After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
It was a rainy Monday night, and a work night at that, and I was tired and not feeling like doing much of anything. But my friend texted me and said that her dad, R. L. Boyce, had been asked to play a yard party in Taylor, Mississippi with Luther Dickinson, and that we needed to take him there. So we picked R. L. up in Como and made our way through some pretty significant storms to Oxford, and then out along the Old Taylor Road heading to Taylor. The site for the porch party happened to be a beautiful, rambling old house belonging to Jane Rule Burdine, a photographer originally from the Delta who was also a former mayor of Taylor. The house was full of books, about every conceivable Southern subject. There were many books about Mississippi, and many books about William Faulkner, who of course is something of a big deal to Lafayette Countians. Although the reason for the occasion was never stated, the party featured a number of musicians, writers and film makers, including blues/indie musicians Lightnin Malcolm and Luther Dickinson, and Birdman Records owner David Katznelson. Although rain precluded any kind of playing on the front porch, the house also had a back porch which was fully enclosed, and there Lightnin Malcolm, Luther Dickinson and R. L. Boyce set up to begin playing. The small crowd gathered on the back porch to hear a couple of hours of the best Hill Country blues, while thunder and lightning raged outside. My cousin Al Morse, who lives in Taylor came over to hear the musicians, and to my great surprise, my other cousin Reilly Morse, her dad, also showed up, as he had been visiting in Oxford and Taylor. One of R.L.’s friends had come from Como to join us, and the party showed no signs of winding down at midnight, so my friend and I decided to leave and go home, since both of us had to be at work early the next day. All the same, it was a whole lot of fun on a Monday evening.
If you travel due north from Holly Springs in Marshall County, Mississippi, you will come to Fayette County, Tennessee, a rather similar county in many respects. Both counties once were extensively cotton-growing regions, both have rugged, hilly terrain, and both have overwhelming Black majorities. But while Marshall County, Mississippi is known for the Hill Country blues, Fayette County, Tennessee has remained little known for music. Bengt Olsson spent some time there in the 1970’s, recording obscure musicians like Lattie Murrell. One afternoon of recording at a bootlegger’s house near Somerville yielded an incredible album that has recently seen release on the Sutro Park label out of San Francisco, which owns all of Olsson’s field recordings. The Tennessee State Archives found fife-and-drum musicians in Fayette County in 1980, recording Ed Harris, Emanuel Dupree and James Tatum both in Fayette County and at the Chickasaw State Park Folk Festival. But aside from Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom most people associate with the town of Como, Mississippi, few blues artists from Fayette County have any degree of fame.
Yet, much like Marshall County to the south, Fayette County is a hotbed of blues, and the best place to experience it is at an authentic club on Highway 76 between Moscow and Williston called Saine’s Place.
On Highway 76, north from Moscow, Saine’s appears on the left-hand side of the road as a low, lighted building with plenty of cars out in front. Occasionally, barbecue smoke fills the air nearby. On the first Saturday of each month, the club features a live band, the Hollywood All-Stars from Memphis, featuring Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. The Hollywood All-Stars have a long, venerable tradition in Memphis blues, and on the night I came, the band had a horn section consisting of trumpet and saxophone, and sounded very good indeed. But would-be visitors need to be aware that Saine’s is technically not open to the public, as signs at the front make perfectly clear. Admission is by permission (the club is officially “members only”), and costs $10. Charles and Terry Saine, the owners, seem welcoming to visitors, but do not permit photography or videography in their club, so be respectful and leave the cameras at home. That rule is something of a pity, though, as Saine’s offers an authentic, rural blues experience that is really not available elsewhere, certainly not in Memphis. The music consists of blues, soul and Southern soul,and by midnight, the dance floor is full. At one in the morning, the party showed no signs of winding down. For true fans of the blues, Saine’s Blues Club is not to be missed.
Saine’s Place AKA Saine’s Blues Club AKA Club Saine’s
4515 Highway 76
Moscow, TN 38057
Live music is the first Saturday night of each month, starting about 9 PM
Club open with a DJ at other times.
Holly Springs and Marshall County, Mississippi are a frequent destination for blues tourism. Two of Mississippi’s greatest blues families, the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs are from the county, and Foxfire Ranch, the Blues in the Alley concert series, and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic attract blues fans, particularly during the summer months. But up until recently, tourists wanting an upscale dinner had to make their way to Oxford or to the Memphis area. That changed in July with the opening of Marshall Steakhouse on Highway 178 between Red Banks and Holly Springs.
Marshall Steakhouse is as much a destination as a restaurant, featuring a truly-massive park-like setting that includes an outside stage and plenty of seating. On the night of my visit, a bluegrass group was playing on the stage to a small crowd.
