The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
It was my first Mardi Gras morning in New Orleans ever, but it was hardly the stuff of dreams. It was grey, dreary and overcast, a chilly 34 degrees with a wind-chill, and the announcer on the television was warning of the possibility of icing on bridges and overpasses north of the lake. TBC Brass Band was not marching with the Zulus this year, but rather with an organization called the Jefferson City Buzzards who were gathering at Audubon Park at 7:30 in the morning, so there was no time for breakfast or even coffee. The Jefferson City Buzzards, founded in 1890, are what is known as a “walking club” rather than a “krewe”. While they technically stage a parade, these clubs have few floats, if any (the Buzzards had one), and generally have only one band, often a brass band, to provide the cheer and motivation for the paraders. In style, these predominantly-white clubs seriously resemble the Black social aid and pleasure clubs. Their parading routes often follow backstreets, particularly in the early part of the day, and the route is set up to stop by particular people’s houses so they can be greeted, to stop by neighborhood bars, or to interact with other walking clubs.
This particular organization takes its name from a lost and nearly forgotten town, the City of Jefferson, Louisiana, that once existed in the 1850’s, when the area now known as Uptown New Orleans had been part of Jefferson Parish. As the railroad that would later become the famous St. Charles streetcar was being built, towns and villages sprung up along it, and besides the City of Jefferson, there was the Village of Lafayette and the Village of Carrollton. All of these eventually became neighborhoods of New Orleans, and the lost city of Jefferson is commemorated only in the name of the Jefferson City Buzzards, who were founded in 1890, when doubtless there were still people living who could remember when Jefferson was a town. The oldest Black social aid and pleasure club, the Young Men Olympian, was founded five years earlier, in 1885. The similar parading styles of the two clubs, and the fact that the first predominantly white jazz and spasm bands appeared in the same era raise interesting questions about the degree to which Blacks and whites were influencing each other in late 19th Century New Orleans.
The weather was cold enough when we started, but after a few blocks of parading, we began to warm up to a certain extent. Several band members caught up with us after the first few blocks, and we stopped in front of several houses to greet people, perhaps elderly members of the Buzzards, or perhaps spouses and significant others. All of this seemed perfectly familiar to me from my experience with second-lines, the only real difference being that second-lines don’t happen on Mardi Gras Day. Soon we stopped at the Buzzards’ headquarters, where we were met and saluted by another walking carnival club called the Lyons, who had hired their own brass band for their Mardi Gras morning as well. Also very much like second-lines were the occasional stops at neighborhood bars, although these were briefer. One of these, at a bar called 45 Tchoup on Tchoupitoulas Street, was to salute a female walking club called the Pussyfooters. As we headed up Napoleon onto St. Charles Avenue, we began to encounter large crowds. The Buzzards were falling in directly behind the Zulus, and in front of the Krewe of Rex. On the opposite side of the Crescent City Connection bridge, the sun finally came out, producing a spontaneous cheer from paraders and spectators alike, but when we approached Canal Street, everything came to a halt, due to a float in the Zulu parade that broke down. While standing in the street not marching, we began to get very cold indeed, but somehow they got things moving again, and we swung around onto Canal Street, which was flanked with massive crowds on both sides. Getting back to Audubon Park after the parade proved to be more difficult than anticipated. We were supposed to have ridden the one float back, but the float operator said he was heading back to Mardi Gras World, not Audubon Park, and that he could not take us. So those of us who had come with TBC Brass Band had to squeeze onto the school bus that had come for the Buzzards, and there really wasn’t room, but somehow most of us made it back.At one point the bus had to stop because a street Uptown was blocked by a spontaneous group of Indians,paraders and a brass band. My homeboy Darren had not been feeling well all day, and decided to stay near Canal Street and call his wife to come get him. And TBC had been scheduled to play a gig on Bourbon Street at 10:30, but with all the delays involved with the Buzzards parade, it was after 1 PM, and way too late for that gig. Once I got back to my car, my agenda was to start about the task of finding something to eat, which I knew would not be easy on Mardi Gras Day.
Last year, the Lady Jetsetters second-line had started in the new apartments that replaced the Calliope projects, but this year the starting point was a placed called Ed’s Bar in a neighborhood to the north called Zion City, caught in a triangle between Washington Avenue, Earhart Boulevard and South Broad Street. I had never heard of Zion City, but as I walked its streets toward the parade’s starting point, I was amazed at how isolated and rural it looked. A lot of houses and buildings were abandoned, and clearly this area had not come back much since the hurricane. But some of the houses were occupied, there were a few churches, and a bicycle repair shop for the neighborhood kids, and a tiny bar tucked between two houses where vendors and second-liners had gathered. Soon some musicians began to appear as well, members of the Stooges Brass Band who had been engaged for the day’s events. The weather was warm and pleasant, and as we headed out Washington Avenue, we were already a large group. Like all second-lines, the crowd grew bigger as we proceeded, and the dancers became more exuberant, with young men jumping up on roofs and slamming street signs as we came to intersections. Toward the end of the afternoon, the Stooges began playing a number of crowd favorites, including Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby” and Mel Waiters’ “Got My Whiskey”. Although the parade disbanded at the Foxx II on Washington Avenue, it wasn’t all that far away from where we began, and it was easy enough to walk it.
My first stop was at the jazz showcase of Cutting Edge NOLA, which was going on at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club on North Claiborne Avenue, a neighborhood venue that also serves as headquarters for the social aid and pleasure club known as the Black Men of Labor, whose logo is prominently displayed on the premises. Though not as well known as the city’s other jazz club, Snug Harbor, Sweet Lorraine’s proved to be a beautiful and spacious club for live music, with a large stage and a beautiful grand piano. The band that was performing was that of Jairus Daigle from Lake Charles, a young jazz violinist with two albums under his belt already who is about to head to the Berklee School of Music in Boston this fall. Many of his band members are family members, as the Daigle family name is well-known in Lake Charles for jazz, soul and funk. Although the jazz style Jairus performed was fusion and contemporary jazz rather than traditional, straight ahead jazz, I was still very impressed by the young man’s facile mastery of the violin.
This year’s Satchmo SummerFest second-line was supposed to start at 12:30, but it didn’t, because the preceding jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church ran long. While we were waiting in the hot sun, members of the TBC Brass Band and the Baby Boys Brass Bands showed up, a number of members of the Zulus and the Sudan Social Aid & Pleasure Club showed up, as well as the Baby Dolls, a group of women and young girls dressed in distinctive costumes who usually appear early on Mardi Gras morning, and the chief and members of the Fi Ya Ya Warriors, a Black Indian tribe based out of the nearby Backstreet Cultural Museum. There were also vendors selling T-shirts and umbrellas, and a lot of tourists waiting for the parade to get under way.
#342 Stooges Brass Band Why They Have To Kill Him @ Men of Class 2012 (by John Shaw)
The Stooges Brass Band play their tribute song to Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams as the Men of Class second-line comes down the Broad Street Bridge toward the Yacht Club. Williams was a Hot 8 Brass Band member who was shot to death by New Orleans police in 2004, 10/21/12