It was a wonderfully-sunny afternoon, and I knew that a new juke joint called The Blue Room was having their grand opening in Mason, so I decided to roll up into Tipton County. After debating the different dinner possibilities in the area, I decided to head to Erwin’s Great Steaks, a restaurant I had not been to in many years. Located in an old general store in the Bride community, Erwin’s sits about seven miles west of Covington on a backroad, but it is definitely worth the journey. The smell of the wood-burning pit pervades the area, shrouding the historic building in a smokey haze, as people wait inside and out for tables. My ribeye steak was excellent, as were the sides, and the meal was also a great value.
After dinner, I headed through Covington and down Highway 59 to Mason, where Saul Whitley was celebrating the opening of his new juke joint called The Blue Room, in the former Rejuvenated Bar and Grill building on Front Street. Although there was not a live band, the small room was filled to the brim with partiers enjoying pool, free food and drink, and good southern soul music played by a DJ. I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Whitley, the owner, and he indicated that the Blue Room will be offering live music in the future.
On a weekday afternoon, I had driven up to Mason, Tennessee after work to eat at Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, and had noticed signs around the little town announcing a “Unity Fall Fest” on September 19.
I remembered years ago in the early 1990’s driving out to Mason with a couple of friends and having a lot of fun at a large festival in the town’s square along the railroad tracks and Front Street, a neighborhood of cafes traditionally called “The Lower End.” That day, there were several hundred people out, live bands, singers and rap artists, and we had had a ball. But the times had not been kind to Mason. Although Mason was somewhat famous for Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, it was more famous for its rural version of Beale Street along Front Street. Tipton County was technically a dry county, so the clubs along the street were euphemistically called “cafes”, but they ran wide open day and night. Although the town was still in those days controlled by whites, they allowed the Black night life to operate without limits. Prior to the 1970’s, it was probably seen as a social safety valve, preventing the kind of racial schism that had wracked Fayette County, only a few miles to the south. And it was also lucrative. Most towns either didn’t allow such clubs at all, or had closing hours, so Black people came to Mason from Covington, Jackson, Memphis, Brownsville, Somerville, Dyersburg, sometimes even as far away as Cairo, Illinois. One true “club” (as opposed to a cafe) was across the tracks on Main Street, named for a famous Chicago blues club, the Tay-May. It booked acts of national importance, such as Al Green, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, and local folklore had it that Rufus Thomas first demonstrated the funky chicken there. But by the 1990’s, the music in the cafes had switched from soul and blues to rap and hip-hop, and the level of crime and discomfort to local residents from the Lower End had grown significantly. The city decided to change their ordinances to require the cafes to close at 2 AM, as clubs did in almost every other city and town in America. The results were immediate, and devastating to Mason. Tay-May burned in a spectacular fire and was never rebuilt. One by one, as cafes closed, the city condemned the buildings and had them demolished. Soon only three or so remained. A hoped-for Federal prison provided some jobs, but was not the salvation that Mason residents had hoped for. Soon, many of their retail stores were closing as well. Mason was dying.
The decision to call the new festival a “Unity” festival was also interesting to me. Despite its unusual culture and folklore for such a small town, Mason hadn’t been all that unified through my teenage years. Spiritually more attuned to adjacent Fayette County than Tipton, where it was located, Mason was an overwhelmingly Black community ruled by whites, and while it had not had the protracted discord that Fayette County had, things were still not great. Mason had never had a high school for white children, but it had had a Black high school, Gailor, which closed in 1965. In 1970 or so, the Black Fields Elementary School and white Mason Elementary School had been merged at the Mason campus. Fields was abandoned. In 1979, the principal of the school, Nevill Seay, allegedly kicked a Black parent. When WHBQ’s news crew came out from Memphis to the campus, he kicked a reporter with the cameras rolling. Dr. Isaac Richmond of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appeared in Mason, and soon the elementary school was being boycotted. A few weeks later, so were many businesses in Mason, including the mayor’s grocery store, although strangely, many of the targeted businesses soon bought ads in Richmond’s newspaper, the Clarksville Voice. Dr. Richmond considered himself an educator, and soon announced the formation of a Black private school, the Mason Community School. Meeting in a former funeral home near Club Tay-May, it attempted to educate the students who were boycotting the elementary school, and it did so while flying the red, black and green flag of Black liberation. The school lasted a couple of years, and then it closed, as did Mason Elementary School, and the Tipton County Schools started busing everyone to Covington schools instead. In addition, old-time residents could speak of other divisive legacies. Although laws said differently, most Black people would not go into Bozo’s to order food or sit down, as they remembered when they were required to order food to go and not permitted to eat inside. And the old-timers shuddered as they crossed a bridge on the Gainesville Road west of town, where they knew a mob had lynched a man back in 1937. Perhaps the lack of unity was part of the reason Mason was dying.
