Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.
Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.
However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.
What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.
Fair or Fare?
One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.
The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair
Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.
The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations
Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.
While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.
I had seen that Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, would be playing at The Dirty Crow Inn on Saturday night, but I had a gig of my own on the University of Memphis campus, so our decision to go to Cam’s gig was something of a spur-of-the-moment thing after my gig was over. Little did we know that we were in for an amazing blues experience in the little funky dive bar in South Memphis.
Of course, Cameron Kimbrough has been getting attention for several years as a powerful new voice in the blues, and his mother, Joyce Jones, who is an excellent blues singer, has been working on her debut album. But I was surprised to see the venue so packed with blues fans, particularly as it is a venue that doesn’t usually book blues, and it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way location.Cam was performing on drums when we arrived, joined by some local guitarists including Moses Crouch, a really-young harmonica player from North Memphis, and his mother Joyce Jones. They were set up on the enclosed deck, and there was hardly a table available, the crowd a combination of blues fans and basketball fans in town for the sweet sixteen tournament at the Fed Ex Forum. Unlike a lot of blues shows, much of Cam’s set was jamming, with songs being improvised extemporaneously on the spot, Joyce Jones adding vocal riffs that occasionally became something like song titles, perhaps.
When Moses Crouch came back on stage for the second set, the style was a little more orthodox, with familiar Hill Country tunes like “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line” and “Coal Black Mattie”, which Cam played on the guitar. But he also followed the traditional blues song with an original called “I’m Still Standing”, which highlights Cam’s unique ability to craft new material that still belongs firmly to the Hill Country tradition. As midnight approached, the crowd began to dwindle, but the music remained as strong as ever, powerful, relentless. We left, feeling that something of real importance had just happened in a hole-in-the-wall in South Memphis. It just might be possible that Cameron Kimbrough is the future of the Hill Country blues. (You can buy Cam’s debut EP Head For The Hills here and can listen to Cam’s earlier recordings here).
My girlfriend and I had planned on going to see Cameron Kimbrough, who we thought was playing in Helena, Arkansas, but it ultimately turned out that he was playing in Warren, Arkansas instead, which is a three-hour drive. There was no chance of making it there before he went on stage, so we had dinner at the Holiday Lodge on Sardis Lake at Harmontown and then headed to the Blues Shack for the second day of the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam. Holly Springs bluesman Little Joe Ayers was on stage when we arrived, playing to a crowd that was somewhat larger than the one on Friday night. After Joe performed, then Duwayne Burnside and Kenny Brown got on stage and performed such Hill Country classics as “All Night Long” and “Meet Me in the City.” Although we were having a great time there, we ultimately cut it short because my girlfriend wanted to catch Cedric Burnside, who was playing at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, so we left out and headed down that way.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.
During the summer, Hill Country blues fans flock every Sunday evening to Foxfire Ranch near Waterford, Mississippi for weekly performances of the genre’s best musicians under the Blues Pavilion, and Sunday, August 7 was a truly special occasion featuring one of the last living legends of the Hill Country, R. L. Boyce from Como. Boyce was assisted by a number of guest musicians, including one of Junior Kimbrough’s grandsons, Cameron Kimbrough on drums and vocals, J. J. Wilburn on drums (who has played with Robert Kimbrough and Duwayne Burnside), G-Cutter on guitar, and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans of ’68 Comeback on guitar. Cameron Kimbrough’s mother Joyce Jones sang a rousing version of her song “Poor Black Man”, and Jeffrey Evans and drummer Ross Johnson performed several songs from their repertoire, including “The Roadrunner” and Jim Reeve’s “He’ll Have To Go” while R. L. Boyce took a break. Finally, before the end of the night, Robert Kimbrough came on stage to perform his song “The Girl Is Gone”. It was a memorable night of classic Hill Country blues and rock and roll.
Going the Old Hudsonville Road from Hudsonville to Holly Springs proved to be a mistake, because more than half the distance between the two communities was gravel, but the road did take me into a neighborhood of Holly Springs that I had never seen before, an area to the east of the Rust College campus where there were several churches, a Roman Catholic school and a juke joint called Cu-Man’s. But for some reason, the crowd on the square on this particular Thursday was far less than it had been the last time I went a couple of weeks before. Through an error, the people in charge of the weekly event had booked two different bands for the same time slot, so the Oxford All-Stars opened up the evening, playing a lot of Motown and Memphis classics, and a couple of blues, and then they were followed by Hill Country veteran Kenny Brown, with Cameron Kimbrough (son of Kinney Kimbrough and grandson of Junior) on drums, and Garry Burnside ( son of R. L.) on bass. After a few songs, they were joined on stage by Garry’s brother Duwayne Burnside, who did several of the Hill Country classics with the band. As the temperatures cooled off, the crowd around the square grew larger, and the final song featured Cameron’s dad Kent “Kinney” Kimbrough on drums.
On Mothers’ Day afternoon, I saw that Joyce Jones, whom I had seen at Sherena Boyce’s party in Como a month ago, would be performing at Foxfire Ranch in Waterford, Mississippi. The weather was warm and sunny, so I decided to drive down, but I got there about an hour after the gate opened. Joyce performed one song after I arrived, but then turned over the stage to a comedian, an evangelist, a Southern Soul artist with a song called “Pour It In A Cup”, and then a Christian rock band called Destination Up. The latter act was interesting, as the drummer was one of Joyce’s cousins, and although I’m not always a big fan of rock, they were really good musicians and I loved the uplifting message of their songs. Then Kenny Brown came back on stage, with Joyce Jones and a guest artist from Nashville named R. B. Stone and Cameron Kimbrough on drums. They did several traditional Hill Country blues songs, including the standard “Rolling & Tumbling” and “Old Black Man”, Joyce Jones’ variant of the standard “Coal Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie”. Then Lightning Malcolm came up to feature on a song as well. Although it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it ended up being a decent night of music under a full moon and starry sky.
Keep up with Joyce Jones here:
Keep up with Destination Up here: