When the Bentonia Blues Festival outgrew its place in front of the Blue Front Cafe in downtown Bentonia, Mississippi, it moved to a former Black baseball field north of town on land that seems to belong to the family of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Unfortunately, being what it is, the largely treeless flat field offers no refuge from the mid-June heat, making Bentonia Blues Festival one of the hottest blues festivals anywhere. What little shade there is can be found around the parking area near the front of the road behind the stage, where teenagers play basketball.
However, despite the withering heat, several hundred blues fans turn out annually to enjoy some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer. Unlike many other festivals in and out of state, the Bentonia Blues Festival is a free festival, with the only charge one for parking a vehicle.
This year’s line-up included Como blues legend R. L. Boyce, former member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, Dominican blues musician Tito “Harlem Slim” Deler of New York City, the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley featuring Kinney Kimbrough on drums, and of course the man everyone came to see, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, founder of the festival and a living legend of the Bentonia style of blues.
Toward the late afternoon, some clouds and rain developed in areas, and things began to cool off some, as the son went down. After Eric Deaton’s performance, Sherena Boyce, R. L. Boyce and I decided to head down Highway 49 to Pocahontas, Mississippi in order to eat dinner before the long ride back to North Mississippi. Although thoroughly tired, it had been a remarkable day of fun and great music.
Although Proud Larry’s is first and foremost a rock club, Oxford, Mississippi is deep in the Mississippi Hill Country, and has been the scene of many a classic blues performance. Nearly all the greats of the Hill Country have performed there, including the great Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it came as no surprise that they kicked off the Labor Day weekend with a Friday night appearance by R. L. Burnside’s son Garry, with his band featuring Kody Harrell of Woodstomp, singer Beverly Davis, and Cedric Burnside on drums, followed by Eric Deaton, a bluesman who learned the Hill Country style from time spent playing with R.L. Although the holiday weekend had many entertainment options, the club was surprisingly full, and the crowd unusually attentive, considering that all too often, young Oxford crowds view the music as background to serious drinking. Both the musicians and the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, and it was basically just a good time.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.
Usually people don’t celebrate their birthdays by working, but that is what Hill Country guitarist Eric Deaton did at The Crawdad Hole in Water Valley in May. Billed as a birthday party for Eric Deaton at the venerable restaurant that is owned by another great musician and record label owner, Justin Showah, my friend and I were astounded to find that Eric was performing himself with his band. We had figured that he would be chilling and enjoying other musicians playing, but his band sounded great and we had a lot of fun. It was equally fun to reconnect with Justin, and to enjoy some of the best steamed shrimp within a hundred miles of Memphis. His restaurant occasionally books live music, and I assume he still occasionally does things with his superb small record label, Hill Country Records.
One of the interesting things about Oxford, Mississippi is the extent of their live music scene for being such a small town. Of course the University of Mississippi is there, but there’s almost more live music in Oxford than in Memphis sometimes, and that can make for some interesting dilemmas, such as the one March 28, where Duwayne Burnside and the Rev. John Wilkins were at the Powerhouse, and Eric Deaton, one of the late R.L. Burnside’s disciples, was at The Blind Pig on Lamar. Although I chose to go to the Powerhouse initially, around 10 PM or so I decided to head over to the Blind Pig and catch the end of Eric Deaton’s set. As it turned out, Duwayne Burnside’s brother Garry was over there, and sat in with Eric Deaton’s trio on several songs. Not long after that, Duwayne Burnside and a lot of other people came over from the Powerhouse as that event had ended, and it ended up being a great ending to an amazing night of Hill Country blues in Oxford. And the rain had finally ended too.
Eric Deaton grew up in North Carolina, but moved to Mississippi after high school to study with the masters of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. Today, Deaton is one of the most important performers and preservers of the unique Hill Country style of blues. On Friday night, Deaton began his set with a guest drummer in place of the missing Kinney Kimbrough, but Kimbrough finally appeared half way through the set, and Deaton was also joined by guitarist Garry Burnside, one of R. L.’s sons. The music, although amplified and electric, was authentic Hill Country blues and nothing else.