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.
In 1963, the owners of the Sterick Building added a north parking garage on top of which was a new Holiday Inn with a pool deck. It was the talk of Memphis that summer, but eventually it fell on hard times, as did the Sterick Building a block to the south. But in 2019, the building was renovated as the upscale Hotel Indigo, and the restaurant space, which had last been a location of A & R Bar-B-Que, opened as 3rd and Court Diner , an upscale gourmet take on the classic American diner, owned by the good folks who own Sunrise Memphis. On a Sunday afternoon, the bright white-and-glass ambiance is cheerful, and unlike their sister restaurant, there is generally no wait to get a table or bar seat. The menu, while not as extensive as Sunrise Memphis, does have the same sausage, bacon and eggs, and some different items as well. Food and service were great, and there are flat-screen TVs if you want to watch ball games. The downstairs, which was formerly Memphis Sounds, a jazz, blues and soul lounge, has become simply The Lounge, and features live music on weekends.
Unfortunately, after several positive experiences with 3rd and Court, the owners made a decision to curtail its hours. It is no longer open at night (despite the lounge downstairs being open), and closes at 2 PM. Since Sunrise Memphis closes at 3 PM, that makes both restaurants breakfast and lunch only establishments, and limits my opportunity to get there. Here is hoping that the owners will eventually decide to restore the original hours.
The actual day of my birthday was much colder than the day before, but my friend Darren Towns of TBC Brass Band and I headed out to Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which is just about my favorite breakfast spot in New Orleans, for omelettes, biscuits and coffee. Then I stopped by Aunt Sally’s Pralines in the French Quarter to pick up a box of pralines to take home to Memphis. Actually, Decatur Street is a bewildering array of different praline shops, and figuring out which one to choose is not easy, but a waiter at the Cafe du Monde the night before had told me to pick a shop where the pralines were being made in house. It proved to be great advice. Although Aunt Sally’s pralines were outrageously expensive, they were just about the best I had ever had.
Darren had a busy day of things to do, so I dropped him off and headed by a Rouse’s supermarket to get the French Market coffee varieties that I cannot find in Memphis, and then headed across the Causeway to the Northshore on my way back to Memphis.
At Jackson, I headed to the District at Eastover to have lunch at Fine and Dandy, the upscale burger and sandwich restaurant which I had seen on my Grambling trip. Fine and Dandy is something of an enigma, with the high-end ambiance of a steakhouse, but an emphasis on burgers and other sandwiches. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other jazz vocalists comprise the soundtrack, giving the place a sort of “Oceans Eleven” vibe, but prices are reasonable, and the food is very good. I learned from my server that Fine and Dandy and its sister restaurant nearby, Sophomore Spanish Club, are locally-owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants. However, they are concepts that I could imagine working well in other cities.
After grabbing a latte at il Lupo coffee across the parking lot, I got back on the road north toward Como, Mississippi, where the bluesman R. L. Boyce was to be the Grand Marshal of the annual Christmas parade. With each mile northward the weather seemed to get colder, and by the time I arrived in Como, it was almost time for the parade, and extremely chilly.
Presumably the freezing weather and Monday night timeframe combined to keep the crowds to a minimum, but there were handfuls of parents and kids along Main Street, where some Black equestrians with their horses were riding up and down the street ahead of the parade’s start.
As I expected, Como’s parade was fairly small, some fire trucks, some cars with the mayor and other city officials, a few mayors from other towns, a Corvette car club, the bands from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica and the North Panola High School in Sardis, and the horsemen. R. L. was riding in a truck that had been emblazoned with the words, “Grand Marshal R. L. Boyce” and waved to me when he recognized me.
The parade u-turned north of the business district and headed back down the other side of Main Street, but the whole event only took about twenty minutes.
When it was all over, thoroughly frozen, I headed into Windy City Grill for my birthday dinner. Windy City is not a fancy restaurant, but it was bright, warm and cheerful inside, and fairly crowded for a Monday night. After a small pepperoni and bacon pizza, then I got back on the road to head home to Memphis. Although it was cold, it was a thoroughly enjoyable birthday. And I was so happy for the great honor showed to R. L. Boyce by his hometown.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the South Main Arts District in Memphis in search of brunch. The old Central Station has been turned into a hotel, and I wanted to see if there was a restaurant in it. Ultimately, I found that the restaurants in the Central Station Hotel were not open yet, and would not open until later in November, but I wasn’t disappointed, as I got a chance to see the beautiful Eight and Sand Bar, whose theme is Memphis music. Record albums span the shelves from ceiling to floor, along with a number of books about Memphis music and blues, and a permanent DJ booth. The music theme continues throughout the hotel, including beautiful speakers worked into the walls of the lobby.
