After leaving Alligator, we ended up heading down to Drew, and taking Highway 49W through Ruleville, Doddsville and Sunflower into Indianola, to one of my very favorite restaurants in the world, The Blue Biscuit. The Biscuit is owned by renowned chef Trish Berry, who had been the executive chef at Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s ill-fated Madidi Restaurant in Clarksdale. While Madidi was expensive fine-dining, the Blue Biscuit is something altogether different, sort of a cross between a diner and a juke joint. While the restaurant menu is diverse and varied, in my opinion, the pulled-pork barbecue is the star of the show. A few years ago, it was possible to order something called “Biscuits and Barbecue”, which was exactly that, four freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits that were halved, with pulled pork placed between the halves. This was literally one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, we noticed on this visit that the menu has changed, and that biscuits and barbecue is no longer available, but the pulled pork is still on the menu, and just as good as I remember it from previous visits.
An added treat on this visit was live music from a Cleveland, Mississippi band called Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, whose repertoire consists of blues, soul and funk. Somehow, I had not encountered them before, but they are an accomplished and versatile band, and they kept the crowd mesmerized all evening. This was my first time seeing a live music gig at the Blue Biscuit, and I found the location and atmosphere perfectly suited to the music, and everything quite enjoyable.
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.
Although this year’s Blues In The Alley line-up of performers was largely disappointing, to say the least, the weekly summer concert series in Holly Springs ended on a high note last Thursday night with Memphis southern soul artist Gerod Rayborn, who is also president of the Beale Street Corvette Club. Needless to say, many of his club members came to the square in Holly Springs with their beautiful cars, and a significantly larger crowd showed up than what I had seen on previous weeks. The crowd was also more exuberant, with a lot more dancing and jooking, and it almost seemed like the vibe from previous years of the event. After a brief intermission, then another blues band from Memphis took the stage, Fuzzy Jeffries and the Kings of Memphis, and the crowd partied long past the usual ending time of 10 PM. Here’s hoping that the event organizers will book more of these kind of artists next year.
Although Clarksdale is in the Delta, visitors to the Juke Joint Fest love some Hill Country blues as well, and the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band is popular with the fans. Robert is one of the sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, who together with R. L. Burnside helped define the style known as Hill Country blues. Besides annual appearances at Juke Joint Fest, Robert Kimbrough performs frequently in and around Holly Springs in Marshall County.
The tiny town of Bentonia, Mississippi has more than its fair share of blues musicians, and one of them is Roosevelt Roberts Jr, a man popular across the Delta for his unique blend of modern blues and southern soul. This year at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, he wowed the crowd with a medley of hit songs by the late Tyrone Davis.
Every April, the Juke Joint Festival takes over Clarksdale, Mississippi, bringing blues fans from all over the world to the small city in the Mississippi Delta, but this year, on the Wednesday before the festival, Memphians were given a taste of the festival in advance, with performances of Garry Burnside, Carlos Elliot Jr. and Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce at the new Tin Roof Memphis in the former Hard Rock Cafe spot on Beale at Rufus Thomas Street. The Tin Roof has pursued an adventurous and better-than-average booking policy since its opening, with heavy blues leanings, and the decision to book two Hill Country blues legends with arguably the best South American bluesman was an inspired one. One of the high points for me was hearing Carlos Elliot’s southern-soulish “Got This Feelin” for the first time. Although the venue’s ambiance was more that of a nightclub than a juke joint, the dance floor was occasionally crowded with jukers, and a good time was had by all.
