On and off over the last few years, I have been playing with Duwayne Burnside, the extraordinary blues guitarist and son of Hill Country blues great R. L. Burnside. Our rehearsals recently have been in Holly Springs, but up until last weekend, I never noticed the work of folk art on what appears to be a garage behind a house at West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street. “The Color of My Skin Is Not A Weapon,” says one sign, while the other proclaims “White Silence=White Consent.” Both are surrounded by African masks.
Down Boundary Street to the south toward Highway 7, I noticed another building for the first time, a large two-story building with a chimney at both ends which looked quite historic, but which for some reason I had never noticed before. It looked to be quite old, but I had no idea exactly how old it actually is. The building, once the University of Holly Springs, was built in 1837! It later housed a boys’ school called the Chalmers Institute. Although it looks abandoned, it is apparently in the process of being restored, and will supposedly become a venue for music concerts, weddings and receptions.
The Fisherville and Cordova communities in eastern Shelby County, Tennessee are among the few places in the Memphis area that have retained something of their rural character, but like similar places in Fayette and Tipton counties, the areas are severely threatened by the expansion of new residential development and commercial development eastward into the area.
On a hot but sunny Sunday afternoon, I decided to ride out into those areas and take pictures of the historic buildings that remain. Using an iPhone app called Filmroll, I was able to take beautiful pictures that have the finish of classic films, such as Agfa Ultra 50 and Kodak Ektar 100, and I was especially impressed with the results. Only a couple of historic buildings remain in Fisherville, which was never a large community, but Cordova’s old downtown is remarkably well-preserved, despite its annexation by Memphis. Even its old railroad depot remains standing, unlike the ones that have vanished in towns like Bartlett, Brunswick and Millington.
The blues researcher Bengt Olsson indicated that the Independent Pole Bearers Band No. 12 of Mount Pisgah used to march and play in Cordova, and I imagine it used to take place around the depot and the stores across the street. Sadly, the place is very quiet now. The only noise is the sound of car tires on pavement.
Fayette County, in the part of West Tennessee that we might call the state’s Delta region, was for most of its history a highly rural county. Primarily an area of large cotton plantations before the civil war, it had few large towns. Even its county seat, Somerville, was and remains tiny by most perspectives, with only about 2,000 residents. However, in recent years, the proximity to Memphis has begun to take its toll, and many of the old rural scenes and locations are disappearing into a realm of tract subdivisions and shopping centers, particularly in the western parts of the county nearest to Memphis and its suburbs.
Still, in the northwestern corner of the county nearest to Mason, Tennessee, one can find reminders of the county’s past. On nice and warm days, I still occasionally ride the backroads in these areas, looking for things to photograph before they too disappear to new development.
Here at The Delta Review, we have discussed the excellent Brunswick Kitchen restaurant before, and it is enough here to restate that it is a great and fun getaway from Memphis for a Friday evening dinner of catfish or pulled pork barbecue, in an old general store building which makes for a fun and pleasant setting.
But on this particular Friday night, there was a mysterious golden glow in the sky, after a day that had seen pop-up showers. Not only did the sunlight seem to make all the colors of buildings and trees more brilliant, but for the first time I noticed that the old abandoned house in the block north of the restaurant was situated in the middle of a pecan orchard. I had never noticed the perfectly straight rows of trees until that precise moment. It was a gorgeous sight to go along with a great meal.
Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.
Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.
There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.
With my birthday falling on Monday December 2, I decided to celebrate a day early by going to New Orleans for the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, since I knew that the To Be Continued Brass Band would be playing in it.
The TBC Brass Band, as it is usually called, is one of the bands that first attracted me to New Orleans’ street brass band culture, and is the band that most typifies the modern brass band sound and style. Although the band has a youthful, defiant hip-hop swagger, its music is firmly rooted in both the brass band tradition and the standard soul tunes of the Black community.
