I am not sure how my friend Sherena Boyce became aware of Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, but at some point a couple of years ago, she began to tell me of this female blues artist who was kin to the late Paul “Wine” Jones and who sounded something like Jessie Mae Hemphill. Since that time, we had wanted to help her market and promote herself as an artist, but the pandemic got in the way. Finally, here in April 2021, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly subsiding, we set up a time for her to come to Clarksdale so we could shoot still photos and video footage of her that we hope will enable her to gain notice and get more live performances.
“Honeybee,” as she likes to be called, lives at Indianola, in the Delta, but her guitar style more resembles the Hill Country style of blues than that of the Delta. She is furthermore a traditionalist, and has avoided the influence of most modern blues; her repertoire consists of old, traditional lyrics like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” or “Catfish Blues.” Her appearance should be welcomed at a time when most blues is of the Southern soul variety, and where female blues artists are few and far between outside of Southern soul.
Sean “Bad” Apple, blues musician and entrepreneur extraordinaire in Clarksdale was gracious enough to provide the use of his new club, the Bad Apple Blues Club, for our video and photo session on a Saturday afternoon before a small crowd of people who were in Clarksdale for the full week before Juke Joint Festival. His club, in the former Club 2000 building on Issaquena Avenue, has something of the authentic juke atmosphere of Red’s, but if the color scheme of Red’s revolves around red, Apple’s club revolves around blue. The space is tiny, but the atmosphere is warm and convivial. As for Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, she is a new voice of Mississippi blues that we will be hearing about for some time to come.
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.
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.
Many years ago, Memphis arguably had one of the country’s best Black coffee bars. Precious Cargo, in the Pinch District, was both a coffee bar and one of the best places in the city for Black spoken word, avant-garde jazz, reggae, neo-soul and fellowship. Unfortunately, a fire set it back, and though it reopened for another year or so, it eventually closed. The opening this summer, during a pandemic no less, of a new Black coffee bar called Muggin Coffee House in Whitehaven is an exciting new addition to the city of Memphis. Not only does Muggin fill a gap in the Black community of Memphis, but it is also the only coffee bar in Whitehaven that is not inside of the airport or the Graceland complex. Although the coffee bar is located in an ancient strip mall, the inside is bright and cheerful. Muggin features the usual array of hot espresso-based drinks, as well as a selection of baked goods including chocolate chip and brown butter cookies, and two frozen concoctions which are worthy of further discussion. The “Zippin Pippin” (named for a long-lost and beloved Memphis roller coaster) is a white chocolate and caramel frappe, while the “Flickin’ on Beale” is a delicious chocolate and espresso frappe. The latter, unlike the Starbucks equivalent, is not overwhelmingly sweet, with some of the sweetness cut by strong coffee, making for a perfectly refreshing summer treat. Roasted bags of whole bean coffees are available for purchase, and the different varieties have clever names, including the Miles Davis-inspired “Kinda Brew,” the Three-6 Mafia inspired “Hard Out Here For A Drip,” and the DJ Squeaky-inspired “Lookin’ For The Brewin’.” The name of the establishment cleverly combines the slang-term “muggin'” suggesting confidence and bravado, with the idea of coffee mugs. Currently, Muggin’ closes early, about 6 PM, and no live performances are currently planned, with COVID-19 concerns still in play. However, it seems likely that at some future point, Muggin’ may also be an evening spot for live performances, at least occasionally. One can certainly hope.
The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
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.
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.