The restaurant, which had only been open a week, was incredibly crowded, with probably around fifty or more people waiting for seating. But, to my surprise, I suppose because I was only one person, I was seated immediately. It needs to be noted however that there are no small, intimate tables for two, and that parties of one or two are usually seated at the opposite end of a long table from other guests. Although Marshall Steakhouse is not cheap, they have some very reasonably-priced entrees, including two cuts of sirloin. I ordered the small sirloin, and was quite impressed with its flavor. Sirloin steaks can be tough, but this one was extremely tender, and easy to cut. The yeast bread was hot and delicious, and the baked potato was very good as well. I was also impressed by the fact that the price of my steak included all the accompaniments as well, something that is definitely not the case at a lot of steakhouses these days. I have to mention too that Marshall Steakhouse has a challenge- a 72-ounce steak with salad and baked potato that is free if a person can finish ALL of it within an hour. If not finished within an hour, it costs $89! I have not heard whether anyone has taken the challenge, and whether anyone has actually won it. As for the service, it was friendly, but fairly erratic, with lots of people being offered other people’s orders, but that is not necessarily surprising one week in. Corrections were made promptly, and everybody made happy. One thing to note, though- the Marshall Steakhouse is not a place to be caught up in your cellphone. Made entirely out of metal, the building is a true deadzone inside, and most phones get no signal. There is currently no public wi-fi. But there is plenty of decor, and large-screen televisions hanging from the walls. Besides, who stays buried in their phone at dinner anyway?
The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
The Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi is a beautiful setting for any event, and it makes an awesome setting for the Oxford Blues Festival each July. This year, veteran bluesman R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi performed as part of a supergroup with Lightnin Malcolm (who learned from Boyce) and drummer Cedric Burnside, a grandson of R. L. Burnside who once was part of the Juke Joint Duo with Lightnin’ Malcolm. This hard-hitting trio played a good hour’s worth of Hill Country blues before the onset of a line of heavy showers called the festival to a halt.
I grew up in Bartlett, and went to Bartlett High School. A lot of my friends lived in the Black community along Old Brownsville Road, and I knew some people that lived along the road whose name was Guffin. But somehow, I had never heard of Lum Guffin, and the sadder thing was that he was living during those warm afternoons when I used to walk along Old Brownsville Road visiting friends. I wouldn’t encounter Lum Guffin until much later, after his death in 1993, when I saw a download link for his album Walking Victrola in an online blog, noticed his last name, and wondered if he might have been from Bartlett. I downloaded the album and enjoyed it, did some reading that revealed that Lum Guffin had played the Memphis Country Blues Festival at the Overton Park Shell in 1969, and then had pretty much moved on to other things. But later, in 2015, I began to do some research into Black fife-and-drum music, specifically trying to determine if it had ever occurred in West Tennessee as it had in North Mississippi. For a number of reasons, I considered Fayette County to be the most likely location for fife-and-drum music in Tennessee. Overwhelmingly rural, it has historically been the county with the largest Black majority in the state, and it is directly north of Marshall County, Mississippi, one of the most important blues counties in America. But my research led in a different direction, and to a major shock- there had indeed been a fife and drum band in West Tennessee, one called the United Sons and Daughters of Zion Fife and Drum Band Number 9, and it was located in Bartlett, Tennessee. Furthermore, it had been recorded, by the Swedish blues writer and researcher Bengt Olsson. A check of the liner notes of the On The Road Again compilation that contained the track mentioned that the leader and fife player of the band was none other than Lum Guffin, and he was quoted regarding other chapters of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion having fife-and-drum bands, and about the friendly competition between various fife-and-drum bands at the annual Brunswick Picnic in August. Lum later recorded for Italian musicologist Gianni Marcucci in his front yard in 1978. The recordings were issued in part on the Albatros label in 1979, and more or less completely on the excellent Blues at Home Volume 13 on Marcucci’s own Mbiraphon label.
Years have passed since the summers of 1984 and 1985 when I used to hang out along Old Brownsville Road, and time has not been kind to the Black community that once was there. Most of the small homes and farms which used to line the road have been replaced by suburban tract subdivisions, but I did notice that one of the new subdivisions had a road named Guffin Road. I didn’t really expect to find much, for the area had been so built up, but suddenly, in the middle of an otherwise-ordinary suburban subdivision was a stand of old forest and an old, historic looking home. It was weather-beaten and ancient, and there was no historic marker, but I could not help but imagine that it had been preserved for a reason. Could it have been the homestead of Columbus “Lum” Guffin? I took a few pictures of that house on that pleasant sunny Sunday in July, and posted them on Facebook, and within a day, I learned that the house was indeed the old home of Lum Guffin. I heard from several of Guffin’s descendants over the next few weeks, and learned that many of them are active in gospel music. My next step is to try to set up interviews with many of the remaining members of Guffin’s family in the hopes of making his story fully known.