Como, Mississippi, a little town in the northern extremity of Panola County is historically a center of the Hill Country of Mississippi. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Como, as was Napoleon Strickland, and the Rev. John Wilkins’ church is in Como. Hill Country blues legend R. L. Boyce lives there. More recently, the town has won fame for a couple of great restaurants, and the gospel group The Como Mamas. But strangely, in the modern era there has been no place to hear the blues on a regular basis in Como. That changed early this year when a new juke joint opened called Li’l Poyun’s Place, or the JIC Pool Hall. With Mississippi’s juke scene so endangered, the opening of any new juke joint is to be welcomed, and Poyun’s is first-rate on the weekends when it features live music. On a recent weekend in April, the featured act was the Anthony Turner Band from Memphis, a band with more southern soul tendencies. But the guest artist was Como’s own R. L. Boyce, who played a brief set of classic Hill Country blues, and the dance floor was packed. Poyun’s is an authentic juke, and certainly not for the faint of heart. On certain Saturdays, the place is packed from wall to wall. The surroundings are anything but fancy, and the atmosphere, if electric, can be tense at times, with the occasional fight breaking out once in awhile. But it is an authentic blues experience in one of the blues’ most holy spots.
JIC Pool Hall AKA Li’l Po-Yun’s Place
West Side of Highway 51 near Compress Rd
(Hours can be erratic…may not always have live bands even when open)
Dr. Alfred Brown’s club called The Plexx in an old decrepit shopping center on E. H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis is one of the few places in the city where authentic old-school live blues and soul can be heard, but on the Friday night before Halloween, things took a slightly different turn, as veteran blues singer Jewel Jones was backed by the 4 Soul Band, consisting of some of Memphis’ best young musicians, including Lloyd Anderson on bass and drummer Otis Logan. While it’s common to think of there being something of a musical divide between young and old, the consummate talents of these young musicians enabled them to fit in perfectly with the older blues and soul offerings of Ms. Jones. Veteran Memphis drummer Willie Hall was in the crowd as well, and it was a great night of Memphis music off the beaten path and away from the tourist crowd
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.
Keep up with Big Don Valentine and the All-Stars:
On a weekday afternoon, I had driven up to Mason, Tennessee after work to eat at Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, and had noticed signs around the little town announcing a “Unity Fall Fest” on September 19.
I remembered years ago in the early 1990’s driving out to Mason with a couple of friends and having a lot of fun at a large festival in the town’s square along the railroad tracks and Front Street, a neighborhood of cafes traditionally called “The Lower End.” That day, there were several hundred people out, live bands, singers and rap artists, and we had had a ball. But the times had not been kind to Mason. Although Mason was somewhat famous for Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, it was more famous for its rural version of Beale Street along Front Street. Tipton County was technically a dry county, so the clubs along the street were euphemistically called “cafes”, but they ran wide open day and night. Although the town was still in those days controlled by whites, they allowed the Black night life to operate without limits. Prior to the 1970’s, it was probably seen as a social safety valve, preventing the kind of racial schism that had wracked Fayette County, only a few miles to the south. And it was also lucrative. Most towns either didn’t allow such clubs at all, or had closing hours, so Black people came to Mason from Covington, Jackson, Memphis, Brownsville, Somerville, Dyersburg, sometimes even as far away as Cairo, Illinois. One true “club” (as opposed to a cafe) was across the tracks on Main Street, named for a famous Chicago blues club, the Tay-May. It booked acts of national importance, such as Al Green, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, and local folklore had it that Rufus Thomas first demonstrated the funky chicken there. But by the 1990’s, the music in the cafes had switched from soul and blues to rap and hip-hop, and the level of crime and discomfort to local residents from the Lower End had grown significantly. The city decided to change their ordinances to require the cafes to close at 2 AM, as clubs did in almost every other city and town in America. The results were immediate, and devastating to Mason. Tay-May burned in a spectacular fire and was never rebuilt. One by one, as cafes closed, the city condemned the buildings and had them demolished. Soon only three or so remained. A hoped-for Federal prison provided some jobs, but was not the salvation that Mason residents had hoped for. Soon, many of their retail stores were closing as well. Mason was dying.
