Friday night I headed down to Melrose to see the Melrose and Kirby game, but I discovered when I got there that Kirby High School had not brought their band to the game, and since I had already seen Melrose this year, I headed on to Crump Stadium to see the Central/Whitehaven game. Both of these schools have relatively large bands this year, and both were in full battle mode all night. Central’s band is known as the Sound of Midtown, and is a young program that seems to be on the right track. Whitehaven, known as the Sounds of Perfection, is an incredibly-large high school band that could easily rival many colleges, and is one of the best high-school bands in the country. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the tense, close football game, there was no “fifth quarter” afterwards, with Whitehaven’s band leaving the stadium immediately after time had run out.
Grambling State University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe have only played football against each other since 2007, and have only met three times, despite the fact that the schools are only 30 miles apart. Such were the legacies of college segregation, but when the Tigers and Warhawks started scheduling each other, the event became known as the I-20 Classic, since that interstate connects the two campuses (as well as a third, Louisiana Tech, for that matter). Grambling hasn’t fared well in any of their meetings with ULM, but I decided to drive down to Monroe for the day to attend the game, hear the bands (particularly Grambling’s), and the check out the tailgating and festivities. Although the weather was somewhat hot, it was a perfectly beautiful evening for football, and there was a huge crowd of people tailgating and partying outside the stadium, which is directly beside Bayou DeSiard. Unfortunately, Grambling’s team has been struggling this year, and they lost the game 48-7, and there was very little band activity and no Fifth Quarter. Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline played a couple of cadences in the stands, and the full band played an abbreviated halftime show, and a couple of tunes in the stands, and that was all. 100.1 The Beat was advertising all kinds of “official” after-parties after the game, one at Club Encore, one at the Members’ Club, one at Club Siroc, and an old-school set with a band at the Monroe Civic Center. I would have liked to have gone to any or all of them, but as the drive back to Memphis was going to take five hours, I grabbed a frozen yogurt from Orange Leaf and hit the road.
Drums and drumming have played a tremendous role in the cultural life of Memphis’ inner-city Black communities, throughout most of the 20th and 21st century. The popularity of drumlines in urban Black neighborhoods is of uncertain origin, but probably derives from Blacks serving as drummers in the US Army during the Civil War and in state militia units afterwards, the use of drums by fraternal organizations such as the Independent Pole Bearers Society, and possibly even rural fife-and-drum bands associated with Labor Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. What is certain is that by 1969, Memphis had begun having events called majorette jamborees, at which a squad of female majorettes performed dance routines to beats provided by a squad of young male drummers. Originally sponsored by schools, drumlines were soon organized by community organizations and community centers as well, and the drumming and dancing traditions of inner city Memphis were immensely popular until the late 1980’s or so, but unfortunately there has been a decline in the popularity of drumlines in Memphis over the last 20 years, as majorette groups have learned that they can design their routines to compact discs. So it is entirely appropriate that drumlines like the Baby Blues are highlighted at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, since this is another Memphis cultural tradition that is endangered. The Baby Blues are one of the last remaining Memphis drumlines that is not affiliated with any school, and is one of the city’s best, easily rivaling drumlines whose members are much older. They frequently appear in unexpected places, like Church Park during Africa in April, or Clarksdale during the Juke Joint Fest, and they always draw a crowd.
The band battle between the Memphis Mass Band and the Mississippi All-Star Alumni Band followed the familiar “fifth quarter” format where the Mississippi band played a tune first, and then the Memphis band responded to it. There was also a percussion battle, although the Mississippi band’s drumline declined to participate. At the very end of the night’s event, the two bands performed a song together before marching out of the stadium.
The young drumline known as the Baby Blue is one of the few independent drumlines left in Memphis, a city that was once known for having a lot of drumlines in the various inner city neighborhoods. Once needed to provide the funky grooves and excitement for majorettes, the latter have taken to using compact discs and DJ’s, and the need for drummers has diminished. Still, it’s not uncommon to see the Baby Blues out at various events, and they usually appear late in the day on the Saturday of Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Fest. In the afternoon, their performance draws the curious, but by the evening, they usually draw a crowd of dancers that confront and battle each other in a style that seems akin to ritual, moving in perfect time to the drum cadences. I have tended to associate the phenomenon of African-American drumlines in the South (and elsewhere) as a latent echo of African and Caribbean music and dance practices, but witnessing it in the Clarksdale context makes me wonder if the tradition was filtered through the Black fife-and-drum experience in North Mississippi, where, after all, so many Black Memphians came from. If so, it appears that the endangered tradition of majorette and drill team drumming is even more worthy of study and preservation.
When I walked on Beale Street Friday night, I noticed a drumline setting up at the Rum Boogie Cafe end of the first block. It proved to be the Grizz Line drumline, doing a video shoot and playing cadences for the small crowd that gathered in the freezing cold before the Grizzlies’ game with the Orlando Magic at Fed Ex Forum.