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.
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.
Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.
While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.
But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.
Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.
R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).
Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.
San Francisco-based David Katznelson is the owner of Birdman Records, a really cool group of blues and roots labels, which includes subsidiary labels Birdmanophone and Sutro Park, but he once lived in Taylor, Mississippi, seven miles from the Ole Miss campus. Jane Rule, who lives in a big and historic home in Taylor, was mayor of Taylor for 12 years, and just about every year, on his birthday, she throws David Katznelson a party. But not just any kind of party- a veritable blues festival, with artists like Lightnin Malcolm, R. L. Boyce, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and Luther Dickinson.
The last time R. L. Boyce played at the party in Taylor, it was marred by endless monsoon rains, and had to be moved onto Ms. Rule’s back porch. This year, although hot, the weather was perfect for a festival, and a much larger crowd turned out. There were barbecued ribs, and chicken, and grilled corn, as well as two cakes, one yellow and one chocolate. When we arrived, Ms. Rule was giving rides to the little kids on her golf cart, and Lightnin Malcolm and R. L. Boyce were on stage.
Later in the day, there was a performance of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum band, one of the last surviving fife and drum bands in America, and their performance brought a crowd of dancers out to move to the grooves, with the guest of honor, Mr. Katznelson, at the front.
The fife and drum band was followed by Luther Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All Stars and son of the late Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson. It was Luther who produced R. L. Boyce’s first album Ain’t The Man’s Alright for Katznelson’s Sutro Park label, and he gave an enthusiastic performance on this sunny Sunday afternoon.
After some remarks in honor of the birthday guest, the party got back underway, but much of the food and drink was gone, and the sun was beginning to go down. Sherena Boyce and I decided to leave and head back toward Senatobia. Taylor Grocery restaurant was open, but we were so full from the good food at the party that we didn’t think about eating any more food. At Oxford, we stopped for a frozen yogurt on the square at Ya Ya’s, and then headed on back home.
It is well-known that Mississippi John Hurt was from Avalon, Mississippi in Carroll County, and lived there most of his life, but for most people who travel Highway 7 between Grenada and Greenwood, Avalon is just a set of signs on the road, a crossroads, and a historic marker to Hurt. I had passed through the area a number of times, but I finally decided to venture off into what is left of the little town, which wasn’t all that much. But there were signs of a store, a gin, and perhaps a couple of large commercial buildings of some sort, along what appears to have been an older iteration of Highway 7, now closed off and little more than a track through the wilderness. Signs warn that the former town is basically private property, but I succeeded in grabbing some pictures of the place. Supposedly, there is a Mississippi John Hurt Museum in Avalon, but I saw no trace of it. Just some ruins of buildings, tall grass, mud puddles, birds and insects.
Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure.
Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered.
The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere.
After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia.
Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians.
Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release.
Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America.
This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes.
Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
Ted Maclin is a farmer, an anthropology professor, a folk musician, and the owner of the antebellum home Oak Hill at Keeling, between Mason and Stanton, Tennessee, so when he recently announced on social media that he would be holding an Old Time Music Festival in Stanton, I decided it was a must-see event. Of course, being the first year of the event, there was no certainty as to how many musicians would come out to perform, and as it turned out, only a handful appeared, including one of my fellow musicology students from the University of Memphis, Jeffrey Taylor. But it was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, even if a little hot, and a small farmers’ market was going on in downtown Stanton. The assembled musicians played a number of traditional tunes, some from the bluegrass tradition, some from the blues, and even a Leonard Cohen tune “Bird On A Wire” to close things out. While we don’t generally speak of a Tennessee Delta, if we did, Stanton and Mason would be the apex of it, and it is good to see efforts to organize events in these old and somewhat forgotten towns.