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.

A Breakfast At Rossville

Rossville, Tennessee, in Fayette County, was once called Lafayette Depot, but there was another Lafayette in Middle Tennessee, so sometime during Reconstruction, the town was renamed Rossville. For most of its history, it has been a small, quiet settlement of three or so streets, with some historic homes. A frozen foods plant came in the 1970’s, as did a Federally-funded community health clinic, which the Reagan administration eventually removed from the control of local community activists. Although proximity to Collierville is fueling a fair amount of suburban growth in Rossville, the main attraction is still the Wolf River Cafe, a local eatery famous for catfish that opened in 1989.

What people may not know is that the Wolf River Cafe is a great place for breakfast, too. They serve it until 10:30 AM, and on a summer morning, the place is fairly crowded. Like many rural cafes, prices are low, and the biscuits, omelettes and breakfast potatoes are truly amazing, and worth a drive from Memphis.

Also worth the drive is the little town itself, shady but full of historic houses. Little signs in front of some of them name them and give their dates. Some were built in 1860 or 1869, and some have dates that show they have been continuously added onto or improved. Rossville is best traversed on foot, as the historic district is only a few blocks wide. There is also a battlefield of sorts, the site of a small Civil War skirmish at what was once Lafayette Station, as well as a city park and a sort of boardwalk leading back across a creek to a lake behind the cafe. Altogether, Rossville makes a pleasant destination for breakfast and exploration.

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.

A Sunny Afternoon in Memphis

After a breakfast at the Brunswick Kitchen at Brunswick near Lakeland, I decided to spend the afternoon putting up flyers for the R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration, which is being held on September 1 during the Labor Day weekend. Coffee bars make a great place to promote events, as they typically have large community bulletin boards, or plenty of window space, so I made my way around to several Memphis area coffee bars on what was a very hot day indeed.

At Cafe Eclectic, one of Memphis’ oldest coffee bars, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a beer tap with the Illy logo on it. As Illy doesn’t make beer, I was curious, and had to ask the barista what it was. She explained that it was nitro, or nitrogenated coffee, and to my inquiries of what it was like, she responded by giving me a cold free glass of it. Without any added sugar or cream, it was absolutely delicious, mild and rich, the perfect option for such a hot day.

Downtown in the Pinch district, I came upon the new Comeback Coffee on North Main Street near Westy’s. This is Memphis’ most recent coffee bar, and an amazing and cool oasis in the city, with excellent coffee, wi-fi, comfortable seating, and an awesome multi-story outdoor courtyard.

At breakfast, I had downloaded a new iPhone photo app called Hydra, and so I spent the afternoon experimenting with it. It basically takes multiple photos and then merges them to create amazing detail and clarity with your phone. Of course it has limitations, because that method of improving photo clarity does not work with moving objects like people, pets or vehicles. But for buildings, such as old churches and other historic structures, it works very well indeed. In the South Memphis area along Florida street, I came across an old warehouse that bore an inscription for Mr. Bowers’ Stores, an old Memphis grocery chain. A painted logo for one of the locations still exists on Jackson Avenue near Breedlove. Further down Florida was an interesting new lounge called D’s Lounge, with an attractive guitar logo painted above the door. Great blues and southern soul recordings were playing inside, and I would have liked to check with them and see if they ever book live bands. But a rather draconian sign on the door read “Members Only” so I thought better of trying to go in, and continued on my way down to Mississippi, as the blues picnic portion of the annual Hill Country Boucherie was starting at 7 PM in Como.

Books Coffee and Blues in Greenwood

Part of my plan when I decided to go to Vaiden to take pictures on a Saturday afternoon was to try to make it to Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi before they closed at 6 PM and buy a copy of Michael Ford’s new book of photographs North Mississippi Homeplace, which I had read about online. Scott Barretta, the promoter of all things Mississippi blues-related, had been discussing the book and the film on social media, so I texted him on Facebook to see if he wanted to meet for dinner in Greenwood, but he told me he was going to Tallahatchie Flats to see someone called Ben Wiley Payton. I told him I knew the place and would meet him there.

But the first challenge was to get from Vaiden to Greenwood before the book store closed. The distance didn’t seem that far, but the road from Vaiden to Carrollton seemed to take awhile, and although I left Vaiden by 5 PM, it took until 5:45 PM to get to downtown Greenwood, and so when I got to Turnrow Books, I had little time to browse before they closed. It was just as well, because the store was full of books that I would have loved to have owned, and I had limited money. One of the peculiar things about Mississippi is the number of truly excellent book stores in the state. Square Books in Oxford, LeMuria Books in Jackson, Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, and of course the store I was at in Greenwood. All of them are always full of treasures and it is hard to avoid spending too much money. Fortunately, Turnrow had plenty of copies of Ford’s book, signed by the author, and I was able to buy one, and then go on my way so they could close up the store.

Down Howard Street was a coffee bar called Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House, which the people at Turnrow had suggested was likely already closed for the evening, but which I found wide open. There had apparently been a bicycle race in Greenwood on that Saturday, and so the coffee bar stayed open to accommodate the race visitors, and I was able to get a latte before I headed out Grand Avenue into the wilderness along the Tallahatchie River toward Money, Mississippi to the north.

I was headed to Tallahatchie Flats to meet my friend, but unexpectedly, I came upon an historic marker for bluesman Robert Johnson outside a church called Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Although I had always been told that the burial location of Johnson was disputed, I decided I ought to stop and take photos at the spot and I did. Apparently, the general consensus now is that Little Zion is in fact the burial place of Robert Johnson, with documentation available to support the contention.

