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A Blues Yard Party in Rosemark’s Chapel Hill Community
A Blues Yard Party in Rosemark’s Chapel Hill Community

A Blues Yard Party in Rosemark’s Chapel Hill Community

Chapel Hill Community is an odd subdivision in far north Shelby County between Rosemark and Arlington. It looks like a piece of Raleigh or Frayser that was dragged fifteen miles north into the middle of cotton fields and left there, consisting of about four streets of suburban-type houses and a small water treatment plant. Some of the houses are burnt out or boarded up, but otherwise, Chapel Hill doesn’t look all that different from other Memphis-area subdivisions. Its origins, however, are shrouded in mystery. It seems to have been built in 1972 and 1973, apparently as a project of the Farmers Home Administration, although there are no news articles that explain the project or what it was intended to do. Presumably, it was a Federal effort to help sharecroppers who were being forced off the larger farms in the late 1960s as those farms either mechanized or sold out to developers. The houses, though small, were fairly nice for their day; the big issue in Chapel Hill is the considerable distance from a fire department, a police station, a library, a gas station or even a store.

Yard parties are common in Black communities of Mississippi, but less common in Shelby County, Tennessee. This particular occasion was a man’s 70th birthday, and for it, his family had hired Big Don Valentine and the Hollywood All-Stars, one of the few original Memphis blues bands that still functions. Given the occasion and the feel-good atmosphere, Big Don largely avoided the more recent music and went deep into the blues, performing rarely-heard tunes like “Cummins Prison Farm,” “Killing’ Floor,” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Take Off Your Shoes.” Southern soul star Terry Wright, apparently a friend of the man whose birthday it was, stopped through to enjoy some of the music and food, and eventually, almost a hundred people filled the small front yard, driveway and carport. At such events, there is a camaraderie between the party-goers and the musicians, and the music is deeper and rawer than what is common at a club. Only at evening’s end, as people began to leave, did I realize that the streets of Chapel Hill have no lights, and it soon became extremely dark, but it was one of those memorable events which come all too far apart.

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