A Delta Journey: A Chilly Homecoming in Grambling

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.

A Delta Journey: West Monroe’s Antique Alley, Bayou Brew House, Moon Lake and Trapp’s on the River

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.

A Delta Journey: How People Got A New Start in Crew Lake

On old Highway 80, heading west from Rayville toward Monroe, one comes to a community with a most unusual name—Start, Louisiana. It’s not an incorporated town, but it has gained a degree of notice for being the hometown of country star Tim McGraw. The town got its unusual name when their request to establish a post office with the name of Charleston, Louisiana was denied by the postal authorities, as apparently there was another Charleston in Louisiana at the time. Stymied by the decision, the local store owner and some others debated what other name to try. Legend has it that a teenaged girl contributed the name by saying “Now we will have to start all over.” There’s not a whole lot to Start, just a volunteer fire department, some apartments, a couple of stores, a school, a water tower and a few houses. But it has managed to spawn a suburb, or perhaps, more correctly, a twin city.

Just to the west of Start is Crew Lake, a shaded community strung out along the banks of a bayou of the same name. Both Start and Crew Lake seem to have begun around the early twentieth century as flag stops on what was then the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad, but the latter community seems to have been little more than a name until 1937. That was the year that the Farm Security Administration (formerly the Resettlement Administration) acquired the Melrose Plantation and divided it into what they called “farmsteads,” small acreages with modern, electrified homes. A number of poor farmers from Northern Louisiana took advantage of the opportunity to move into these new houses and try their hand at co-operative farming. The FSA formed the Crew Lake Co-operative Association, to provide for supplies, cotton ginning and other necessaries for the success of the experiment. And, indeed, for those who moved to Crew Lake, the experiment proved to be a success. On the other hand, conservative Southern congressmen were not so pleased. They saw the whole scheme, and other FSA projects like it, as socialistic or even communistic, and their objections succeeded in abolishing the Farm Security Administration by 1942. The replacement agency, the Farmers’ Home Administration, was more geared to making low-interest loans available to farmers, but it did nothing to build new farm communities or to convert tenant farmers into landowners.

Today, the quiet community of Crew Lake would almost seem like a resort. There are no businesses in it, and no sign of the co-operative association, and if the houses were once all remarkably similar, government-designed structures, they have now been either replaced or altered in such a way that no discernible pattern remains. But Crew Lake remains a vibrant community.

A Delta Journey: Lake Chicot and Old Juke Joints in Eudora

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.

A Fall Celebration on Mason’s Lower End

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.

Commemorating a Holy Site of the Bentonia Blues

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!

The Human Jukebox and the Mighty Sound of the South Fight It Out in Memphis

The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.

In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.

After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.

Celebrating The Legacy of R. L. Boyce at Como, Mississippi

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.

The Last Black Fife and Drum Picnic in America

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.

Haute Cuisine and Hill Country Blues at Home Place Pastures in Como

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.