The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
For fans of the blues in Mississippi, the summer is somewhat framed by two major events, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June, which celebrates the Hill Country blues tradition, and the Otha Turner Picnic at Gravel Springs near Senatobia, generally held in August on the weekend before Labor Day. But the latter event is all the more important because it celebrates a type of African-American music that is older than the blues, Black fife-and-drum music. Tate and Panola Counties have always been a center of the fife-and-drum style, and picnics were frequently held on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Fife master Otha Turner became famous for his pre-Labor Day picnic featuring fife and drum music and barbecued goat. Upon his death, the picnic tradition and the music tradition were continued by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who has kept the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band together and who remains an advocate for this endangered form of Black music. Under her administration, the picnic, held at the Otha Turner homestead in Gravel Springs near Senatobia, has become a two-day festival of many different artists and styles of music, including bands like Blue Mother Tupelo and the North Mississippi All-Stars, to solo artists like Dr. David Evans or Lightning Malcolm. There’s plenty of good fun and good food, and several processions of the fife and drum band across the grounds each evening. As the night progresses, the dancers become more exuberant, getting low to the ground and shaking in time with the beat of the bass drum, and the scene is reminiscent of other similar processions in African cultures, including New Orleans second-lines, and Haitian raras in Miami. On this year’s first night, there was also a brilliant full moon which threw a strange light on the proceedings. As in previous years, the festival inside the gates lead to another festival outside the gates, in which young people from the rural community parked and gathered along O. B. McClinton Road, listening to music and hanging out.
Think of Mississippi Blues and you are likely to think of the Delta. The long highways and crossroads, the endless flat land, broken only by the occasional bayou, small towns, juke joints and Robert Johnson. But there was also blues in Northeast Mississippi, the Hill Country, particularly in Marshall County, and the style of blues in that region was an especially primitive and basic form of the music that perhaps has more in common with the music of West Africa than any other African-American music form. Hill Country blues is based around guitar drones and repetitive patterns that seem to almost induce trance. Unlike the Delta blues, Hill Country blues remained largely unknown until the late 1960’s, with some awareness coming through the rediscovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como. The efforts of George Mitchell and Dr. David Evans to make field recordings led directly to the discovery of the two great figures of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, both from Marshall County, whose records in the 1990’s made Hill County blues familiar to people all over their world. Since their deaths, their children have endeavored to continue the tradition, and so there is a growing interest in Holly Springs for blues tourism. Every Thursday night, from July through the end of September, there is live blues on an outdoor stage on the Marshall County Courthouse square. It is usually well-attended each week, but all the more so when one of the county’s favorite sons is appearing, such as guitarist Duwayne Burnside. On this particular night, Duwayne was joined by his brother Garry Burnside on bass, and by his nephew Cedric Burnside on the drums, and they proceeded to give the audience a musical history of the blues, venturing into any number of different styles, and covers from as diverse a collective as R. L. Burnside, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, B. B. King and Tyrone Davis. Duwayne has always been one of the great living blues guitarists, but over the last two months or so, he seems to be hitting a new stride, playing some of the best music of his life. And to watch his face while on stage is to see the sheer joy of creation in progress.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
I was on South Main downtown one evening because I was to speak at a hip-hop conference at Leadership Memphis, but I wanted a coffee before it started, so I started walking down toward the nearest coffee bar, hoping it would be open. To my surprise, much closer to the Leadership Memphis offices, I came upon a sign that said “387 Pantry- Coffee”, so I ventured inside to discover one of Memphis’ newest retail establishments. It’s hard to say exactly what the space at 387 South Main actually is, as it is a little bit of everything. I suppose the main space is called Stock & Belle. Primarily it is a fashion boutique, with designer clothing, but also some really cool local art for sale on the walls. Upstairs there is a salon. But another section of the space has been walled off to form a small grocery store known as the 387 Pantry. Gourmet foods and rare brands of coffee beans are the draw here, and within it is a small counter called Brews, where cups of coffee are available, made from the amazing $11,000 coffee machine known as a Clover. Clovers reproduce the French Press process in a machine, and have been said to produce a more flavorful cup of coffee. So I had to try one, and I was quite pleased with it. I also could not resist buying boxes of Velo brand Colombian Tierradentro and Guatemalan Waykan coffee beans. The employe informed me that the store’s brands of coffee beans will change monthly, so it’s probably a good idea to buy what you see that you want when you see it.
Stock & Belle/387 Pantry/Brews
387 South Main
Memphis, TN 38103
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I had read on the Memphis Flyer‘s website that a soul band called Objekt 12 would be playing at the new Red Zone Cigar and Sports Bar in the Broad Avenue Arts District, so when I left Havana Mix downtown, I headed that way, and could hardly find a place to park. The new Red Zone is a branch of the one on Winchester in Hickory Hill which has been open for several years. I have never been inside that location, but the new one (which is somewhat misleadingly called Red Zone Midtown) is quite elegant and comfortable inside. The live music was outside however, on a patio which was packed with people despite the heat and humidity. The band, Objekt 12, was not exactly what I was expecting in the way of a “soul band”, but might be better described as a “soulful” indie rock band. They were talented musicians however, and did some originals as well as covers. It’s always good to discover new Memphis musicians, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Objekt 12 in the future.
Red Zone Cigar and Sports Bar
2583 Broad Ave
Memphis, TN 38112
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The Havana Mix in downtown Memphis is primarily a cigar lounge, but occasionally books live music, often on Friday evenings. So when my drummer friend Otis Logan told me to come down because he was playing there, I did. The band was billed as the Havana Mix Band, and did a series of neo-soul and R & B classics for the ample crowd inside. Of course, as one would expect with a cigar bar, the place is not for those who don’t enjoy plenty of smoke. But the atmosphere is elegant and refined, and the music (when they have it) is first-rate.