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.
It was a rainy Monday night, and a work night at that, and I was tired and not feeling like doing much of anything. But my friend texted me and said that her dad, R. L. Boyce, had been asked to play a yard party in Taylor, Mississippi with Luther Dickinson, and that we needed to take him there. So we picked R. L. up in Como and made our way through some pretty significant storms to Oxford, and then out along the Old Taylor Road heading to Taylor. The site for the porch party happened to be a beautiful, rambling old house belonging to Jane Rule Burdine, a photographer originally from the Delta who was also a former mayor of Taylor. The house was full of books, about every conceivable Southern subject. There were many books about Mississippi, and many books about William Faulkner, who of course is something of a big deal to Lafayette Countians. Although the reason for the occasion was never stated, the party featured a number of musicians, writers and film makers, including blues/indie musicians Lightnin Malcolm and Luther Dickinson, and Birdman Records owner David Katznelson. Although rain precluded any kind of playing on the front porch, the house also had a back porch which was fully enclosed, and there Lightnin Malcolm, Luther Dickinson and R. L. Boyce set up to begin playing. The small crowd gathered on the back porch to hear a couple of hours of the best Hill Country blues, while thunder and lightning raged outside. My cousin Al Morse, who lives in Taylor came over to hear the musicians, and to my great surprise, my other cousin Reilly Morse, her dad, also showed up, as he had been visiting in Oxford and Taylor. One of R.L.’s friends had come from Como to join us, and the party showed no signs of winding down at midnight, so my friend and I decided to leave and go home, since both of us had to be at work early the next day. All the same, it was a whole lot of fun on a Monday evening.
Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce used to be famous for his yard parties, but in recent years he had stopped doing them after some health issues. So when his daughter Sherena informed me that he was having a yard party with live musicians on a Wednesday evening, I made arrangements to get off early from work and head to Como.
The weather was sunny when I arrived at R. L.’s house just across the railroad tracks from Como’s restored downtown area. A cool breeze was blowing, and only a few people had gathered, although the event was supposed to begin at 4 PM. Boyce, Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, and Lightnin Malcolm were on the front porch setting up their equipment, and the drummer Steve Toney was setting up his drums in the yard because there was no room for them on the porch.
When the music got under way, the atmosphere became magical, with Malcolm, Carlos and R.L. playing Hill Country blues in the kind of setting it was intended for, an outdoor house party. One of the out-of-town guests sent someone to purchase hotdogs and charcoal, and fired up Boyce’s grill, cooking hotdogs for the guests and musicians, some of whom were in Mississippi for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which was to be held on the weekend. Soon the crowd in R.L.’s front yard grew larger, with young and old, local and out-of-town folks. A few kids were playing under the trees. As the evening continued, some folks began to dance, and cars slowed down as they drove past the house, trying to see what was going on. After a number of songs from R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, there was a guest appearance from the hot new female blues singer Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones from Potts Camp, and she performed a couple of her original songs with the band. Eventually, around 8 PM, the sun went down, and with no real lighting in R.L.’s yard, things had to come to a halt. Only a handful of people remained at that point, and Sherena Boyce and I decided to head uptown to Windy City Grill for a late dinner, but we could hear R.L. still playing guitar as he sat on his porch in the dark. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.
Helena, Arkansas is a town that the years have been cruel to. As Arkansas’ only Mississippi River port in the modern era, it should have been a successful city, and was once home to large industries such as Chicago Mill and Lumber and Mohawk Tire. But industries began to leave in the 1970’s, and the population of Helena and its neighbor to the west, West Helena both declined precipitously. By the time the two cities merged, they barely had 10,000 people together, and the community largely looked desolate. Crime and blight were the rule rather than the exception, and Helena’s large downtown was mostly vacant. A casino across the river in Mississippi did not halt the slide, nor did Clarksdale’s tourist renaissance that followed the opening of Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But for one week each October, Helena becomes the most important city in the world for blues, as the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes over the downtown area near the river. The crowds that pour into the city come from all over the world, and the festival tends to bring attention to neighborhoods that are usually forgotten. As official parking fills up, blues fans head further south, into a old and struggling neighborhood called Beautiful Zion. Like so many African-American neighborhoods in the Delta regions along the Mississippi River, this community takes its name from a church in the area, and the church has been actively involved in efforts to rehabilitate the community, which sits in the shadow of an old cotton compress. On the Friday night of King Biscuit week, the community was in a festive mood, with a lot of people outdoors in the warm weather, and members of the church out selling food plates to festival goers. A woman called my attention to the church’s After School Program in a neighborhood building, and asked me to take a picture of it, which I did. But a block to the north, along Missouri Street, was a string of abandoned buildings that seemed to have once contained night clubs and/or restaurants. Some of the buildings had roofs that were caving in, and I was amazed at the extent of the devastation and lack of preservation effort. Despite a long history of blues music in Helena, the city has just not seen the kind of renewal that is occurring in Clarksdale, Mississippi, some 30 miles to the southeast.
Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best guitar players in the country, and in September each year, he sponsors the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam at the Blues Shack, which is out in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 310 and Old Oxford Road near Waterford, Mississippi. Don’t be expecting a big formal festival like the Hill Country Picnic. Instead, you pay your $10 entry fee at a gate on a gravel driveway and come to a small wooden stage in front of a mobile home. The pleasant smell of barbecue smoke from an oil drum drifts through the air, and a small crowd is mesmerized by such musicians as Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Garry Burnside and Little Joe Ayers, in a more intimate setting where the line between performers and fans is non-existent. Duwayne might come down off the stage for a break and sit at your picnic table, or he might be behind the food stand pouring beers or fixing food plates. With plenty of children running around and having fun, it feels more like being invited to a house party than a festival. And that is an experience not to be missed.