Growing up, my family used to meet in October for family reunions in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the “big city” in Mississippi; it had a zoo, malls, a large football stadium, a downtown with reasonably tall buildings, and a number of hotels and restaurants. There was also a large reservoir out to the northeast of town that provided a fair amount of recreation opportunities. But if we thought of Jackson as the “big city,” one thing we never thought of it as was hip. But that began changing over the years, and recently the hipness has been growing ever more rapidly. I discovered that a few weeks ago when I decided to stop at a new coffee bar called Il Lupo while on my way from Monroe to Memphis. I could not even place the location of this new coffee bar, which seemed to be located about where the old School for the Deaf and School for the Blind campuses were. I found that the area had in fact been turned into a mixed-use development called The District, which looked like something straight out of Austin, Texas. A number of apartments, with retail shops on the ground floor sat across a park-like courtyard from an upscale burger restaurant called Fine and Dandy, and another retail building which included something called Cultivation Food Hall, inside of which was the coffee bar.
Cultivation Food Hall, a bright and attractive space, is owned by the same firm that redeveloped the St. Roch Market in New Orleans as a food hall, and features a broad array of different food options. Although I went inside looking for the coffee bar, I soon came upon a gelato stand at Whisk Creperie as well, so I ended up going there first. Then I walked next door to Il Lupo to get a pour-over coffee, which was quite good. There’s no better preparation method if you want to enjoy the full flavor profile of high-quality coffee beans and coffee roasts. Had I not already eaten, there were other attractive food stalls in the hall, including one that was selling authentic Italian-style pizzas, and another that seemed to specialize in breakfast.
The District is currently not easy to get to from I-55, but it is certainly worth paying a visit to.
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.
When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.
The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.
The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.
Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.
Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.
Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.
One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.
West Monroe’s Trenton Street is one of the best places in the country to shop for antiques and ephemera. There’s not a whole lot with regards to music, as a certain man from Bastrop is a record collector and seller, and he routinely buys anything valuable he sees in the shops, but for old Louisiana books or Grambling State University ephemera, it is basically unbeatable. I spent about an hour browsing through the shops, while the city was setting up tables and chairs for some sort of evening event, and then I decided to head to the Bayou Brew House in Monroe for a cappuccino.
The Bayou Brew House had taken over the place on Desiard Street downtown where RoeLa Coffee Roasters had been, and I was hopeful that they still sold the RoeLa products, even though they had moved out by the Monroe airport. I was disappointed in that, but the coffee house proved to have a beautiful setting, in an old house under a number of trees, and the coffee options were awesome. Even better was learning that they sell breakfast, which is for some reason always a major challenge in Monroe.
With the sun going down, I decided to head out to Moon Lake, a resort and marina on an eponymous lake, north of Monroe and west of Highway 165. An article online said that the place featured amazing hamburgers and beautiful waterfront views, and it was a place I had never been. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the resort, I could find no trace of the restaurant. There were some people around, and some residents seemed to be barbecuing beside their RV’s and motor homes, but no crowds, or anything else to suggest a restaurant. Finally, I asked a man, who explained to me that the restaurant was closed due to the chilly weather, as all of its seating was on the open deck of a floating barge.
Disappointed, I made my way back into Monroe, and decided to head to Trapp’s, a place on the Ouachita River in West Monroe, where I had enjoyed a fried shrimp dinner a few years ago. The weather had been warm for the last several hours, and I made the mistake of choosing to sit out on the back deck overlooking the river and downtown Monroe. As the sun went down, it did not take long for the deck to become chilly indeed. But the food was as good as I had remembered it, and the place was crowded, inside and out.
After dinner, I headed to Grambling to spend some time with a friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, the journalism professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, who had formerly taught at Grambling. He was expecting a large number of relatives in town for the homecoming, and was getting things prepared. Down in the Village, Main Street was devoid of the people I would have expected to see during a homecoming in previous years. Perhaps the cold weather was keeping them away, but there was a bit more activity on the campus near the Quadrangle, where some young men seemed to be rapping on an outdoor stage. But there was no place to park, police were everywhere, and it was quite cold. So I headed back to my rental unit in West Monroe.
