Ardent’s John Fry and John Hampton at the Levitt Shell

001 John Fry Beale Street Note Presentation002 Jody Stephens003 Jody Stephens004 Music Fans005 Music Fans006 Music Fans007 Levitt Shell008 Tora Tora009 Tora Tora010 Tora Tora011 Tora Tora012 Tora Tora013 Tora Tora014 Tora Tora015 Tora Tora016 Levitt Shell017 Levitt Shell018 Tora Tora019 Tora Tora020 Levitt Shell021 Music Fans022 Music Fans023 Tora Tora024 Gin Blossoms025 Gin Blossoms026 Gin Blossoms027 Gin Blossoms028 Gin Blossoms029 Gin Blossoms030 Gin Blossoms031 Gin Blossoms032 Gin Blossoms033 Gin Blossoms034 Gin Blossoms035 Gin Blossoms036 Gin Blossoms037 Gin Blossoms038 Gin Blossoms039 Gin Blossoms040 Gin Blossoms041 Gin Blossoms042 Gin Blossoms043 Gin Blossoms044 Gin Blossoms045 Gin Blossoms046 Gin Blossoms047 Gin Blossoms048 Gin Blossoms049 Big Star050 Big Star051 Big Star052 Big Star053 Big Star054 Big Star055 Big Star056 Big Star057 Big Star058 Big Star059 Big Star060 Big Star061 Big Star062 Big Star063 Big Star064 Big Star065 Big Star066 Big Star067 Big Star068 Big Star069 Big Star070 Big Star071 Big Star072 Big Star073 Big Star074 Big Star075 Big Star076 Big Star

Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.













Keep up with Tora Tora:
https://www.facebook.com/ToraToraBand

Keep up with the Gin Blossoms:
http://www.ginblossoms.net
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gin-Blossoms/10194655949

https://myspace.com/ginblossoms
https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/gin-blossoms/id94763

Keep up with Big Star:
https://www.facebook.com/BigStar
http://www.bigstarstory.com
http://bigstarthird.com

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/big-star/id2351764

Keep up with Ardent Studios & Records:
http://www.ardentstudios.com
https://www.facebook.com/ardentstudios

http://ardentrecords.com/


http://ardentpresents.com
https://instagram.com/ardentstudios/