Sometime before New Year’s Eve, a lady friend had shared a link with me on social media about a young musician named Akeem Kemp who was performing in Conway, Arkansas on January 13. I had not heard any music of this young man, although the name seemed vaguely familiar, as if I had heard somebody mention him in the past. At any rate, I googled him, and soon found that he would playing a little closer to home (and sooner) at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock on January 6, so we made plans to go.
The weather proved to be cold and quite wet, but we encountered a large crowd at the White Water, which is the best venue in Arkansas to enjoy live blues, as Akeem Kemp is from right up the road in Morrilton, Arkansas, and thus is considered a hometown hero. At only 20 years of age, and sporting dreadlocks, Kemp might look like a rap artist to those who didn’t know better, but his youthfulness belies a serious mastery of the electric guitar, and an uncanny ability to handle the kind of deep, soulful blues that other young artists avoid, tunes such as “As The Years Go Passing By” or “The Sky Is Crying.” Of course, like any young star of the guitar, Kemp knows his Hendrix, Prince, and even a bit of R & B/Southern soul, as in his hit original “Are You Doubting My Love.” But Akeem Kemp has internalized the language of the blues, and his decision to embrace the genre is thrilling, because only as young musicians become involved in blues will we succeed in preserving this endangered art-form. The future of the music is truly riding on his shoulders.
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.”
Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
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.
The Levitt Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting live music opportunities in America, especially outdoor performances. Well-known to Memphians as the organization that helped save the Overton Park Shell, the foundation runs shells and other outdoor stages in a number of American cities, and sets up summer concert series in many more. This year, the Levitt Foundation announced a Summer Music Series in New Albany, Mississippi, taking advantage of the city’s recently renovated Park Along The River (the river in question being the Tallahatchie). On July 2, the series brought the Hill Country blues to New Albany with performances by Oxford-based Cadillac Funk, and then the Cedric Burnside Project, featuring Trenton Ayers (son of Little Joe Ayers) on guitar. A fairly large crowd showed up for the two-hours-worth of funk and blues, with dancers filling up the space in front of the stage. As is his custom, Cedric started his set out with several acoustic guitar songs before moving to the drums and inviting Trenton Ayers to join him. In its more hardcore, electric form, the Cedric Burnside Project performs a large repertoire, from originals that feature a Hill Country edge, to many of the songs made famous by Junior Kimbrough and Cedric’s grandfather, the late R. L. Burnside, such as “Firemen Ring The Bell” and “Goin’ Down South.” All too soon, the show was over, and the crowd was left asking for more.
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
Memphis has almsot no Caribbean expatriate community at all, and as a result, little Caribbean music either. What Jamaican music comes through the city is largely due to the efforts of one band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, who not only perform and promote their own music around Memphis, but who also arrange for out of town ska and reggae bands to come to the city and perform, such as Nashville’s Roots Of A Rebellion, who opened up for them at the Hi-Tone in Midtown in early June. CCDE has developed something of a cult following in the Memphis area, and their authentic approach to dub and reggae is refreshing in an era where computerized digital styles are all the rage.