One of the worst things of 2020 was the cancellation of nearly all live music events, gigs, festivals and parties. It was understandable, in the light of COVID, but it was still disappointing. Having not played a gig since August, I was thrilled when the great blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside called me to play his birthday party out in the rurals between Independence, Mississippi and Holly Springs. With the weather unseasonably warm, I imagined there would be a fairly good turnout.
Duwayne chose to have his party at a rural club and baseball field called Mattie B’s along the Wall Hill Road east of Independence in Marshall County. The place has the look and feel of a real Mississippi juke, complete with pool tables, but it has a surprisingly ample stage. When I arrived, there were a lot of cars in the back near the baseball field, and a food truck had set up there selling plates. The inside was not drastically crowded, but there was a good number of people inside, among them the blues musician Robert Kimbrough, and the DJ was playing good blues and southern soul inside.
Duwayne took the stage at about 8 PM, and we played until around 10:00 PM, with Pinkie Pulliam on bass and Artemas Leseur on drums. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when Duwayne played the late David Kimbrough’s song “I Got The Dog In Me,” which was the first time I had heard him play that song. Blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah also made an appearance, and Kenny briefly joined Duwayne on the stage. The crowd especially took to the more upbeat Hill Country tunes, filling the dance floor in front of the stage. It made a nice throwback to how things were before the pandemic.
The COVID pandemic has had a drastic and devastating effect on the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues scenes in North Mississippi, with almost all festivals and events cancelled this year, or reconceived as virtual events streamed online rather than events in the real world for fans to attend. One bright exception has been Foxfire Ranch, the rural blues and event center at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, which, because of its outdoor nature and rural setting, felt confident in continuing to host events and book artists.
In August, Foxfire booked Duwayne Burnside and his band, which included his brother Garry Burnside. The weather was beautiful, although hot, and a surprisingly large crowd of fans attended. With great blues coming from the stage, and dancers on the floor in front, for a few sunny hours it was possible to imagine life without the pandemic at all.
Foxfire has continued to book blues-related events as weather permits, including a camp this summer that featured Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis, two of the hottest young Black blues artists in America today. Having so many events cancelled helps us appreciate the few that we have left.
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.
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 approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
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.
The end of Zulu is followed almost immediately by Rex, and although they follow different routes to a point, they end up coming right behind each other on St. Charles. Back up at St. Charles and Sixth, the crowds were not nearly as thick, and it was easier to photograph marching bands, such as Warren Easton from New Orleans. It also seemed easier to catch beads, and this time I managed to duck a cup rather than getting hit by it! Also, as in 2018, the Gracious Bakery and Cafe was open, giving us access to baked goods, cold drinks and coffee. However, one of the difficulties of Mardi Gras is the way that many different events conflict with one another. Doing one thing often precludes doing others; I had been invited to spend the day with Joe Maize from TBC, who was playing the drums for a Black Indian gang, the Golden Eagles, but I feared that if I spent the whole day out there with them, I would miss the parades. Even so, at 1 PM, I decided to leave the parade route and see if I could find the Indians uptown. Their parades are unscheduled, and wander through the neighborhoods as the spirit moves them, looking for rival gangs to confront ritually. They no longer fight violently as they once did; the battles are all danced, but it is still a one-of-a-kind experience. The parades are full of beauty and grandeur, but it is more of planned beauty. The Indians are something entirely different, a beauty more spontaneous and indigenous.
