The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
Authentic blues in an authentic environment is hard to come by these days, and when the Memphis juke joint Wild Bill’s closed in December, it became just that much harder to find. But in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the occasions when The Hut is open, great blues musicians hold forth for a local crowd in the kind of rough, non-descript setting that is appropriate.
The Hut is a former American Legion post in the Black community of Holly Springs. Located near the intersection of West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street, it is a small, white building set down in a ravine far from the street, a structure which looks as if could only hold about a hundred people. Yet it is cozy, has a kitchen, has ample graveled parking, and on a recent Friday night was full to the rafters, with the great Robert Kimbrough Sr. on stage as I walked in.
Robert, a son of the late Junior Kimbrough, is a favorite musician around these parts, but despite all the enthusiasm for his performance, the order of the night was to highlight female blues performers, an event organized by Fancy! Magazine owner Amy Verdon called “Lady’sNight at The Hut.” The original band consisted of Robert Kimbrough, J. J. Wilborn and Artemas Leseur, aided occasionally by Johnny B. Sanders, who had come up from Jackson. These men backed singers Iretta Sanders, and Lady Trucker, whose performances brought many dancers out, including R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. There were also a number of visitors from other parts of the country who traveled to Holly Springs to see the show. Robert Kimbrough came back on stage to close out the first set with a version of his dad’s song “You Better Run”, and then the band took a break.
Unfortunately, during the intermission, two women in the crowd got to fighting, which led to the police being called, and an early end to the evening, as a lot of people chose to leave. But that too has always been part of the blues. Authenticity is not for the squeamish.
About halfway between Jackson’s Farish Street and Memphis’ Beale Street was Greenville’s Nelson Street, the Main Street of the Black Mississippi Delta. Lined with professional offices, cafes, pool rooms, juke joints and churches, Nelson Street was the place that Black people went in Greenville for nearly everything, from business to pleasure. One place on the street in particular stood out, a legendary blues club called the Flowing Fountain, which had been open just a few short years ago.
Nelson Street began to fall on hard times in the early 1990’s, when crack hit Greenville like a ton of bricks. There had been a lot of comings and goings between the Delta and Chicago, and soon the infamous Chicago gangs were in Greenville streets, and gang graffiti began appearing on Nelson Street bricks. Open-air crack markets and drive-by shootings followed. With Greenville like a war zone, most of the jukes and clubs on Nelson Street closed, and most of the ones that remained decided to shift their focus to a younger crowd, hiring DJ’s to play rap and hip-hop. The one exception was the Fountain, which billed itself “The Blues Capital of the World” and featured local talent like the legendary Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. Occasionally, tourists defied the warnings from their hotel desk clerks, and ventured to the Fountain for an authentic blues experience. But the presence of rap clubs nearby and the frequency of gunfire in the neighborhood took its toll. Stud Ford, the grandson of the late bluesman T-Model Ford said that the Fountain ended up closing because its older patrons were scared to venture into the area because of the kind of clientele the other clubs nearby were attracting.
The building still sits proudly and a little sadly at the center of what was once the business district. The front has been painted with a sort of gallery of important Black Greenvillians including “Boogaloo” Ames and “Booba” Barnes. Nearby, a historic marker explains the significance of Nelson Street. But there is nothing here anymore but nostalgia. A club on Walnut Street a couple of miles away claims to offer live blues on weekends, but it doesn’t book anyone well-known, and tourists have learned to make their way to Clarksdale if they are searching for the blues. Despite a storied past and great potential, Greenville’s Nelson Street is only a memory.
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Every summer in June, the Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta sponsors a South Memphis Block Party on McMillan Street in honor of a neighborhood youth named King Craddy that was killed a few years ago. It usually is a fun time for the kids, with a bounce house, and there is usually a DJ, plenty of good food and lots of dancing. This year, things took a turn for the worse when out of nowhere, a young man pulled out a gun and began shooting. I hadn’t even heard any arguing or confrontation leading up to it. We ended up having to get down, run to the back of the houses and then struggle through the underbrush and out the chain link fence on the other side on Ely Street. The gunshots continued from over on the other street before we finally heard the sirens of the police coming. We soon learned that a 3-year-old boy had been shot. There is absolutely nothing that can justify shooting into a crowd including women and children during a neighborhood block party. Nothing whatsoever.
