Last year marked the first time we had organized a large outdoor birthday party for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, and that first picnic, with limited promotion and budget, attracted an amazing crowd of 500 people. This year, with the involvement of Amy Verdon of Fancy Magazine and Go Ape Records, we were able to plan the event on a slightly bigger level, and despite the threat of rain all around, we enjoyed great weather and a larger attendance.
The event, held on Friday August 17 to avoid conflict with the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic which was being held on Saturday, began with an exhibit opening of photography by Como artist Yancey Allison, who has been documenting the Hill Country blues for many years. Live music began in nearby Como Park at 6 PM, with the performers being documented this year by the Memphis-based Beale Street Caravan radio show. A crowd of around 600 braved the threat of rain to enjoy fife and drum bands like The Hurt Family and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and blues and soul artists such as Andrea Staten, Kody Harrell, Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones, Cameron Kimbrough, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, Willy and the Planks, Dee Walker and Duwayne Burnside. Several times, the guest of honor, R. L. Boyce made his way to the stage to perform, and on one of those occasions the crowd joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
In addition to the five hours of some of the best Hill Country blues and soul, attendees also enjoyed free hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked sausages until they were gone.
It appears that the R. L. Boyce Picnic will be a major event in Como, Mississippi for many years to come.
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.
The Frontline has discussed the legacy of Black fife and drum music at length in the past, but I continue to devote a considerable amount of space to it here because it is an ancient musical tradition that is clearly endangered and threatened. As far as we know, it exists only amongst two families, the Turner family in Tate County, Mississippi and the Hurt family in Panola County, Mississippi. But this year’s Hurt Family Picnic west of Sardis gave me reason for hope, because there I encountered young Hurt family members who were learning the snare drum, bass drum and the fife. Nothing will preserve the culture better than young people getting an interest in it and getting involved. Although the weather was hot, the musicians played for the better part of the day, and toward the evening, there were a number of dancers, too. They were also joined by a guest, Kesha Burton, who recently completed the Tennessee Folklife Arts Apprenticeship with Willie Hurt and R. L. Boyce, and who is accomplished on the snare drum, bass drum and fife.
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.
Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.
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 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.
After a full day at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival in downtown Memphis, we headed down into Mississippi for the Hurt Family Picnic in the Burdett Hill community west of Sardis, one of two annual events that highlight Black fife and drum music, a pre-blues form of music that is highly endangered in the United States, really found only among two families in two Mississippi counties that we know of. The Hurt Family really does two picnics, one at the Fourth of July, and the other at Labor Day, and it is the second one that draws the largest crowds. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the picnic had been going on for some time. Willie Hurt got the drummers together for one final performance, and then the evening was given over to a DJ, and a band from Memphis called the ATF Band, led by Anthony Turner. Although I was there more for the fife and drum music, ATF proved to be a decent band, and a number of people filled the dance floor as they played a lot of soul and blues covers. While the Hurt Family Picnic is a more close-knit and intimate affair than the large Otha Turner Goat Picnic in nearby Tate County, the Hurts welcome visiting fans of the blues and related musics.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic was much more crowded than the first, as crowds came out to hear such artists as R. L. Boyce, Kody Harrell, the French blues band Pin’s Downhome Blues, led by Pascal Pinede, and Robert Kimbrough Sr. In addition, of course, there were frequent performances by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, occasionally joined by fife played Willie Hurt from the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band near Sardis. This year’s picnic was free, and some had thought that this fact might cut down on the degree of informal partying along O. B. McClinton Road, but if anything, this year’s Gravel Springs Block Party was bigger than the last. Unfortunately, at about 11 PM, the police moved in to shut down the block party along the road. While enjoying breakfast at the Huddle House in Senatobia afterwards, I overheard that the reason for the police break-up of the block party had been a shoot-out that had occurred at LP’s Ball Field on Hunters Chapel Road between Como and Senatobia. Still, the trouble stayed far away from the annual picnic.