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.