“Memphis’ Worldly Fair”: Deciphering Riddles In A Hill Country Blues Lyric

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.

Conclusion

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.

Book and Record Shopping in St. Louis


Although I was in St. Louis for a Recording Academy event, the event wasn’t until the evening, so I had the better part of the day to go around to local book stores and record stores, and St. Louis is really a dream come true to anyone who collects books or records. As the day progressed, I made my way around to Left Bank Books, the Book House, STL Books, Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, the last of which was only a couple of doors down from where our event was being held.

Breakfast and History at St. Louis' Goody Goody Diner

St. Louis 002
I’ve eaten many breakfasts in St. Louis over the years, but somehow never made it to the Goody Goody Diner , a 1948-era chrome and formica place on Natural Bridge Avenue that is a St. Louis landmark, and rightfully so. For more than 60 years, the Goody Goody belonged to the Connelly family, but at the end of April 2014 it was sold to new owners. Happily, my experience in the second week of May was a good one, so hopefully the owners are continuing the place’s great tradition, and what a tradition it is. Breakfast is what brought me to the Goody Goody, and the diner has numerous options for that most important meal of the day. Omelettes are my thing, so I ordered my favorite bacon and cheese omelette, and was very pleased with what I got. Chicken and waffles is also on the menu, as well as pancakes, and of course there are plenty of non-breakfast options. One would expect such a historic spot to be full of tourists, but most of the customers seemed to be from the local neighborhood, giving the place a friendly, hometown feel. The Goody Goody Diner is definitely worth a visit when in St. Louis.

Goody Goody Diner
5900 Natural Bridge Av
St. Louis, MO 63120
(314) 383-3333
http://goodygoodydiner.com

A Gourmet Twist on American Classics at @BaileysRange in St. Louis


Whether from it being Mothers’ Day or it being Sunday, finding anything to eat in St. Louis in the late evening was extremely difficult. Almost every place I tried was either closed or had quit serving food even if the bar remained open. Fortunately, one place I called on my cell phone was still open, a burger place downtown called Bailey’s Range. It turned out that Bailey’s is a family of restaurant concepts in St. Louis, and Bailey’s Range is a burger place, with a unique difference. Sleek and modernistic in appearance, Bailey’s Range is also New American in its approach to this most American of dishes, the hamburger and french fries, with a menu consisting of unique gourmet hamburger varieties. Of course, using the “build your own” menu, it is possible to create your own more traditional offerings, but Bailey’s seems proud of their creations. I opted for a more prosaic bacon cheeseburger, and was not disappointed. The accompanying french fries were also really good. Bailey’s Range also has desserts, mainly based around their all-natural ice creams, which they also use to make milk shakes, but after my bacon cheeseburger and fries, I had no room for any dessert. Altogether I was fairly pleased with my experience, and was especially thankful for Bailey’s Range’s extended hours.

Bailey’s Range
920 Olive Street
St. Louis, MO 63101
(314) 241-8121
http://baileysrange.com

Regional Rap at 1884 Lounge at @MinglewoodHall at On Location Memphis @olm_trailer @PeeteyWeestro @PreauXX


1884 Lounge at Minglewood Hall was the scene for the Saturday night rap showcase during the 15th Annual On Location Memphis International Film and Music Festival in Midtown Memphis. Acts on the stage included D’Mario, Abe, a Memphis rapper who is producer H. Potter’s brother, veteran Memphis rapper Dulaa whose recent work takes on a strong country influence, St. Louis rap artist Peetey Weestro who has been getting some attention with his single “Pull Up, Shut It Down”, and Memphis conscious hip-hopper Preauxx, whose label and publisher Great South Bay Music was the sponsor of the showcase.

