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.
Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.
On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.