“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.
Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.
Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.
The Hill Country blues season generally begins with the Juke Joint Festival in April, and ends with Como Day in Como, Mississippi, which is usually held late in October. Como in Panola County is an important town, which for many years was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sid Hemphill, and which remains the hometown of R. L. Boyce. Jessie Mae Hemphill lived nearby at Senatobia, and Glenn Faulkner lives and Otha Turner lived between Senatobia and Como at Gravel Springs.
It is a tradition in many predominantly-Black towns to have a “day,” when those who moved to other parts of the country can come home and celebrate their roots in small-town Mississippi, and Como Day is part of that tradition. But Como Day is perhaps one of the biggest of these kinds of celebrations, attracting hundreds of visitors each year to plenty of free music , good food and fun.
After two years of lockdowns and disruptions, the 2021 Como Day was extremely well-attended, with people coming out for what was one of the few public events since the onset of COVID-19. Performers included Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. As always the area near the stage was full of dancers, and the crowd was well-behaved. Como Day makes a great way to end the annual blues season.
Blues singer Beverly Davis’ family owns the only store in Chulahoma, a small town about halfway between Senatobia and Holly Springs in the Mississippi Hill Country, and in October of 2021, they allowed her to hold the first annual Chulahoma Blues Festival in a cleared field behind the store on Highway 4.
Chulahoma has a long history with the blues. Photographer and blues researcher Michael Ford visited in the early 1970s, and the rural community was home to blues legend Junior Kimbrough’s second and most famous juke joint until it burned down in April of 2000. More recently, the area has continued to be the scene of occasional blues yard parties and at least one clandestine juke joint.
October is still hot in the Mississippi Hill Country, and this particular Saturday afternoon was steaming, but a fair number of people turned out to see Beverly Davis as well as Duwayne Burnside and the Garry Burnside Band, and the weather cooled off after the sun went down. There was plenty of good food, great blues and dancing in front of the stage, and like so many Hill Country events, the feeling that we were standing on historic ground where these kinds of events have been going on for over a hundred years. The festival is intended to be an annual event.
Predominantly-African-American towns in Mississippi have a tradition of annual “days,” named for the towns, in which there are live performances, and in which people from those towns return from the North and West and other places where they have relocated for a sort of town reunion. The dynamic does not seem to occur in Tennessee, perhaps because there are few Black-majority towns. One exception is the town of Mason in Tipton County, located in the center of Tennessee’s Delta region, bordering both Fayette and Haywood Counties, and only about 25 miles from Shelby County. Since 2019, the Southern Soul artist Terry Wright has sponsored a Mason Family Reunion at the Zodiac ballpark north of town (although the event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).
This year, posters went up announcing the event in the Spring, setting the date as the 4th of July. New improvements had also been made to the Zodiac A’s park, including a new snack bar with covered tables and chairs, and a small permanent stage with a DJ booth. At a time when so many Black ballfields have been abandoned or have disappeared, it is encouraging to see this investment in keeping Zodiac Park up to date and viable. Tickets to the event were $30, yet there was already a significant crowd present when I arrived.
Because the small stage would have been inadequate for the expected crowds, the organizers had brought in a larger stage pointed away from the snack bar and toward the outfield. There was no large tent with cafeteria seating as there had been in 2019, and the outfield was mostly people’s personal tents and chairs. Up on the hill were a number of vendors, selling just about anything a person might want to eat or drink. At one of the stands, I recognized Myles Wilson, the former Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, who was also once an owner of legendary Club Tay-May and who had consulted me on my masters thesis about Black fife and drum bands in Tennessee.
In 2019, there were ongoing problems with the power supply to the stage, and that situation continued this year. Early performers had their performances interrupted due to sudden power failures; worse, at least for me, was that I did not see any drums, amps or guitars. I began to wonder if anyone was going to perform with musicians. Eventually I ran into Terry Wright’s keyboard player, who told me that it was going to be strictly a track show. Karen Wolfe was on stage at the time, struggling with intermittent power. I suppose the limited power issue made using live instruments impracticable.
Disappointed, I spent the remainder of my time catching up with people I knew from Mason, which is actually what a lot of people seemed to do. The weather was beautiful even if it was hot, and a lot of people turned out; there was plenty of fellowship, and no fighting. But a blues and Southern Soul show without musicians just seems and feels wrong.
On and off over the last few years, I have been playing with Duwayne Burnside, the extraordinary blues guitarist and son of Hill Country blues great R. L. Burnside. Our rehearsals recently have been in Holly Springs, but up until last weekend, I never noticed the work of folk art on what appears to be a garage behind a house at West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street. “The Color of My Skin Is Not A Weapon,” says one sign, while the other proclaims “White Silence=White Consent.” Both are surrounded by African masks.
Down Boundary Street to the south toward Highway 7, I noticed another building for the first time, a large two-story building with a chimney at both ends which looked quite historic, but which for some reason I had never noticed before. It looked to be quite old, but I had no idea exactly how old it actually is. The building, once the University of Holly Springs, was built in 1837! It later housed a boys’ school called the Chalmers Institute. Although it looks abandoned, it is apparently in the process of being restored, and will supposedly become a venue for music concerts, weddings and receptions.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
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 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.
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.
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.