The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic was much more crowded than the first, as crowds came out to hear such artists as R. L. Boyce, Kody Harrell, the French blues band Pin’s Downhome Blues, led by Pascal Pinede, and Robert Kimbrough Sr. In addition, of course, there were frequent performances by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, occasionally joined by fife played Willie Hurt from the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band near Sardis. This year’s picnic was free, and some had thought that this fact might cut down on the degree of informal partying along O. B. McClinton Road, but if anything, this year’s Gravel Springs Block Party was bigger than the last. Unfortunately, at about 11 PM, the police moved in to shut down the block party along the road. While enjoying breakfast at the Huddle House in Senatobia afterwards, I overheard that the reason for the police break-up of the block party had been a shoot-out that had occurred at LP’s Ball Field on Hunters Chapel Road between Como and Senatobia. Still, the trouble stayed far away from the annual picnic.
Although Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is technically only a one-day festival, the events surrounding it run over the course of four days. This year on Friday night the center of attention was Bluesberry Cafe, which featured performances by Duwayne Burnside and his band, followed by Colombian Hill Country musician Carlos Elliot Jr and Como legend R. L. Boyce. Despite the small stage, they were joined by Boyce’s daughter Sherena (a juke joint dancer) and Joyce Jones, the newest female voice in Hill Country blues. Despite the heavy rain outside, there was a significant crowd in the venue, and everyone had a great time.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
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).
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
Even though I love the blues, and even though I have been to Oxford so many times, somehow I had never been to Rooster’s Blues House. Despite the club’s name, they often book rock and roll rather than blues, but when Sherena Boyce told me that my favorite Hill Country guitarist Duwayne Burnside would be playing at Rooster’s on a Saturday night, I was eager to go. Duwayne’s show followed another big football weekend in Oxford, and Rooster’s was crowded, although not necessarily as crowded as I had expected, and the crowd was remarkably attentive and respectful. Garry Burnside was holding down the bass chair, and Sherena Boyce eventually joined Duwayne on stage to dance and play the tambourine. All too soon it was 12:30, and things came to a halt, but it was a great time with some great music.
Oxford was absolute pandemonium. The Crimson Tide of Alabama had come to town to play Ole Miss, and the result was the largest football crowd ever recorded in the history of Oxford as a town. Streets were gridlocked, and in the area around the courthouse square, streets were closed altogether. Parking was practically non-existent. So when my girlfriend said she wanted to go hear Cedric Burnside at Proud Larry’s, I envisioned a nightmare of no parking, and drunken, rowdy crowds that wouldn’t let us anywhere near the stage. Fortunately, I was wrong on both counts. We managed to find a parking place up on the hill by the Parks and Recreation office, and while Proud Larry’s was indeed crowded, it was not outrageously so, and many of those there were friends and relatives of Cedric Burnside. As for Cedric and his sidekick Trenton Ayers, they seemed to feed off the crowd’s energy, performing two rousing sets of Hill Country standards and originals before the closing hour of 12:30 AM. It was well worth the effort.
Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best guitar players in the country, and in September each year, he sponsors the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam at the Blues Shack, which is out in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 310 and Old Oxford Road near Waterford, Mississippi. Don’t be expecting a big formal festival like the Hill Country Picnic. Instead, you pay your $10 entry fee at a gate on a gravel driveway and come to a small wooden stage in front of a mobile home. The pleasant smell of barbecue smoke from an oil drum drifts through the air, and a small crowd is mesmerized by such musicians as Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Garry Burnside and Little Joe Ayers, in a more intimate setting where the line between performers and fans is non-existent. Duwayne might come down off the stage for a break and sit at your picnic table, or he might be behind the food stand pouring beers or fixing food plates. With plenty of children running around and having fun, it feels more like being invited to a house party than a festival. And that is an experience not to be missed.
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.