Tallahatchie Flats proved to be not at all far from the Little Zion church, practically walking distance. It reminds one of a Greenwood version of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, with rentable sharecropper shacks, and a big tavern building where Ben Wiley Payton was performing. Tallahatchie Tavern proved to be packed to the rafters with fans, some of them blues lovers and some of them people in town for the bike race. Ben Wiley Payton was not an Americana artist as I had imagined, but a Black bluesman, originally from Mississippi but who had lived in Chicago for a period of time. His repertoire was a mixture of traditional blues and soul and R & B covers, and the crowd was enjoying every minute of it.

The tavern itself was of interest. Scott had told me that it had once been owned in part by Steve LaVere, the blues researcher, and perhaps because of that, it was full of Memphis blues memorabilia on the walls, rare flyers and posters for events which I had never seen. I made sure to take photographs, particularly of a flyer that announced a sort of Barn Dance somewhere out in the Fisherville area, which featured performances from Furry Lewis and a band called Common Law Catfish, which sounded like another one of Jim Dickinson’s concoctions.

I had come to watch and listen, but Scott asked me if I wanted to sit in with Ben Payton, and since the tavern had a worn, beat-up piano that was yet reasonably in tune, I agreed. I ended up having a ball playing with Ben and his band, but when it got to be 8 PM, I reluctantly had to leave, as I had made reservations for 8:30 PM at Lusco’s in Greenwood. So I walked the long distance back to my car, and made the drive back into town.

A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

A Hot Evening of Blues for a Mississippi State Senate Candidate in Senatobia

Old habits die hard in Mississippi, and candidates for office still see a value in hiring the old-time blues musicians to play for rallies. With Tuesday August 6 as election day, Friday night the 2nd was a busy evening indeed with blues musicians hired to play for campaign rallies in places like Senatobia and Holly Springs. Carlton E. Smith, a state senate candidate from Holly Springs is running for a senatorial district that combined Marshall County and Tate County, so he thought it wise to conceive of a campaign rally in Senatobia that celebrated the musical legacies of both counties. He ended up hiring Robert Kimbrough Sr from the Holly Springs area and R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi to play for his event in Senatobia’s Gabbert Park near downtown, on a late afternoon where temperatures were approaching 90 degrees.

When I arrived, perhaps because of the hot weather, almost nobody was in the park other than the candidate and members of his campaign staff. Robert Kimbrough was on stage, with the latest version of his band, the Blues Connection, consisting of J. J. Wilburn on drums, G. Cutta on second lead guitar and Artemas LeSeuer on bass. This line-up had played with Robert in the early days of his career, and had a rawer, more traditional sound than some of his more recent versions. Kimbrough calls his music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues” at least in part because of a community called Cotton Patch near the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 72 in Benton County where Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers used to play together at a juke in the late 1960’s. One notable point from Kimbrough’s performance on this afternoon was the extent to which he performed songs from his brother David Kimbrough, who passed away on July 4 this year. Ultimately, Robert had been hired to play for another rally for a candidate, J. Faulkner, at the Bottomless Cup in Holly Springs, so his band had to quickly break down and head to the other engagement.

Lightnin Malcolm had already been there with his son, and soon R. L. Boyce made a grand entrance, arriving with a whole lot of kids, some of them at least his grandchildren, and Ms. Carolyn Hulette from Senatobia, whose son Travis used to play guitar with R. L. before he moved to Nashville. Lightnin performed a couple of songs with Artemas LeSeuer’s wife Peggy Hemphill LeSeuer, better known as Lady Trucker, before R. L. came up on stage to perform. By that point, the weather had begun to cool off, and a small crowd of older Black folks had appeared, willing to dance to R.L, and Lightnin’s grooves. When R.L. finally slowed things down a bit, he improvised lyrics to some of his friends in the crowd, pointing out that God had awakened them that morning and that one day they would have to “meet that Man.” The secular and the sacred merge together in R.L. Boyce’s Hill Country vision.

As for politics, Carlton Smith spoke a couple of times to the crowd, but he kept it brief, and to the point, talking about the need for healthcare, and the need for reducing taxes and utility costs. By the end of the evening, there was a fair number of people in the park.

Unfortunately, one thing was different from the campaign rallies of old. Traditionally, in addition to the blues or fife and drum music, there would have been a whole hog roasted, with food for everyone. Times have changed, and the campaign only had cookies, chips and bottled waters. Kids enjoyed them well enough, but at evening’s end, I was starving, so I decided to make my way to the Windy City Grill in Como for a pizza. As was typical for a Friday night, the place was packed, with a Panola County band called the Hilltoppers playing in the front right corner of the bar. In one of the windows on Main Street was an announcement of an upcoming movie screening at the Como Library, a showing of Michael Ford’s documentary Homeplace which was filmed in the Hill Country in the early 1970’s, and which features footage that was shot in and around Como as well as other places in the area. The film will be screened at 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, August 24, the same weekend as Sharde Thomas’ GOAT Picnic at Coldwater. Both events are not to be missed, for true fans of the Hill Country blues.

Thacker Mountain Radio At the Neshoba County Fair

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).

Celebrating Dexter Burnside’s Birthday With Blues

Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.

A Splash of Brilliant Color On Yazoo City’s Main Street

While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.