The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.
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.
Como, Mississippi is an historic town in far north Panola County, Mississippi on the edge of the Hill Country. Because it sits near the border between the Delta and the hills, Como has some of the ambiance of both regions, and has long been a center of blues and Black fife-and-drum music. Legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce calls it home, and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell chose it after he moved to Mississippi from West Tennessee. What was once a faded, dying town when I first saw it as a boy has had some renewal since the opening of Como Steak House some years ago, and now each year, the history and traditions of this unique Mississippi town are celebrated in October at an event called Como Day. This year’s event featured plenty of good food and vendors, classic cars and motorcycles, and several different genres of music, including performances by the Southern Soul Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and southern soul artist J-Wonn. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the screening of Shake “Em On Down, a documentary about Mississippi Fred McDowell, arguably Como’s most famous resident. Through music clips and interviews, the story of this most important Mississippi bluesman was vividly and skillfully portrayed. Altogether, hundreds of people enjoyed a full day of fun in Como.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
Saturday is generally the biggest day of the Otha Turner Picnic each year, and this year was no exception, with a bigger crowd inside the gates, and a much bigger crowd at the informal block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as well. Although the police were stopping all cars coming and going on Highway 310 near the picnic, I was eventually able to make it to the grounds, arriving just before R. L. Boyce went on stage. Several other acts performed, including a decent blues/rock band called Mississippi Shakedown, with whom I was not familiar at all. But as always, Sharde Thomas and her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band were the stars of the show, marching through the crowd motivating a number of dancers, and even playing across the fence to the young people at the block party along the road. All too soon, the picnic came to an end for another year, but the block party was still in full swing along the road outside.
Black fife-and-drum music is endangered, and everybody knows it. But there may be more of it in remote rural areas than was thought just a few years ago. I had not heard of the Hurt Family and their fife-and-drum picnics near Sardis, Mississippi until I read something about them at a superb blog called 50 Miles of Elbow Room. While they have had a Fourth-of-July picnic in the past, nowadays they are focused on growing their two-day Labor Day Picnic, which they have at a small picnic grounds constructed on a knoll in the Mount Level community, west of Sardis. The spot is not particularly easy to find. One has to start in Sardis, ride west on Highway 310 to the Mount Level Road, then take a right on the Mount Level Road up to Burdett Road. There on the corner is a small space with a bar/food preparation area, and some outdoor wooden picnic tables and benches. Unlike the better-known Otha Turner Picnic, the Hurt Family Picnic is a smaller, more intimate and low-key affair. There is no admission charge at the door, and in the early afternoon, even the food and drink are free (they begin charging for them later). There also are no tourists or out-of-town blues fans here, mostly members of the Hurt family and their friends and neighbors from the area. When I arrived this year, the Greg Ayers Band from Senatobia was on the outdoor stage performing. But when they took a break, Larry and Calvin Hurt came out with the snare and bass drum, beating a powerful cadence as they paraded around the grounds. Someone near me said that the fife player had not been able to come on Saturday (he had apparently been there the night before), but that there were quite a few people present who knew how to “beat the drums”. As the day progressed into evening, there were several cycles of DJ music, the live blues band, and the drums, producing more and more enthusiasm from the dancers. Although I was the only “outsider” present, I was welcomed warmly, and told that the family picnics had once been huge affairs and that the goal was to grow them again and to recover that tradition. Certainly, I enjoyed the opportunity to encounter the fife-and-drum music tradition in what must be its authentic setting. It was truly a rewarding experience indeed, and proof that there may be far more fife and drum picnics surviving than those we know about.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.