Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.
Joyce She-Wolf Jones is the mother of up-and-coming blues guitarist and drummer Cameron Kimbrough, but she is also a talented vocalist and song-writer in her own right, and each August, she puts on a traditional Hill Country blues picnic in the front yard of her home near Bethlehem, Mississippi, a wide spot in the road south of the Marshall County town of Potts Camp.
August is typically a hot month, and there had been strong thunderstorms at Holly Springs when I came through, but the weather was quite pleasant when I arrive at Joyce’s modest home along the rural highway. The smell of barbecue was in the air, and former Soul Blues Boy Little Joe Ayers was on stage. Everybody was having a good time, despite the ominous flashes of lightning to the north. Joe soon launched into a skillful version of Willie Cobbs’ classic “You Don’t Love Me,” a standard blues that doesn’t get heard all that often in the Hill Country. The crowd was loving it.
As the night progressed, we got to hear Cameron on drums, Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside and R. L. Boyce, as well as Cam’s cousin Kelly Payson on vocals, and of course, our hostess Joyce She-Wolf Jones herself, who sang a couple of her original songs.
With good food, plenty to drink, great music, and the rain staying away, it was a perfect evening in Mississippi’s Hill Country.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
In my ongoing research on West Tennessee fife and drum music, I have focused a great deal on Fayette County, largely because of its demographics and similar features to Marshall County, Mississippi, its neighbor to the south, famous for Hill Country blues. Fife and drum bands are known to have existed in Fayette as late as 1980. Of course, I haven’t ever found any existing fife and drum bands in the county today, and wasn’t expecting to see any as I drove around Fayette County on Easter Sunday afternoon. But I did stumble on a number of old and historic schools, some of them on land that clearly had been donated by churches, which helps to further my theory that the churches were the first institutions of African-Americans during the early days of freedom and Reconstruction. It appears that the churches donated the land for schools to be build beside them, and then the burial societies and fraternal organizations were founded by church members and often met in the church buildings. Once I discovered that Google Maps was showing the location of many former schools in the county, I spent the warm, sunny afternoon driving around to many of them. Some of them were gone without a trace, but it was shocking how many times the location shown by the map was the location of a church. A couple, such as Braden-Sinai and Seymour Schools, have been converted into residences where people are living. Others like Glade Springs School, on the grounds of Pulliam Chapel MB Church, are abandoned and ruined, while at the site of the old Garrett School, nothing remained but the twisted superstructure of a swingset and piles of bricks. A couple of the school sites were in the backyards of private houses, making it impossible for me to visit them. But I did stumble onto another cool find, the Joyner’s Campground, a 125-year-old site near a creek where an old-fashioned camp meeting revival is held every summer. Although the roots of the event seem to be Methodist, all believers are welcome, and the site seems very beautiful and inviting, with plenty of woods and water. Although I saw much in the way of architecture and nature, what I saw very little of was people, which I considered strange compared to previous Easters when I had driven down into the Delta and seen people out in every little town, dressed in their Sunday best to see and be seen. Only the Gilliam place at Fredonia showed signs of a large party or get together, complete with a DJ, but it was clearly a private affair, for the family only, and anyway, no fifes or drums in sight. To end the day, I made my way to the Shelby County town of Eads, which nowadays is part of the city of Memphis, yet seems to have more in common with Fayette County in appearance and atmosphere. I took my last pictures there as the sun was fading. While my primary focus is ethnomusicology, I also think it is important to get photographs of the old Fayette County which is threatened by the onset of suburban tract subdivisions and regional shopping centers. One day, not long from now, Fayette County will look no different than Bartlett or Collierville.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.
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.
Benton County, Mississippi is due east of Marshall County, and was once a part of it, having been carved out of it and Tippah County by the state legislature during Reconstruction. Demographically similar to the county it was taken out of, Benton is a part of the Mississippi Hill Country, although sparsely populated and somewhat poorer than the other Hill Country counties. Although many great musicians came from Benton County, including Willie Mitchell, Syl Johnson, Joe Ayers and Nathan Beauregard, there has never been a live music scene in the county, mainly for the simple fact that Benton has always been a dry county, and remains so today. Such music as there has been has usually been held at private events such as picnics and yard parties.
However, over the last month or so, Robert Kimbrough, one of the sons of blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has been holding yard parties/jam sessions at his house just outside the Benton County seat of Ashland. The somewhat remote location is an opportunity to hear the music in a setting more like where it originated, in an era where “clubs” or even “juke joints” were still unknown. The atmosphere in the yard is easy going, with musicians taking turns going on stage and then coming off to enjoy food and drink. Musicians like J. J. Wilburn, G-Cutta, Little Joe Ayers and even Robert’s brother David Kimbrough occasionally come through and sit in. Fans bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn while the musicians play under the carport roof. It’s all a rather informal affair. However, the weekend schedule for these events is somewhat erratic, as it depends on Robert’s touring schedule, so if you want to attend, follow Robert on Facebook here so that you know when and where his events are occurring. (I won’t put his address here publicly, although he occasionally does put it on Facebook. Follow him for details on where and when to go).
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.
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.
After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.