Segregation of the races was the law in most of the Southern United States from around 1890 on, but as the Progressive era dawned in the early 20th Century, attitudes hardened even further. As developers planned new townsites in the South, they began to conceive of the concept of building entirely separate towns for Blacks, rather than having them live in a particular neighborhood of the same town that white people lived in. So Harlem, Florida was built for the Black community outside of Clewiston, Florida, and West Amory, Mississippi was built for the Black community of Amory, and North Gulfport and North Tunica were built for Blacks who lived near Gulfport and Tunica respectively. Likewise, when developers started platting the Sunset Addition to the town of Marion, Arkansas, as a place for Blacks to buy land and build homes, the city officials in Marion decided to exclude the new subdivision from the city limits. Although the developers showed their intentions to build a community destined to be part of Marion when they chose the name “Sunset Addition”, the city excluded the community, and that decision had long-term impacts on the availability of electricity, water and city services in the Sunset area. Sunset was never a big place, and in fact was only three streets wide, but it had a number of churches, a gin, a few stores, and perhaps its most important institution, the James Sebastian Phelix High School, founded in 1946 and named for a local undertaker. The Phelix School provided education for a Black community desperate for learning, but while white students in Marion were provided a free public education, parents of Phelix students in the high school grades had to pay tuition when the school first opened. In 1970, Phelix High School was closed under court order, and its students transferred to Marion High School. Despite the importance of Phelix High School in the history of Marion and Sunset, the buildings have been abandoned, and the oldest building is deteriorating rapidly and being reclaimed by the wilderness.
After many years of Marion refusing to annex Sunset Addition, and fed up with the lack of public services, the people of the community voted in 1971 to incorporate Sunset as a town. Although they were hopeful about the opportunity for Black self-government, the new town faced many hurdles. Its small size, the relative lack of retail business, the lack of any employers or jobs, and the low property values within the city limits all reflected the fact that Sunset was intended to be a subdivision within Marion, not a separate town. The years since 1971 have seen scandals, financial problems, and a rapidly dwindling population. It seems likely that Sunset will eventually become part of Marion.
For reasons lost to history, at some point, there was a little wide place in the road north of Marion, Arkansas called Harvard. It wasn’t exactly a town, but the Frisco railroad had a large switching yard there, which they predictably named Harvard Yard. In the late 1970’s, a local developer decided to build a community there, which he also named Harvard Yard. He envisioned his subdivision as meeting a need for poor, working families, and built homes and apartments in angular, modern designs with a weathered wood finish. The subdivision was interspersed with parklands and pavilions, and the streetnames reflected something of a British flair. Home prices were low, and houses were small, but the community really didn’t look all that different from similar subdivisions elsewhere in Crittenden County.
The seeds of a problem occurred, however, in the fact that Harvard Yard was not part of any incorporated town. Located just to the north of the tiny, cash-strapped town of Sunset, Harvard Yard received no city services from Sunset, nor from the larger city of Marion. Sunset had always been an all-Black community, and over time, Harvard Yard also became all-Black. Many of the houses had become owned by corporations or absentee landowners. When people moved out, houses were often abandoned. Fires were common, and the burned-out ruins were left standing, until the trees and undergrowth simply grew up around them. There was no trash pickup in unincorporated Crittenden County, and some people began throwing their trash into the abandoned houses dotted throughout the community. With so much abandonment, drug dealing and violent crime became a problem in the community as well.
Nowadays, Harvard Yard is a bizarre landscape, a former suburban community that has become a disaster area, not through any weather event, but through the toll of poverty, absentee ownership, lack of services and crime. The streets show a handful of inhabited dwellings surrounded by wrecks and ruins, but children play exuberantly in the streets. In the dead center of the community is a small foreign-owned grocery store that seems popular with the local residents and children. It is the only business in the community.
What to do about Harvard Yard is a subject that has bedeviled the leadership of Crittenden County for many years. Many of the houses need demolition, but the county’s annual fund for demolitions is easily depleted each year, as one house costs $3000 to demolish. The county managed to arrange for garbage pickup in 2016, and residents have praised that step, but a July tour of the community showed that a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps Harvard Yard and Sunset would be better off as part of the nearby city of Marion.
South of Turrell, Arkansas along Highway 77 are a string of small rural towns and communities before the county seat town of Marion. The largest of these is Jericho, Arkansas, although “large” is a relative term, as Jericho only has about 116 residents, according to the Census Bureau. It has a former school that looks as if it was most recently a restaurant, a former juke joint that is for sale, a small grocery store that evidently isn’t open on Sundays, and an old city hall and the new and current city hall. Like so many other places in Eastern Arkansas, Jericho has been decimated by the death of American agriculture, the Black migration to the big cities, and the toll of rural poverty. Despite its proximity to West Memphis and Memphis, Jericho seems to be fading away.