10/24/09: I Am Music Workshop Day 2 in St. Louis


All of a sudden, it was winter, and I didn’t prepare for it. I hadn’t brought any warm clothes to St. Louis because I had naively assumed that the weather wouldn’t be that different than what we had been getting in Memphis for the last week. So much for assumptions, and now I was shivering as I drove out to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House on South Grand for breakfast. It was a great choice, a classic late 50’s style place with a classic neon sign thrown in for good measure, and, not surprisingly, great food.
Despite the cold, the weather was bright and blue, so, after I finished breakfast I drove across the bridge to East St. Louis to look for the Gateway Geyser and see if I could get a good photograph of the St. Louis skyline and Gateway Arch. Finding the park that contained the geyser was not easy, as it was tucked behind the Casino Queen, but I did find it. The geyser was evidently not working, but there was a large overlook facing the arch, and I climbed to the top of it to snap a picture. If the weather was cold on the ground, it was absolutely frigid at the top of the observation deck, so I quickly came back down.
Driving out of the park, I accidentally ventured into a warren of old streets through overgrown woods with one abandoned house at an intersection, but I was soon able to get back to the interstate. Given the area’s proximity to the casino and park, I couldn’t help thinking that it would make a wonderful Beale-Street-type entertainment district for East St. Louis.
When I got back to the hotel, it was time for the I Am Music Workshop events to get underway, and the events took most of the afternoon. I was on the distribution panel, along with representatives from Fontana Distribution and Jive Records. Afterwards, those two decided to go with me to dinner, so I drove them up to a place called Pi on the Delmar Loop in University City where we ate gourmet pizza and talked about the music business. It was nearly midnight when we left, and I dropped them off at a trendy hip-hop club on Washington Avenue near the hotel. I was too tired for a hip-hop club, and it was too late for me to make it to the Trio Tres Bien performance at Robbie’s, so I returned to the hotel and went to bed.

10/23/09: I Am Music Workshop Day 1 St. Louis, MO


I had been invited to be a panelist at the I Am Music Workshop in St. Louis on Saturday, so I headed out early Friday morning up I-55, vainly searching for some sort of breakfast. Finally, at Blytheville I found a Hardeee’s where I could pick up a biscuit breakfast, and then I headed on into the Missouri bootheel.
At Cape Girardeau, I went into town to browse at some thrift stores and pick up a cappuccino at the Broadway Books and Roasting Company, and then I continued northward into St. Louis.
I had thought about doing some musicological research in old East St. Louis newspapers at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, but I decided that if I did that, I wouldn’t have any time to shop at local record stores, so I changed my mind and headed to Record Exchange instead. I found a number of 45 singles on St. Louis and East St. Louis labels, but I hadn’t brought much money to spend and I wasn’t sure what I would find at other stores, so I didn’t buy anything there.
The weather was already grey, and turning much colder as I returned to my car and drove over to Euclid Records in Webster Groves. I ended up not buying anything there either, because the Leo Gooden CD I was hoping to find was one they had sold out of, but I did pick up a flyer about live jazz Friday night at a place called Robbie’s House of Jazz in Webster Groves. After a brief stop at Webster Records, I realized that I had only a little time for dinner if I hoped to make it back to the jazz club for live music, so instead of driving over to Vintage Vinyl in University City, I drove to the Galleria where the Cheesecake Factory was, and ate dinner there. After stopping by a Borders Books where I bought a true crime history of East St. Louis, I drove over to the jazz club I had heard about. The club was predominantly African-American, but I was warmly welcomed and made to feel right at home, and the large local jazz ensemble that was playing was excellent. If I had stayed to the end, I might have gotten to sit in on piano, but I was really exhausted, partially from the drive, and partly from having overeaten at the Cheesecake Factory. So I left and drove back into St. Louis on Manchester/Chouteau until I came to the Sheraton hotel where the conference had booked my room. Valet parking was quite expensive, but I had no problems checking in, and my suite of a room was beautiful. I learned that the building had been the Edison Brothers shoe warehouse, and that half of it had been made into a hotel, and half of it into condominiums.