Waking up at 8 AM in Jackson, Mississippi, I had to stop for breakfast, which I did at Cultivation Food Hall, where I had chicken and waffles at a place called Fete au Fete, which I didn’t realize was a branch of a New Orleans restaurant chain. However the food was great, and with a cup of coffee from Il Lupo Coffee I got back on the road headed for New Orleans. Unfortunately, the parade was set to begin in the Treme neighborhood at noon, and I only made it across the causeway at 11:45, and by the time I made it to Treme and found a place to park (under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne), the parade was already underway. However the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees, and the sun was out, and as a result, crowds were everywhere. The club members and bands were just coming out of the Treme Community Center when I arrived, and although I would have liked to have grabbed a coffee at the Treme Coffeehouse before following the bands into the parade, I decided it was better not to be left behind.
As it turned out, TBC had not yet come out of the community center, and they were marching behind the Divine Ladies, a social aid and pleasure club that apparently parades with the Dumaine Street Gang every year. This year’s parade actually featured no less than five bands, and as we headed out Orleans Avenue, with the sun beaming, I felt the wave of exhilaration that I always feel when starting out on a second-line. At first there were fewer onlookers along the sidewalks, but eventually the crowds picked up, including those on horseback that always seem to appear at any downtown second-line. One difference with this particular second-line was that there were almost no route stops at all, and the bands and marchers had little time to rest. One exception was a brief stop along Broad Street, where a group of Mardi Gras Indians began setting up a chant “They got to sew, sew, sew” with tambourines, which Brenard “Bunny” Adams, the tuba player for TBC, ended up picking up, and soon the whole band was playing their brass band version of it. Not long afterward, the Divine Ladies instructed their members to move forward, and we were soon on the march again.
Walking down Esplanade, I noticed the ruins of Le Palm Ballroom, at which once I had seen TBC play at a funeral. Now the roof had caved in, and the building seemed destined for demolition. Heading up Claiborne Avenue, past Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, we came to St. Bernard Avenue and headed up it past Celebration Hall and the Autocrat Club, where a lot of motorcycle clubs had posted up with their bikes. The parade went as far as the Dollar General and T-Mobile stores, and then u-turned to head back down toward Treme, with TBC breaking into a joyful and upbeat song that I had heard them play before but which I didn’t know the name of.
However, I was filming video footage with my iPhone 7, and it soon ran out of battery life, so when the second-line started down the final push along Claiborne, I fell out of the line and went to my car, in order to begin charging the phone. I had thought that I could grab a coffee at Treme Coffeehouse, and meet up with Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, but I was frustrated on both counts. About 5000 or so people were at the second-line, and the resulting gridlock and chaos made getting anywhere impossible. The police had the whole area around the community center and coffeehouse blocked off, and not only could I not get into the area, but Darren could not get out. The end result was that he could not go with me for my birthday dinner in New Orleans.
Instead, I headed across the river to Gretna to the Liberty Kitchen Steak and Chop House, which was one of the few steakhouses open in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon. Darren and I had eaten at one of their sister restaurants in Metairie a few years ago; that location had closed, but we had been impressed with the food. I was impressed again on this particular evening; my filet mignon was delicious, as were the sides. The food was not cheap, but I have had inferior meals at higher prices, and the easy access and free parking were an added benefit.
After dinner, I wanted dessert, so I headed over to Freret Street to a place called Piccola Gelateria, where I had a peanut butter and fudge gelato in a cup, and by then, it was time to head back over to Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, where the TBC Brass Band was playing their weekly Sunday night gig.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge was founded by the late Ernie “K-Doe” Kador, who named the place for his biggest recorded hit ever, “Mother in Law.” After he passed away, his widow had kept it open until she also passed away. Kermit Ruffins, the world-famous trumpet player who is also well-regarded as a chef, had closed his jazz lounge in the Treme neighborhood, but when the Mother-In-Law Lounge closed, he acquired it, restored it and soon had it back open. There was already a significant crowd in and around the lounge when I got there, despite the fact that the live music had not yet started. Somewhat incongruously, the center of attraction was at first a DJ playing New Orleans rap and bounce. But it was the older, classic stuff and contributed to the feel-good vibe of the place, which was painted in vibrant colors and with numerous slogans and quotes from the late K-Doe.