I was awakened by children’s laughter. My friend Darren Towns’ four daughters were as excited by Mardi Gras morning as kids usually are on Christmas Day. Their mother had stayed up late making them special screen-printed shirts to wear, and Darren was soon up as well, playing a recording of Kermit Ruffin’s reading of the Dr. John classic “All On A Mardi Gras Day.” Most people in New Orleans, if they are in a hurry to get to the parades, skip breakfast, but that was not an option for me, so I told Darren I would catch up with them uptown, and then headed out to look for breakfast. I didn’t have to look far this year, because Coffee & in Marrero was not only open but packed from wall to wall. I could only sit at the bar, but that was fine, while the TV screens showed the people already gathered along St. Charles Avenue for the day’s parades. Although the weather was grey, it was quite warm, and the forecast had been revised, reducing the chance of rain. The man sitting at the bar beside me said “I hate Mardi Gras,” and I had to ask him why. It turned out that he was retired from law enforcement and had worked the holiday for eighteen years. I could somewhat understand. He also indicated that people were not supposed to be throwing cups from floats, like the one that hit me in face the day before. By ordinance, they are supposed to hand them to people in the crowd.
I had meant to go across the Huey P. Long Bridge, fearing that the Crescent City Connector would be gridlocked by the parade crowds, but it was surprisingly easy to get across, and I exited at Magazine and Camp streets. Staying between the river and St. Charles, I was easily able to make my way to Sixth street, and found that I had no problem finding a place to park. But Zulu does not go down that end of St. Charles, and though there were crowds around, they were largely waiting for the Rex parade. I also did not find Darren and his family at Sixth and St. Charles, so I had to call him, and I found that they had gone to Washington Avenue in order to catch the end of the Zulu parade. It took some walking, but I soon made it there, and had no trouble meeting up with them. Here the crowds were thick indeed, everyone in a festive mood. I need not have worried about missing Zulu, for I caught the vast majority of it. What I didn’t catch was any coconuts. They are actually quite stingy with them, and I had noticed that in previous years as well. I also found that the drastic press of crowds made filming the various marching bands difficult. But the weather was great, and everyone had a good time.
Drum practice can be noisy, and in the early days of young people learning to play, whether snare drum or the set, parents demanded that they practice in the backyard, in the wood shed so as to not disturb the house. Over time, practicing became known as “hitting the woodshed” and eventually just “shedding.” Informal gatherings at which several drummers battled back and forth became known as “shed sessions” or “drum sheds.”
In the milieu of Black gospel music, where many musicians are largely self-taught, aside from possible mentoring by older musicians in the tradition, shed sessions gave young drummers an opportunity to practice in conjunction with other drummers and other musicians, and continue to be an important part of the way Black music styles are transmitted from older musicians to younger musicians outside of a formal classroom setting.
Sheds are also exciting, and a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, they are not generally advertised ahead of time, and often are spread only by word of mouth. Even if they are mentioned on social media, it is not always clear where they are being held. So when South Memphis’ K3 Studio Cafe announced something called the Start Playing Drum Shed on a Wednesday night, it was both exciting and somewhat unusual. With February 12 being a Wednesday night, and a cold, wet one at that, I was not sure just exactly how many people would attend.
To my shock, the tiny venue was filled within an hour of doors opening. There were four drumsets, and about three keyboards, and although I had come with the intent of watching and documenting with my phone, I ended up playing the Rhodes piano, and fortunately one of the drummers who was taking a break filmed while I played. That particular groove turned into a Prince-ish funk romp that I enjoyed immensely By that point we had three keyboard players, four drummers, two saxophonists and a bassist. I had supposed that this was the shed, but we soon learned that the actual shed would be after the workshop presented by Memphis drummer Chris Pat.
Chris has been impressing me for some time with his recorded solos on the Memphis Drum Shop channel. Although they are intended to sell drum sets or cymbals, they are well-composed musical solos in their own right and not just product demos. Pat is a versatile drummer who is at home in gospel or behind Christina Aguilera, and who has as good a sense of swing as any jazz drummer I ever heard. More impressively on this workshop occasion was his great advice to young drummers and his humility. He also played drums against three recorded tracks and was absolutely amazing.
At that point, it was 10 PM, and it was announced that the shed was going to begin in earnest. I had to work the next morning at 5 AM, so I was not able to stay. I suspect that it went on until the wee hours. Did I mention that there was also no admission charge?
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.