My girlfriend and I had planned on going to see Cameron Kimbrough, who we thought was playing in Helena, Arkansas, but it ultimately turned out that he was playing in Warren, Arkansas instead, which is a three-hour drive. There was no chance of making it there before he went on stage, so we had dinner at the Holiday Lodge on Sardis Lake at Harmontown and then headed to the Blues Shack for the second day of the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam. Holly Springs bluesman Little Joe Ayers was on stage when we arrived, playing to a crowd that was somewhat larger than the one on Friday night. After Joe performed, then Duwayne Burnside and Kenny Brown got on stage and performed such Hill Country classics as “All Night Long” and “Meet Me in the City.” Although we were having a great time there, we ultimately cut it short because my girlfriend wanted to catch Cedric Burnside, who was playing at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, so we left out and headed down that way.
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.
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.
Since nobody seemed to know where in Mason Big Don Valentine would be performing, I sent him a text on Facebook to ask about the location. and he responded back with an address. I had assumed that the show was a public event since he had sent me the information, but when I arrived at the location, it was actually the backyard of a private house in a Fayette County community known as Fredonia. My coming to the event, called “September in Fredonia”, was rather awkward, to say the least, but I was taken to meet the woman who was putting on the event and she graciously allowed me to come and enjoy the performance. I sat at the table with Big Don Valentine and his band members, and he told me that the woman had been sponsoring these events for many years, and that she usually hired him and his band to perform. I looked around and saw that probably a couple of hundred people were present, seated at any number of tables. There was a gigantic spread of food as well, but of course I had eaten at Bozo’s only a short time before. The weather was cool, but not chilly, and when Big Don got on stage with his band to perform, the crowd got into it immediately. After a few songs, blues singer Booker Brown also came on stage, and it didn’t take long for a small crowd of dancers to appear. The party-goers were even more exuberant during the band’s second set, and a few people from the crowd, relatives of the woman who gave the party, came on stage to perform with the band. Several of them were actually decent singers, and of course were greatly encouraged by people in the audience. The group of people dancing in the grass near the field grew, and the general atmosphere was like a Tennessee version of the Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Despite my initial embarrassment and discomfort at crashing someone’s private party, I ended up having a great time.
The Southern Heritage Classic tailgating is an all-day party, and the festivities continue in full swing until sunset. Even though some people finally enter the Liberty Bowl and attend the game, many enjoy the barbecue, music and dancing at their tents until late in the evening.
During the tailgating day at the Southern Heritage Classic, the ultimate destination is the official City of Memphis party sponsored by Coors Memphis, on what is roughly the site of the old Tim McCarver Stadium. The event is technically private and invitation only, but fortunately, I have never had a problem getting inside. There’s always an appearance by Mayor A. C. Wharton, and other politicians, and a big stage with plenty of live blues and soul. This year the featured band was John Williams and the A440 Band, playing lots of great blues and soul for the crowd, and Coors had set up some really cool portable bars complete with upstairs lounges with couches and an awesome view of the entire Fairgrounds. Great food, drink, music and weather- you couldn’t ask for a better time.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
For fans of the blues in Mississippi, the summer is somewhat framed by two major events, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June, which celebrates the Hill Country blues tradition, and the Otha Turner Picnic at Gravel Springs near Senatobia, generally held in August on the weekend before Labor Day. But the latter event is all the more important because it celebrates a type of African-American music that is older than the blues, Black fife-and-drum music. Tate and Panola Counties have always been a center of the fife-and-drum style, and picnics were frequently held on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Fife master Otha Turner became famous for his pre-Labor Day picnic featuring fife and drum music and barbecued goat. Upon his death, the picnic tradition and the music tradition were continued by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who has kept the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band together and who remains an advocate for this endangered form of Black music. Under her administration, the picnic, held at the Otha Turner homestead in Gravel Springs near Senatobia, has become a two-day festival of many different artists and styles of music, including bands like Blue Mother Tupelo and the North Mississippi All-Stars, to solo artists like Dr. David Evans or Lightning Malcolm. There’s plenty of good fun and good food, and several processions of the fife and drum band across the grounds each evening. As the night progresses, the dancers become more exuberant, getting low to the ground and shaking in time with the beat of the bass drum, and the scene is reminiscent of other similar processions in African cultures, including New Orleans second-lines, and Haitian raras in Miami. On this year’s first night, there was also a brilliant full moon which threw a strange light on the proceedings. As in previous years, the festival inside the gates lead to another festival outside the gates, in which young people from the rural community parked and gathered along O. B. McClinton Road, listening to music and hanging out.
Although the Friday night shows had been harassed by storms, no such problem occurred on the Saturday of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. In fact the day was a bright sunny blue one, with fairly cool temperatures compared to what we had been having, and it was the perfect setting for a full day of Hill Country blues. The gates had opened with R. L. Boyce at 10:30 in the morning, but by the time I arrived, Joseph Burnside was on stage, with Duwayne and Garry Burnside backing him up. He was followed by Bill Abel, then Cary Hudson of the band Blue Mountain, and finally Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from the Gravel Springs community near Senatobia, one of the last Black fife and drum bands in America. Garry Burnside and his band went up on stage after that, and then I left to go to dinner at Lamar Lounge in Oxford. In addition to the live performances, there were lots of arts, crafts and clothing for sale at various tents up on the hill, and a raffle, which was being held to raise money for a gravestone for the late bluesman Robert Belfour. And the whole day’s proceedings were broadcast live by New Orleans’ superb radio station WWOZ.