The decision to call the new festival a “Unity” festival was also interesting to me. Despite its unusual culture and folklore for such a small town, Mason hadn’t been all that unified through my teenage years. Spiritually more attuned to adjacent Fayette County than Tipton, where it was located, Mason was an overwhelmingly Black community ruled by whites, and while it had not had the protracted discord that Fayette County had, things were still not great. Mason had never had a high school for white children, but it had had a Black high school, Gailor, which closed in 1965. In 1970 or so, the Black Fields Elementary School and white Mason Elementary School had been merged at the Mason campus. Fields was abandoned. In 1979, the principal of the school, Nevill Seay, allegedly kicked a Black parent. When WHBQ’s news crew came out from Memphis to the campus, he kicked a reporter with the cameras rolling. Dr. Isaac Richmond of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appeared in Mason, and soon the elementary school was being boycotted. A few weeks later, so were many businesses in Mason, including the mayor’s grocery store, although strangely, many of the targeted businesses soon bought ads in Richmond’s newspaper, the Clarksville Voice. Dr. Richmond considered himself an educator, and soon announced the formation of a Black private school, the Mason Community School. Meeting in a former funeral home near Club Tay-May, it attempted to educate the students who were boycotting the elementary school, and it did so while flying the red, black and green flag of Black liberation. The school lasted a couple of years, and then it closed, as did Mason Elementary School, and the Tipton County Schools started busing everyone to Covington schools instead. In addition, old-time residents could speak of other divisive legacies. Although laws said differently, most Black people would not go into Bozo’s to order food or sit down, as they remembered when they were required to order food to go and not permitted to eat inside. And the old-timers shuddered as they crossed a bridge on the Gainesville Road west of town, where they knew a mob had lynched a man back in 1937. By some accounts, the members of the mob had been the leading men of the town of Mason. Perhaps the lack of unity was part of the reason Mason was dying.
September 19 proved to be a bright, blue, sunny and warm day, perfect for an outdoor festival, and so I drove up to Mason and started my day with lunch at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken. Then heading down Front Street, I saw where the downtown area had been roped off, and some tents, tables and children’s bounce houses had been set up. But sadly, the attendance was rather sparse, compared to what I recalled of the festival in the 90’s, and a check of the tents and vendors revealed that the majority of them were sponsored by churches, and only a handful by businesses, and of the ones that were sponsored by businesses, most were from towns other than Mason, where there were now few businesses. One tent, for example, was run by Suga’s Diner, a restaurant about eight miles or so up Highway 70 in the Haywood County town of Stanton. Although music was supposed to be part of the Mason festival, there was mainly just a DJ,and a few local church choirs. No bands or musicians appeared at all. The newly-elected Mayor of Mason was a woman, and she spoke briefly, speaking of the town’s challenges, and reminding her hearers that “with God nothing is impossible.” Kids were doing dances called the “whip and Nae-Nae” and “hitting the quad” out in the square, while the younger kids were bouncing in the bounce house, and their elders were going in and out of the two remaining cafes, the Log Cabin and the Green Apple. I had thought that the festival might provide me with an opportunity to finally see the inside of the cafes, but this proved to be disappointing. I did briefly walk into the Log Cabin, but it was easy to see that I had interrupted the everyday routine of the place. The privacy felt palpable there, and I certainly would not violate it by taking pictures. After that, I chose not to enter the Green Apple. Yet outside, a few people asked me to take their picture. Some of them seemed to think I was working for the Covington Leader and thought my pictures would be in the paper. I had to explain to them that I was a blogger, not a reporter, but they wanted their picture taken anyway. Toward the early evening, kids began competing in a basketball shooting contest, and gospel choirs began singing a cappella on the one microphone near the DJ’s tent. The blues musician Big Don Valentine had posted on Facebook that he would be performing in Mason on Saturday and I had naively assumed that he meant at the Fall Festival. But people were now taking down the tents and the festival was winding down. Wherever Valentine was going on stage at 7 PM, it wasn’t at the Festival. So I left and headed over to Bozo’s Bar-B-Que for a dinner. While the Festival was rather sparsely attended, it had brought a lot of people together, both white and Black. And there had been no fighting or arguing to mar the day. Even the police were cordial. So in that sense, the Fall Unity Fest in Mason had been a success.