I had thought that Vice & Virtue Coffee had a coffee bar in the Central Station Hotel, but I was wrong—it turned out to be in a completely different hotel up the street called the Arrive, which I really wasn’t aware of at all. This hotel also has a music theme, with an old gramophone in the lobby, and a cool bakery called Hustle and Dough! A salted caramel cookie from the bakery went perfectly with a cup of Vice and Virtue coffee, and I enjoyed the lively, vibrant atmosphere of the hotel lobby and bar.
Unfortunately, a cookie and coffee is not brunch, and the old brunch spot at Earnestine and Hazel’s called The Five Spot is apparently closed for good, so I ended up at The Arcade for breakfast, a reasonable stand-by in the area. While it will take more than cool hotels, bars, coffee and bakeries to rejuvenate Memphis, I like the trends I am seeing.
Central Station Hotel and Eight & Sand Bar
545 S Main St
Memphis, TN 38103
ARRIVE Hotel, Hustle and Dough and Vice & Virtue Coffee
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.
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.
I had agreed to drop off a co-worker at work on my way out of town, so I ended up getting on the road at 5 in the morning. I had intended to grab breakfast at the well-known Blue and White Cafe in Tunica, but I found them closed, as they don’t open until 7 AM, and while there was a breakfast restaurant in Helena, Arkansas, I didn’t know a lot about them. So, after looking on my Yelp app and seeing a place called Jim’s Cafe in Greenville, I decided to head that direction, and at Lula, I got on Highway 1. The morning had been totally dark up until that point, but as I approached the community of Rena Lara in Coahoma County, beams of light began to appear just above the horizon of the flat Delta land. The Great River Road Country Store was open, and I stopped there for a soft drink before continuing down the road. Each mile brought an increase in light to the east. Dark lakes, bayous and swamps were steaming in the winter cold, and the road passed through occasional clouds of dense fog. At Beulah, the sun finally appeared, and I stopped there to take pictures of an old, decrepit general store.
When I finally reached Greenville, I came upon Nelson Street, which had a different look than when Sherena Boyce and I had seen it a few years ago. This street had of course been the Main Street for Blacks in the Delta, serving a similar role in Greenville as Beale Street had in Memphis or Farish Street in Jackson. While the redevelopment of such streets in bigger cities have become political briarpatches, in Greenville, nobody has ever really discussed redevelopment of Nelson Street in any normal sense of the term. The Flowing Fountain, its most famous blues club, had burned several years ago, and although a building was rebuilt on the site, it remains closed. Several other sports bars, clubs and cafes remain, all seemingly intended to serve the residents of the nearby neighborhoods. No tourists venture to Nelson Street anymore except to go to Doe’s Eat Place.
Downtown Greenville shocks these days by its emptiness. There were hardly any cars at all, and free parking still does not attract shoppers or visitors to the area. An old Elks Lodge on Washington Avenue was collapsing, despite its obvious historical value. It had been surrounded by a fence to protect passersby and nearby buildings. Jim’s Cafe was in the next to last block before Lake Ferguson, and was relatively crowded. Some men with northern accents were sitting at a table talking about the upcoming elections. I could not tell if they were reporters or political consultants for one of the candidates. Jim’s specializes in breakfast, and I was not disappointed. It is of course not a fancy place, but my bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious, and they gave me so many hashbrowns that they had to use a second plate for them! The biscuits were great as well.
After breakfast, I walked around the area shooting some pictures. The opening of a brewery and the Downtown Grille a couple of years ago had led me to believe that Greenville was experiencing something of a downtown renaissance. I learned on this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The brewery closed in late 2018, and although the Downtown Grille has remained open, many other places were closed, including the former Key West Inn, which was boarded up, the adjacent Cajun Shot Gun restaurant, and the Columbus and Greenville Railroad depot, with its old kitchen equipment left outside to rot. A block to the north of Washington Avenue on Broadway was a beautiful Victorian wood-frame house which had also been abandoned and left to rot. One of the eaves had a beautiful rising sun pattern in the woodwork, and the house was clearly historic, despite the lack of a historic marker, or any effort at preservation. The current state of Greenville is tragic and depressing, especially considering the area’s deep cultural and music history, and the considerable tourism potential of the city. Clarksdale has learned how to leverage its culture and history for tourism; Greenville seems unable or unwilling to do so.
Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.
Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.
2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.
The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.
There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!
What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.
Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.
Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.