Fife and drum music was once found in Black communities throughout the South, but by 1970, it was found only in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, and by 1981, only in several Mississippi counties. With the recent retirement of Calvin Hurt of Panola County from playing,the Hurt Family Band seems to be a thing of the past, and there is really now only one Black fife and drum picnic in the United States, the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which nowadays takes place in Coldwater, Mississippi, after many years at Otha Turner’s farm near Gravel Springs.
This year, on Saturday, the event was hampered to some extent by storms and lightning, but there was enough breaks in the rain that the performers were able to come on stage, and there was a decent crowd outside the Northwest Shrine Club in Coldwater, which was the site of the festival this year. The evening opened with female blues singer Andrea Staten, who covered classic songs by Senatobia artist Jessie Mae Hemphill and longtime Como resident Mississippi Fred McDowell. She was followed by R. L. Boyce, who performed with an Australian blues musician named Dom Turner, who was visiting Mississippi,and with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums. Afterwards, the band 78 from Memphis came up to play a mix of originals and Hill Country standards.
Between the bands, Sharde Thomas brought out her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, and they marched through the crowd with fife and drum, attracting a group of dancers behind them. The second time the Rising Stars played, they marched onto the stage and were joined by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. That impromptu jam session was memorable indeed.
Unfortunately at that point, the thunder and lightning that had been visible to the southwest started approaching nearer to the festival grounds. With bad weather eminent, and having to drive back to Brownsville and then Memphis, I left the event early.
Home Place Pastures was originally founded in 1869 or 1871, depending on the source, as a cotton plantation in the wilderness east of the railroad town of Como, Mississippi. It has belonged to several successive generations of the Bartlett family, with the most recent owners having decided to convert it from traditional agriculture to sustainable and organic beef, pork and lamb. The decision was an inspired one, and more and more restaurant menus in our region bear the legend “We proudly serve Home Place Pastures pork.” In addition to pasture-raised livestock, the Home Place has also served as a wedding venue at times. But once a year, it also becomes home to one of the Hill Country’s most important food and blues events, the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic.
The French word “boucherie” literally means a butcher’s shop, but the Hill Country Boucherie is actually a five-course meal prepared by nationally-renowned chefs. This year, items from 25 of the South’s best restaurants were available, and many people chose to camp on the grounds for the whole weekend. There was also a rock and hip-hop music festival on Friday night called Muscle Fest, which included the groundbreaking Memphis hip-hop artist Cities Aviv.
Nevertheless, for lovers of the Hill Country Blues, it is the blues picnic after the boucherie that is the main attraction. The Home Place Pastures is actually the perfect location for blues music, with a large pavilion suited to the purpose, and a retrofitted school bus with its front wall cut away to convert it into a movable stage. Fans have to sit on bales of hay, but that is half the fun, and the kids love playing on the larger haystacks that separate the fans from the artists-only area backstage.
For those who didn’t buy tickets to the boucherie, the Blues Picnic always has excellent pulled pork, and this year was no exception, except that they also had delicious brisket sandwiches, provided by Smoke Shop BBQ in Oxford.
As for the music, the evening began with the Como Mamas, singing a capella, but their voices were so strong that they easily carried the crowd. They were soon followed by R. L. Boyce, the elder statesman of Hill Country blues, who had just celebrated a birthday a few days before. Boyce, who often improvises lyrics as he goes, sang that he had said he wasn’t going to sing anymore, but evidently had changed his mind. His slow and languid “Jesus Is Going To Meet Me By The River Jordan” is a study in discipline, a humid aural landscape based on the plagal cadence at the end of hymns, a fitting soundtrack to sweltering summer days, kids playing on haystacks, or slow-moving creeks and bayous in the late afternoons. As his fellow musicians often attempt to pick up its pace, Boyce calmly but firmly re-establishes the slow tempo he demands. It is a sound unlike any other in the region.
Kenny Brown is another matter altogether, a disciple of both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, who picked up the electrified sound of the latter man’s last stylistic phase. Hill Country blues amplified and electrified becomes a kind of rock and roll, and Brown, along with compatriot Cedric Burnside, are the two best exponents of this style and sound, which has a large following in and around the Oxford area.
The Home Place Band, AKA the Como-Tions, is Marshall Bartlett’s own band. They generally make an appearance at each year’s boucherie, and occasionally at the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas’ Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band. Although music is more a fun hobby than a vocation for them, they are actually quite good, and their “Hog Farmin’ Daddy” is a hilarious song that somewhat describes what Home Place Pastures is all about.
Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band were not on the published schedule, but nonetheless made a welcome appearance. Black fife and drum music is perhaps the earliest secular Black music in the Hill Country, and simply the right thing for a moonlight picnic near Como. The rhythms and polyrhythms demand action, and people get up to parade and dance and second-line around the grounds.
The headline performer of the evening was the Rev. John Wilkins, son of the late Robert Wilkins, of “Prodigal Son” fame. John is the pastor of Hunters Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, not far from the Home Place, and a major gospel music star in his own right. Playing a music that differs little from traditional Hill Country blues except for the lyrics has given Wilkins a forum that few other gospel artists could attain, for he plays many nights a year at festivals and even night clubs where he is often the only gospel act. Yet he never compromises his beliefs, or sings a secular song. One can only imagine how many blues fans, perhaps burdened with troubles or sorrows, have been comforted and perhaps encouraged by something the Rev. John Wilkins sang or said at precisely the right time. After reminding us that when God says we have to move, we have to move, he then reminded us that “You can’t hurry God” but He’s “right on time.” There was a final country band scheduled to go on stage after Wilkins, but there was really no better message to carry away from the Hill Country boucherie and blues picnic. God is always right on time.
Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.
While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.
But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.
Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.
R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).
At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.
Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.
My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.
In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.
Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.
Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.
What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.
While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.
At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.
In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.
Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.
Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure.
Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered.
The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere.
After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia.
Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians.
Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release.
Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America.
This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes.
Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
After the six months of mentoring under the Tennessee Folklife Arts Program, mentors and apprentices were invited to a reception at the Tennessee Arts Commission office in Nashville in order to highlight what they learned during the program. So Kesha Burton from Brownsville, R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce and Willie Hurt, who had all been involved in the project to reintroduce fife and drum music to West Tennessee, all headed out to Nashville for the reception. Although the weather was stormy and wet in Memphis, we found that Nashville was dry and sunny, with the downtown area extremely busy with various events and festivals. In addition to the fife and drum project, other apprentices learned basket-making, chair-making, guitar-making, Panamanian dress making, buckdancing, Black gospel quartet performance, and square-dance calling. Although the space for the reception was somewhat cramped, everyone had a good time. Afterwards, I took Kesha Burton to Shipwreck Cove out at Percy Priest Reservoir to celebrate. After a stop for gelato at Legacy Gelato, and a run by Trader Joe’s to pick up some items that we cannot get in Memphis, we headed back to Brownsville, and then I to Memphis.
Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.
In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill