The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
For fans of the blues in Mississippi, the summer is somewhat framed by two major events, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June, which celebrates the Hill Country blues tradition, and the Otha Turner Picnic at Gravel Springs near Senatobia, generally held in August on the weekend before Labor Day. But the latter event is all the more important because it celebrates a type of African-American music that is older than the blues, Black fife-and-drum music. Tate and Panola Counties have always been a center of the fife-and-drum style, and picnics were frequently held on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Fife master Otha Turner became famous for his pre-Labor Day picnic featuring fife and drum music and barbecued goat. Upon his death, the picnic tradition and the music tradition were continued by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who has kept the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band together and who remains an advocate for this endangered form of Black music. Under her administration, the picnic, held at the Otha Turner homestead in Gravel Springs near Senatobia, has become a two-day festival of many different artists and styles of music, including bands like Blue Mother Tupelo and the North Mississippi All-Stars, to solo artists like Dr. David Evans or Lightning Malcolm. There’s plenty of good fun and good food, and several processions of the fife and drum band across the grounds each evening. As the night progresses, the dancers become more exuberant, getting low to the ground and shaking in time with the beat of the bass drum, and the scene is reminiscent of other similar processions in African cultures, including New Orleans second-lines, and Haitian raras in Miami. On this year’s first night, there was also a brilliant full moon which threw a strange light on the proceedings. As in previous years, the festival inside the gates lead to another festival outside the gates, in which young people from the rural community parked and gathered along O. B. McClinton Road, listening to music and hanging out.
Ripley, Tennessee is the county seat of Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and has a traditional courthouse square, such as is common in many areas of the south, but due to building restorations, it has a somewhat sterile and uptown atmosphere, completely different from Covington or Somerville, two other West Tennessee county seat towns. Although the weather was blue and pretty, rain was predicted and the courthouse square was absolutely deserted. Across the tracks in Ripley’s East End, I came upon the ruins of Lauderdale County Training High School, which prior to 1970 had been the community’s high school for Black students. The sign above the door of the old school reading “Ripley _____ High School” is probably not the racial slur that I initially suspected. Rather, that sign probably dates from the days when the school building was used as the junior high school for all of Ripley. However, today it and its gymnasium are both abandoned buildings, and their abandonment at a time when young people need knowledge and recreation facilities is sad indeed.
Going the Old Hudsonville Road from Hudsonville to Holly Springs proved to be a mistake, because more than half the distance between the two communities was gravel, but the road did take me into a neighborhood of Holly Springs that I had never seen before, an area to the east of the Rust College campus where there were several churches, a Roman Catholic school and a juke joint called Cu-Man’s. But for some reason, the crowd on the square on this particular Thursday was far less than it had been the last time I went a couple of weeks before. Through an error, the people in charge of the weekly event had booked two different bands for the same time slot, so the Oxford All-Stars opened up the evening, playing a lot of Motown and Memphis classics, and a couple of blues, and then they were followed by Hill Country veteran Kenny Brown, with Cameron Kimbrough (son of Kinney Kimbrough and grandson of Junior) on drums, and Garry Burnside ( son of R. L.) on bass. After a few songs, they were joined on stage by Garry’s brother Duwayne Burnside, who did several of the Hill Country classics with the band. As the temperatures cooled off, the crowd around the square grew larger, and the final song featured Cameron’s dad Kent “Kinney” Kimbrough on drums.
InLOVE Memphis is one of Memphis' most elegant clubs, but it is not usually the venue for any kind of rap music, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw that a rap concert called Fall In Love Memphis was being held there. But it was also no ordinary rap concert, as the rappers were to be backed by the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis' superb dub band. The show was hosted by Memphis comedian/rapper/actor Elliot "Hardface" Nelson, and opened up with a rapper named Fuller's Back, who did a couple of songs. Memphis hip-hop artist CBeyohn was next, featuring the Chinese Connection's drummer Donnon Johnson on an amazing solo at the front of one of the songs. But the headliner for the night was Memphis veteran Jason Da Hater, well-known for his unique image and "hater" persona. Despite being introduced as the "worst MC in Memphis" and his appearance on stage being greeted by a chorus of boos (per his instructions), Jason is actually one of the city's most gifted MC's, and demonstrated that fact during his fairly brief set of some six or so songs. It was a night of great lyrics and great musicianship in an upscale, grown-folks environment.
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
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Just to the east of Marshall County, Mississippi is Benton County and its county seat of Ashland, which are also part of the Mississippi Hill Country. However, unlike Marshall County, Benton County is remote, and not as well-known, even though musicians like Nathan Beauregard and Willie Mitchell were originally from there. Sparsely populated indeed, Benton County has never been much of a destination, with the exception of visits from civil rights workers during the 1960’s. However, efforts are being made to preserve the history of Benton County, and toward that end, a festival called Arts, Beats & Eats was held on July 11th in Ashland, to attract people to the courthouse square, which has certainly seen better days. The Benton County Courthouse moved out of the historic structure on the square to a former manufacturing plant on Highway 370, and many businesses seem to have done the same. Worse, the extreme heat on Saturday kept crowds down to a minimum, with the exception of those who were running for office. But blues legends Little Joe Ayers and Garry Burnside were among the musicians who came out to perform with Mark “Muleman” Massey, and as the sun sank lower in the sky, the crowd increased and the temperature decreased. One of the purposes of the festival was to raise funds for the renovation and restoration of the square in Ashland, which is an extremely worthwhile goal. Here’s hoping this summer event becomes an annual thing. Blues belongs in Benton County as well as Marshall County.
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Although the Delta of Mississippi is known as “The Land Where Blues Began”, the area to the east known as the Hill Country produced a unique style of blues that has become famous around the world. This subgenre of blues was especially prevalent in Marshall and Benton Counties, so it’s not surprising that Holly Springs, the county seat of Marshall County, is a town that emphasizes its blues heritage. The county was home to Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, and each Thursday night during the summer, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly live music concert called Blues in the Alley, which is held directly on the courthouse square. On July 9, the featured artist was the Cassie Bonner Band, a group from Oxford that I was not familiar with. Cassie Bonner proved to be a keyboard player and a singer, and while the group’s style was more neb-soul than blues, I was quite impressed with them, particularly the young drummer. There were also food vendors and a DJ, and a crowd of several hundred people, as well as a number of motorcyclists, and a camera crew filming a documentary about Holly Springs and David Caldwell, the owner of Aikei Pro’s Record Shop. I also ran into Hill Country Blues legend Little Joe Ayers on the square as well.
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Radio Memphis is a superb internet radio station that for the last four years has been supporting Memphis music and musicians. So for their fourth birthday, they threw a party at their studios with food and music, and broadcasted the music live on the air. The performers covered nearly all genres, from the folk of Mason Jar Fireflies, to the funky organic hip-hop of Tunica rapper Jay DaSkreet, who was backed by D-Squared, consisting of Donnon Johnson on drums and Devin Jordan on keyboards, to the country of Ciera Oulette, to the authentic blues of Zeke Johnson (who studied with the late Furry Lewis) and Sturgis and Mandy Nikides of Low Society. Rarely has so much great Memphis talent been in one building at the same time, and it led to some startling serendipities, as when Donnon Johnson got on the drums backing Mason Jar Fireflies as they played an instrumental riff as a warm-up. It was a great way to celebrate Radio Memphis and what it means to the local music community.
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Jazz is the forgotten piece of the Memphis music puzzle. People who are familiar with Isaac Hayes, Al Green or Otis Redding have likely never heard of Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Joe Dukes, Jamil Nasser, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern or Phineas Newborn Jr. Yet the histories of jazz, blues and soul are interwoven in Memphis. A young Phineas Newborn Jr played on some of the early Sun blues records. Free jazz saxophonist Frank Lowe played with Con-Funk-Shun in the early 1970’s. Isaac Hayes’ first LP was a jazz trio record with Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr, and elements of jazz would be present in all his career. Much of our city’s jazz history springs from one particular high school, Manassas High School in North Memphis, which was home to Jimmie Lunceford, Jimmy Crawford, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and much of that great legacy was the result of an incredible musician and band director, Emerson Able, who recently passed away. So when Johnny Yancey told me that there would be a jam session at the Blue Note on Beale Street in honor of Mr. Able, I decided to head down there, and found the club filled to overflowing. An all-star group of musicians was on stage, including Bill Hurd on saxophone, Sidney Kirk Sr. on piano, Sidney Kirk Jr on drums, Ralph Collier, Johnny Yancey and Mickey Gregory on trumpets and others. At least part of the purpose was to raise funds for instruments for the Manassas band program, and if it proved nothing else, the amazing Thursday night of music proved that Memphians will turn out to support authentic jazz in an accessible, welcoming environment. The jam sessions will continue to be held on the first Thursday of each month.
Blue Note Bar & Grill
341 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103