September 19 proved to be a bright, blue, sunny and warm day, perfect for an outdoor festival, and so I drove up to Mason and started my day with lunch at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken. Then heading down Front Street, I saw where the downtown area had been roped off, and some tents, tables and children’s bounce houses had been set up. But sadly, the attendance was rather sparse, compared to what I recalled of the festival in the 90’s, and a check of the tents and vendors revealed that the majority of them were sponsored by churches, and only a handful by businesses, and of the ones that were sponsored by businesses, most were from towns other than Mason, where there were now few businesses. One tent, for example, was run by Suga’s Diner, a restaurant about eight miles or so up Highway 70 in the Haywood County town of Stanton. Although music was supposed to be part of the Mason festival, there was mainly just a DJ, and a few local church choirs. No bands or musicians appeared at all. The newly-elected Mayor of Mason was a woman, and she spoke briefly, speaking of the town’s challenges, and reminding her hearers that “with God nothing is impossible.” Kids were doing dances called the “whip and Nae-Nae” and “hitting the quad” out in the square, while the younger kids were bouncing in the bounce house, and their elders were going in and out of the two remaining cafes, the Log Cabin and the Green Apple. I had thought that the festival might provide me with an opportunity to finally see the inside of the cafes, but this proved to be disappointing. I did briefly walk into the Log Cabin, but it was easy to see that I had interrupted the everyday routine of the place. The privacy felt palpable there, and I certainly would not violate it by taking pictures. After that, I chose not to enter the Green Apple. Yet outside, a few people asked me to take their picture. Some of them seemed to think I was working for the Covington Leader and thought my pictures would be in the paper. I had to explain to them that I was a blogger, not a reporter, but they wanted their picture taken anyway.
Toward the early evening, kids began competing in a basketball shooting contest, and gospel choirs began singing a cappella on the one microphone near the DJ’s tent. The blues musician Big Don Valentine had posted on Facebook that he would be performing in Mason on Saturday and I had naively assumed that he meant at the Fall Festival. But people were now taking down the tents and the festival was winding down. Wherever Valentine was going on stage at 7 PM, it wasn’t at the Festival. So I left and headed over to Bozo’s Bar-B-Que for a dinner. While the Festival was rather sparsely attended, it had brought a lot of people together, both white and Black. And there had been no fighting or arguing to mar the day. Even the police were cordial. So in that sense, the Fall Unity Fest in Mason had been a success.
I have often wondered why West Tennessee has less of a blues culture than North Mississippi. Aside from bluesmen associated with Memphis like Gus Cannon or Furry Lewis, Brownsville’s Sleepy John Estes, or Humboldt’s Cary Tate, there’s just not that much blues in West Tennessee, and although one would expect to find bluesmen from towns like Covington, Somerville or Jackson, Tennessee, I can’t name any off the top of my head. The one town that always appeared to have a blues culture was the little town of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County, whose row of “cafes” along Front Street was known collectively as “The Lower End.” But time hasn’t been kind to Mason either. The venerable blues club called Club Tay-May burned in the 1990’s and was never rebuilt. The oldest buildings on the Lower End are also gone, their location marked only with steps and a raised sidewalk. The three or so cafes that remain did not seem to even be open on a late Friday afternoon, and if there ever is live music in any of them, I could find no evidence of it. I decided to grab a late afternoon dinner at Bozo’s Bar B Que and head back to Memphis.
Back in the summer of 1991, when I was hanging out with a lot of fellow UT-Martin students who lived at Gainsville just outside of Mason, a local festival gave me the excuse to be down on the Lower End taking pictures. I had almost forgotten that I had them. I even got a picture of the legendary Club Tay-May, which burned to the ground not long after.
UPDATED: Tay-May was the big club in Mason, and had existed in several different locations, the last one being the one pictured here. Since it could hold hundreds, it routinely featured artists like Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton, and was rumored to be the place where Rufus Thomas invented the Funky Chicken! I will always be sad that I never went inside it.
Mason, Tennessee, Front Street, The Lower End, Summer 1991.
This was the summer that I was spending a lot of time in and around Mason and Gainesville, Tennessee. I had gotten some black and white film, and was having fun with my camera, and I was always fascinated by the “cafes” in Mason, as juke joints were called in those days. Of course, I had no idea back then that most of these buildings would be torn down and destroyed, so the pictures are maybe a little more important now than I had imagined.
Every time I visit Front Street in Mason, Tennessee, it seems that another building has been torn down, burned down, or has just fallen down from age and neglect. The once proud row of jukes, known locally as “cafes”, has been reduced to three or so which clearly have seen better days. Called the “Lower End” or the “row”, the clubs made Mason a sort of rural African-American Las Vegas, a milieu of “players” that a local resident once described in a feature article for the Commercial Appeal.
But the glory days are long gone, as are Club Tay-May, the Purple Rain, the Black Hut, the Red Hut, most of them reduced to vacant lots. As a photographer, musicologist and blogger, part of me wants to photograph what remains…after all, it may soon be gone. But there are a number of older African-American men and women hanging out on the porches, and I suddenly feel that taking their picture would be disrespectful, almost an intrusion.
I face this dilemma all too often as I drive through Delta areas, looking for old architecture, juke joints and holy sites of the blues. Often I will see a perfect photo opportunity, and yet I will know that my taking it would either anger local residents or at least raise suspicions about who I am and what I am doing, and I hate the tortured past of race relations that makes this the reality in towns like Mason.
So I don’t take the photo, riding past instead, feeling disillusioned and hopelessly cut off from that world that I find so attractive. Up on Highway 70, a group of young men are shooting basketball, and outside the old Fields School, another small group of young people is standing around in the gathering dusk. A sign says that the old school is now Club Maserati. Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, the other reason that I have come tells me that they are closing for the night and cannot serve me, and down the road Gus’ World-Famous Fried Chicken is also closed for the night. Suddenly I realize that I came out to Mason for nothing at all.