After a breakfast at the Brunswick Kitchen at Brunswick near Lakeland, I decided to spend the afternoon putting up flyers for the R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration, which is being held on September 1 during the Labor Day weekend. Coffee bars make a great place to promote events, as they typically have large community bulletin boards, or plenty of window space, so I made my way around to several Memphis area coffee bars on what was a very hot day indeed.
At Cafe Eclectic, one of Memphis’ oldest coffee bars, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a beer tap with the Illy logo on it. As Illy doesn’t make beer, I was curious, and had to ask the barista what it was. She explained that it was nitro, or nitrogenated coffee, and to my inquiries of what it was like, she responded by giving me a cold free glass of it. Without any added sugar or cream, it was absolutely delicious, mild and rich, the perfect option for such a hot day.
Downtown in the Pinch district, I came upon the new Comeback Coffee on North Main Street near Westy’s. This is Memphis’ most recent coffee bar, and an amazing and cool oasis in the city, with excellent coffee, wi-fi, comfortable seating, and an awesome multi-story outdoor courtyard.
At breakfast, I had downloaded a new iPhone photo app called Hydra, and so I spent the afternoon experimenting with it. It basically takes multiple photos and then merges them to create amazing detail and clarity with your phone. Of course it has limitations, because that method of improving photo clarity does not work with moving objects like people, pets or vehicles. But for buildings, such as old churches and other historic structures, it works very well indeed. In the South Memphis area along Florida street, I came across an old warehouse that bore an inscription for Mr. Bowers’ Stores, an old Memphis grocery chain. A painted logo for one of the locations still exists on Jackson Avenue near Breedlove. Further down Florida was an interesting new lounge called D’s Lounge, with an attractive guitar logo painted above the door. Great blues and southern soul recordings were playing inside, and I would have liked to check with them and see if they ever book live bands. But a rather draconian sign on the door read “Members Only” so I thought better of trying to go in, and continued on my way down to Mississippi, as the blues picnic portion of the annual Hill Country Boucherie was starting at 7 PM in Como.
Part of my plan when I decided to go to Vaiden to take pictures on a Saturday afternoon was to try to make it to Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi before they closed at 6 PM and buy a copy of Michael Ford’s new book of photographs North Mississippi Homeplace, which I had read about online. Scott Barretta, the promoter of all things Mississippi blues-related, had been discussing the book and the film on social media, so I texted him on Facebook to see if he wanted to meet for dinner in Greenwood, but he told me he was going to Tallahatchie Flats to see someone called Ben Wiley Payton. I told him I knew the place and would meet him there.
But the first challenge was to get from Vaiden to Greenwood before the book store closed. The distance didn’t seem that far, but the road from Vaiden to Carrollton seemed to take awhile, and although I left Vaiden by 5 PM, it took until 5:45 PM to get to downtown Greenwood, and so when I got to Turnrow Books, I had little time to browse before they closed. It was just as well, because the store was full of books that I would have loved to have owned, and I had limited money. One of the peculiar things about Mississippi is the number of truly excellent book stores in the state. Square Books in Oxford, LeMuria Books in Jackson, Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, and of course the store I was at in Greenwood. All of them are always full of treasures and it is hard to avoid spending too much money. Fortunately, Turnrow had plenty of copies of Ford’s book, signed by the author, and I was able to buy one, and then go on my way so they could close up the store.
Down Howard Street was a coffee bar called Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House, which the people at Turnrow had suggested was likely already closed for the evening, but which I found wide open. There had apparently been a bicycle race in Greenwood on that Saturday, and so the coffee bar stayed open to accommodate the race visitors, and I was able to get a latte before I headed out Grand Avenue into the wilderness along the Tallahatchie River toward Money, Mississippi to the north.
I was headed to Tallahatchie Flats to meet my friend, but unexpectedly, I came upon an historic marker for bluesman Robert Johnson outside a church called Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Although I had always been told that the burial location of Johnson was disputed, I decided I ought to stop and take photos at the spot and I did. Apparently, the general consensus now is that Little Zion is in fact the burial place of Robert Johnson, with documentation available to support the contention.
