Each October, the City of Como, Mississippi sponsors a large, daylong festival and picnic called Como Day, featuring vendors, food trucks, custom cars and excellent live music. Como Day is one of a number of “town days” that are held in predominantly-Black Mississippi towns. These are held throughout the year, generally bear the name of the town, feature live music, and often become an excuse for those who moved away to return home for a day or a weekend. Although most small towns have some sort of festival, these town days are unique, functioning almost like a homecoming for these communities, many of which no longer have high schools due to consolidations, and which have lost many residents to bigger cities. Como’s massive day is one of the largest, and also serves as something of an annual end to the blues festival season, as the last big blues event of the year. Uniquely situated at the place where the Hill Country meets the Delta, Como has a long blues tradition, and its local gospel, blues, soul and funk are highlighted at Como Day each year.
This year’s Como Day featured a crowd of well over a thousand people, coming out to enjoy barbecue, live gospel music, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, the Duwayne Burnside Band featuring Garry Burnside and J. J. Wilburn, Deandre Walker and his band, and the headliner Terry Wright from Memphis, whose single “I Done Lost My Good Thing” has been popular in the Mid-South for more than a year. I was particularly impressed by Deandre Walker, a former gospel singer, who delivered a very soulful reading of a country song “Tennessee Whiskey”, which he then blended seamlessly into Etta James’ timeless “I Would Rather Go Blind.” Such epiphanies are the rule rather than the exception at Como Days, as are the elderly townspeople who suddenly feel young enough again to get low to the ground as the bands or the drummers are playing. Perhaps the whole day was best summed up by the slogan on the back of many of the T-shirts: “Together We Stand.”
After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.
Como, Mississippi is a town that sits on the border between the Mississippi Delta and a region known as the Hill Country. The styles of blues from each region are distinct, but elements of them meet in this historic location, famous for both guitar blues,Black fife and drum band music, and gospel singers and musicians. All of these influences shaped the young R. L. Boyce, who began playing drums for his uncle Othar Turner’s fife and drum band in the late 1960’s. Boyce turned 62 this year, and to celebrate his birthday, his daughter organized a large picnic in Como Park featuring barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and a line-up of the best regional blues musicians. The evening’s festivities kicked off with an incredible gospel singer and guitarist named Slick Ballenger, who was mentored by both Othar Turner and R. L. Boyce, and as Boyce was a long-time drummer in fife and drum bands, it was appropriate that there were two fife and drum bands at the picnic, the Hurt Family from Sardis, Mississippi and Sharde Thomas’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. It was possibly the first time the Hurt Family had performed in a place other than their own family picnics near Sardis, and eventually Willie Hurt was playing the fife with Sharde’s band as well. As the evening progressed, Kody Harrell, R. L. Boyce, Duwayne Burnside, Dre Walker, Greg Ayers and Robert Kimbrough all performed on stage until things came to a halt about 11 PM. The first annual R. L. Boyce Picnic drew a crowd of about 600 people, and gave Como something it has not had in many years, a true blues festival.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.