Although I feared that the weather would turn colder, at least when I arrived, it was still fairly warm and pleasant out on the patio where the stage was located. The TBC members had largely stayed in the area, as they could not get out of the massive traffic jam that had accompanied the end of the second-line, and they soon began trickling into the club and setting things up on the patio. There was a large television screen outside with the Sunday night NFL game on, but most of the attention was focused on the stage once the To Be Continued Brass Band started playing. Ruffins’ love of marijuana is no secret, and when the TBC band played a new song about “getting so high,” Kermit suddenly appeared on the roof and shot off fireworks, to the thrill of the patio crowd. The band also broke out with a new song, “I Heard Ya Been Talking,” which is aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band, a newer band that has allegedly been talking smack against TBC. Such rivalries, which resemble rap group rivalries, are a usual thing in the New Orleans brass band culture.
As the night progressed, things got chillier on the patio, and TBC broke out with some smoother sounds, a pleasant reading of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm.” Then they closed out, all too soon, with a funky version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that seemed to owe something to the Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save.” It was a great way to end the evening.
But by now, it was fairly chilly indeed, and fog was developing. I met Darren Towns in Marrero, and we headed back over to the French Quarter in New Orleans to the Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. In previous years, my move would have been to the Morning Call at the Casino in City Park, but the City of New Orleans had evicted Morning Call in favor of the Cafe du Monde, but the latter had decided to not be open 24 hours a day in City Park, and the location had already closed for the night. Fortunately, we were able to find a free parking place along Decatur Street, and we sat at the table enjoying our beignets and coffee. Bunny had called Darren from Frenchmen Street, but he didn’t come through where we were, and so when we left, we drove down Frenchmen Street to see if anything was going on, but there really wasn’t much of anything, and the fog and chill were in the air. Ultimately, we headed back across the bridge to Marrero. But it had been a great day to celebrate my birthday with my favorite brass band in New Orleans.
On my last venture into downtown Vicksburg, I recall that an old building on Clay Street was collapsing into the street. A large pile of bricks had fallen, and the city had simply put workhorses around the pile to warn motorists to drive around it. I got the impression that like many cities, Vicksburg’s commerce had fled the downtown area to the outskirts, and I expected that the downtown would continue to deteriorate. But my Sunday afternoon visit en route from Monroe to Memphis showed me that a remarkable transformation has taken place. I am not sure if it is due to the casinos, or other forms of tourism, but Vicksburg is now home to downtown restaurants like Cottonwood Public House, and the Biscuit Company, a microbrewery called Key City, the Highway 61 Coffee House, museums, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot, and many other restored buildings. The place that had so resembled a ghost town on that visit years ago is now booming, and certainly worth a visit. However, almost everything other than restaurants is closed on Sundays. Tourism or not, this is still Mississippi.
As I headed east on Old Highway 80 from Monroe on a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to spend some time looking for things to photograph in Rayville and Delhi, primarily. One reason was that I had already thoroughly documented Tallulah a few years ago, so I decided that I should look more closely at other towns in the Delta. At first glance, Rayville looked promising. A sign at the edge of the Black community read “Tribe of Judah Block Club” and there were a number of juke joints on the east side of the town south of the railroad tracks. But I was soon disappointed, as there were a number of men sitting out in front of Queens Hall and Club Suga Ray’s. I don’t generally photograph jukes if people are sitting or standing in front of them, as the people generally don’t want to be photographed. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders in general, and white people in particular, and often seem to think that I must be the police. So I only shot a couple of pictures of the cafes that were closed and didn’t have anyone around them, and then I headed on to Delhi, which was even more disappointing than Rayville. There were no clubs or jukes in Delhi, only the old 80/20 club that used to be outside of town, and it was not something that would look cool in a picture. But at Thomasville, west of Tallulah, I came upon an abandoned church called Peter’s Rock Missionary Baptist church, and the sprawling ruins of abandoned Thomastown High School. The latter school had been merged with McCall High School in Tallulah in 2001, and then that school had also been closed and abandoned when Madison High School was opened. Both McCall and Thomastown schools have been simply allowed to rot. At Thomastown, a nearby farmer is using the campus to store his hay, but the vines have grown up all the way over the two-story building, which is truly sad and shocking. Doors to the dangerous buildings are wide open, and there is evidence online that explorers have gone inside and taken photos. Judging from what they found, books and equipment were simply left behind to rot with the building. All of this represents a considerable amount of taxpayer expenditure in what is one of the poorest counties in America. The powers that be will tell us that the children of the eastern part of Madison Parish are better off this way, despite the forty-mile round trip to school each day. They will point to the newer and more modern building at Madison High School, and the larger enrollment. But is it really better? Louisiana is full of such abandoned schools, rotting along rural roads, almost all of them former Black schools before integration. Is there a correlation between closing and consolidating schools and worsening student performance? I think it is worthy of study.