Tallahatchie Flats proved to be not at all far from the Little Zion church, practically walking distance. It reminds one of a Greenwood version of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, with rentable sharecropper shacks, and a big tavern building where Ben Wiley Payton was performing. Tallahatchie Tavern proved to be packed to the rafters with fans, some of them blues lovers and some of them people in town for the bike race. Ben Wiley Payton was not an Americana artist as I had imagined, but a Black bluesman, originally from Mississippi but who had lived in Chicago for a period of time. His repertoire was a mixture of traditional blues and soul and R & B covers, and the crowd was enjoying every minute of it.
The tavern itself was of interest. Scott had told me that it had once been owned in part by Steve LaVere, the blues researcher, and perhaps because of that, it was full of Memphis blues memorabilia on the walls, rare flyers and posters for events which I had never seen. I made sure to take photographs, particularly of a flyer that announced a sort of Barn Dance somewhere out in the Fisherville area, which featured performances from Furry Lewis and a band called Common Law Catfish, which sounded like another one of Jim Dickinson’s concoctions.
I had come to watch and listen, but Scott asked me if I wanted to sit in with Ben Payton, and since the tavern had a worn, beat-up piano that was yet reasonably in tune, I agreed. I ended up having a ball playing with Ben and his band, but when it got to be 8 PM, I reluctantly had to leave, as I had made reservations for 8:30 PM at Lusco’s in Greenwood. So I walked the long distance back to my car, and made the drive back into town.
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
On a couple of rare instances when my jazz group played in Tupelo some years ago, my old bass player Monte Butts had recommended a dessert cafe downtown called Crave. I fell in love the first time I tried it. The place had delicious cakes and pies, as well as great coffees.
So, after rain caused an early end to my day at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic at Waterford, I made my way to Oxford and grabbed a burger at the Oxford Burger Company, and afterwards, I wanted something sweet. Checking my Yelp app on my phone, I soon saw a reference to a place called Crave in Oxford that specializes in desserts. I found myself wondering if it was a branch of the place I remembered in Tupelo.
Wonder no more. Oxford Crave is in fact a branch of Tupelo Crave. And it is located next to Lost Pizza Company, away from the hustle and bustle of the square, along College Hill Road. The atmosphere is upscale and welcoming, and the coffee and desserts are delicious. I enjoyed a slice of peanut butter-chocolate cake, which was absolutely amazing. Despite an error on Yelp with regards to hours, Crave is open most nights until at least 9 PM.
After a hot afternoon of interviewing people for my masters’ thesis, I had driven down into Marshall County to a spot where my iPhone indicated that Coldwater Church Cemetery would be located. Coldwater Church had played a role in an incident in the 1870’s, in which a Black benevolent society, led by a fife and drum band, marched toward Collierville to protest the shooting death of the society’s president. But in the area indicated by my phone, I found no sign of a church nor of a cemetery. It is entirely possible that the cemetery is in someone’s backyard on private land, so I gave up looking for it and ventured into Collierville looking for something cold and sweet.
I ended up at Levee Creamery, a welcoming and inviting spot at the corner of Houston Levee and Wolf River Parkway, which, as it turns out, is owned by the folks behind Pyro’s Fire-Fresh Pizzas and the Wolf River Brisket Company. The place was sleek, colorful and comfortable, with a full espresso menu as well as ice cream, and soft serve. I opted for the latter, a chocolate soft-serve with Oreo toppings. The lack of Reese’s peanut-butter cups as an available topping was a minor quibble, but not a big deal, and I found the soft-serve absolutely amazing, even more delicious than Dairy Queen, and I am a DQ fan.
The Creamery also has an interesting jukebox, which people can control from an app on their phone, to which they can upload money in order to play songs. They are open at 6:30 AM weekdays, so that people can get their caffeine fix before heading to nearby Houston or Collierville High Schools, and have recently opened a second location on Highland near the University of Memphis. They are a good, reliable option for your coffee or ice cream needs.
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.