West Point, Mississippi is the northern point of what is commonly called the Golden Triangle (the other two points are Starkville and Columbus), and not a place that people would usually associate with the blues. Nor would the average music fan associate bluesman Howlin’ Wolf with West Point, since he first came to prominence in and around the Memphis area while living in West Memphis, Arkansas. But it just so happens that Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born in West Point, and the city has decided to make the most of it, with a cool mural in the downtown area, and an annual festival named for him held out at the abandoned college campus. As for the rest of the town, it is sleepy and historic, although it wasn’t always so. West Point was extremely turbulent in the 1960’s, and had a considerable amount of racial conflict, including the murder of a civil rights leader in cold blood, and the firebombing of the Clay County Courthouse in 1970, but somehow everything has calmed down nowadays.
People walking home after the fights and shooting, Orange Mound Block Party, July 30, 2011. I will never understand why people would come to a recreational event in a mood to pick a fight with someone, or why anyone could think that it was ever justifiable to shoot a gun into a crowd of people. But the end result is that the city will prevent events like this from taking place, so all of us will be the losers because 6 or 7 people would rather fight and shoot than have a good time.
In the aftermath of the fights and shooting, the police cleared the park, and people began slowing walking back home, Orange Mound Block Party, July 30, 2011
Late in the afternoon at the Orange Mound Block Party, a string of fights developed. One young man that had been onstage with several of the acts was beaten unconscious and had to be carried back behind the stage, and then two girls got to fighting. Shortly after that, everyone broke into a full run at the sound of gunfire. We later learned that someone had fired a shotgun into the crowd, and a young woman was hit. The police quickly flooded the park, but I could hear gunfire continuing, now coming from the northwest corner of Park and Pendleton. The ambulances came, and police began clearing out the park.
A couple of weeks ago, on the first really warm Saturday of the year, I was driving back from the library down Tillman Street through Binghampton, through crowds of youths that were somewhere on the spectrum between a street carnival and something more ominous. The couple of hundred people or so were gathered around an incipient fight between two youths who were standing face to face. As I drove past, through the open window I heard someone yell “Hit that nigga!”, and when I looked into the rear-view mirror, the young men had begun fighting in earnest. Yesterday, however, the violence of the nearby Binghampton neighborhood invaded the halls of the Memphis Public Library itself, when three youths’ argument in the lobby turned into a full-scale brawl, frightening two older African-American women in the bookshop, who said to each other (and me) “What’s wrong with these kids?” The security guards separated them with some difficulty, and the police were called. By the time I decided to leave the library, the police had made the young men sit down on the sidewalk in front of the library as they took names and addresses. I wanted to yell at them “Where is all this rage coming from? Don’t you know how short life is? Don’t you know the sacrifices your ancestors made so you could have the opportunities you’re so casually throwing away?” But instead I walked past toward my car, overhearing one of the boys explaining to a police officer that one of the other youths had displayed a red “flag”, a bandana used to symbolize the Bloods gang. Apparently, the police believed there could be further trouble, because as I left the library, I noticed that a police cruiser was posted up at East High School down the street, and another to the west at Tillman and Walnut Grove. When something like this happens, and it’s big enough to make the news, the internet comments locally are full of blatant or implied racist comments, as if the young people’s Blackness was an explanation for the violence. But today at the library, it was easy to see the bewilderment on the faces of many Black adults as well, police, security guards, library employees and passers-by. They are just as confused by the behavior of inner-city young people today as are suburban whites. It is clear that something has to be done before Memphis reaps a terrible harvest of violence. And blaming people because of their skin-color or race does nobody any good.