Eastern Ouachita Parish, Louisiana is loaded with pecan trees. They cover the land in great rows for miles and miles. These perfectly straight rows exist amidst subdivisions, new construction, and overgrown woods. Some of the trees are clearly 50 or more years old, and many of them have clearly not been cared for in years. On a satellite image, one is even more amazed; the perfectly straight rows of trees cover literally square mile upon square mile. What is the story of all these pecan trees? How did they get there?
Monroyans today have heard of Pecanland Mall, but long before there was a mall, there was Pecanland, an old rambling mansion of a house along Highway 80, about nine miles east of Monroe, with a metal arch bearing the name over its driveway and pecan groves as far as the eye could see. The story of the place begins with Francis Palmer Stubbs, a Georgia man who resettled in Monroe, Louisiana and soon began growing acres and acres of cotton. He was a Colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and had a son named Guyton Palmer Stubbs. In 1917, Guy (as he was known) was running the family plantations, and cotton was still the primary crop. But an article that year indicated that the family was diversifying their crops, and as early as 1923, Guy Stubbs was advertising in the Monroe newspapers that he had excellent pecan trees for sale. By 1931, he had the largest privately-held pecan groves in the United States, with four plantations, including one called Nutland and one called Pecanland. The farm manager in the 1970’s claimed that Guy P. Stubbs had planted the best available trees on the best available land, and that many of the trees were 50 years old and still bearing.
Although some of the pecans were harvested by hand, Stubbs Pecanland did not particularly like pecans sitting on the ground for any length of time. Instead, they employed mechanical limb shakers to knock the nuts down, and had a fairly elaborate mechanical nut grading system, which was used to separate pecans of varying grades based on how much meat they had. At the time, Monroe was famous for pecans, and for pecan-based candy, and Louisiana was the second-largest pecan producing state.
What happened to Pecanland, on the other hand, is not exactly clear. Guy P. Stubbs had two sons, Guy P. Stubbs Jr. and William King Stubbs. The latter chose to leave the pecan business and become an architect, becoming famous enough to have a book written about him. By the time I happened to see the house at Pecanland one day on Old Highway 80, it was clearly abandoned. I was curious, and figured that the mall had been named for it. It is possible that over time the price of pecans declined to the point that the business was no longer profitable. But it is also true that the city of Monroe began to more and more encroach on the massive groves. Stubbs Pecanland Inc. began to sell more and more of its land to developers, including the ones who built the new mall along Interstate 20. Soon, little was left except the old house and the groves in the immediate vicinity.
On a recent trip, even the old house is now gone, apparently torn down to make way for Pecan Haven Addiction Recovery Center, a youth drug rehab facility that nearby residents opposed. An old creole-style cottage still remains, with a driveway leading back to some other buildings, but as trucks were parked there, it is still private property and I didn’t walk back into it. There is no trace of the old overhanging arch that read “Pecanland” either, although there is a strange stone structure on the south side of Highway 80 across from the driveway. It resembles a fireplace, but might have once been some sort of fountain or water feature. Could it have had something to do with Pecanland? Was it perhaps built by William King Stubbs? At least the Stubbs name is preserved by a couple of road names in the vicinity, as well as Stubbs Avenue in Monroe. A junkyard nearby on Highway 80 proclaims itself Louisiana Pecan Shelling Company and sells bags of pecans and pecan candies, but due to its curtailed hours, I did not manage to make it there. It’s a far cry from the beauty of Guy Stubb’s old Pecanland place, of which soon there will be nothing left but the trees.
Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.
Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.