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.
Lundi Gras is really a holiday in New Orleans, with schools and some businesses closed, and a lot of people off work. My friend Darren Towns, his wife, his four daughters and I all headed across the Huey P. Long bridge fairly early in the morning to the Elmwood neighborhood in Jefferson Parish to a new restaurant called Sunny Side Up. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it had really good food, and the kids particularly enjoyed it.
The parades were not until the evening, and we missed the first one, but Orpheus started later, and we managed to find parking south of St. Charles Avenue near Sixth Street. I had heard a great marching band as I walked up to the parade route, but I didn’t know who it was. When I caught up with Darren and his dad at the parade route, I learned I had missed Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South. Stillman College and Coahoma Community College bands were two of the first to go past after I arrived, and the darkness was illuminated by brilliant-lit and colored floats, as well as the traditional flambeaux carried by young men which used to be part of all Mardi Gras parades. While the floats interested the younger kids, the interest for Darren, his dad and myself were the marching bands. Despite the obvious differences between marching band and brass band styles and cultures, New Orleans is a city of serious “band heads,” as they are known, and most of the city’s better brass band musicians began their musical careers in school bands, some of which are now famous. Bands from St. Augustine, Marion Abramson, Edna Karr and Landry Walker were among those marching in Orpheus on Monday night. Despite being focused on the bands, I managed to catch some beads, but one thing that was not very much fun was getting hit below the left eye by a cup thrown from a float. Even though I was standing a considerable distance from the float, the cup struck me hard, and led to soreness and swelling below the eye. Darren managed to get the cup, which was emblazoned with Orpheus 2020, and gave it to me, even though I was not at all sure that I wanted it! I later learned that float riders were supposed to hand the cups to people, not throw them.
All too soon, the parade was over, and although we had talked about going down to the Central Business District for pizza at Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, that was near the end of the parade route, and we thought better of it. Instead, we headed the opposite direction to Pizza Domenica, way uptown on Magazine Street, arriving just before they were scheduled to close. This restaurant makes a good mainstay during the Mardi Gras holidays, as they remain open normal hours, and cheerfully serve people coming from the parades. And the pizza is outstanding as well.
Afterwards, I had suggested to Darren that we go to Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for coffee and beignets, but he was tired. Instead, he informed me that a place called Coffee & in Marrero was open 24 hours a day and had coffee and beignets. So I stopped there and got a cafe au lait and an order of beignets. If they weren’t quite as good as the Cafe du Monde, they were certainly good enough, cost less, and were more convenient. I was surprised at how crowded the place was on the night before Mardi Gras, and it was nearly midnight, at which time Mardi Gras day would begin.
We were all thoroughly exhausted. Even after drinking cafe au lait, I had no problem drifting off to sleep.
When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.
The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.
The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.
Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.
Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.
Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.
One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.
The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.
In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.
After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.
Brownsville drummer Kesha Burton had asked me if I would take her to the annual Blues on the Bluff fundraiser for Memphis community radio station WEVL, so although I hadn’t originally planned on going, I agreed. Although the weather had been horribly hot all day, showers had popped up in Fayette County, and things began to cool off as we headed into Memphis.
The Blues on the Bluff event is always held at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, which occupies a portion of the former Naval Hospital on the bluff south of the old Memphis-Arkansas and Harahan Bridges. There are few better views of the river than that location, and with its lovely tree-shaded courtyard, it makes a great venue for live music.
This year’s line-up included a Booker T. & The MG’s tribute band called the MD’s, who were on stage when we arrived, and after their performance, then the Ghost Town Blues Band marched into the courtyard in a Dixieland jazz band fashion before playing their set, which included a lot of new music from their forthcoming album “Shine.” A noteworthy feature of GTBB is their large brass section, which includes my homeboy Suavo J on trombone.
The headliner for the night was Lightnin Malcolm , the Hill Country bluesman from Byhalia, and Kesha got a chance to perform with him on percussion. His music consists of Hill Country standards, and originals in the Hill Country style, as well as some that are more alternative and even reggae-influenced, and the crowd of about 200 thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
In addition to music, there was a food truck from Fuel, the former restaurant on Madison Avenue, the folks from MemPops selling homemade ice cream pops, plenty of beer from Memphis Made Brewing, and a silent auction.
But the overwhelming highlight of the evening was the absolutely amazing sunset over the river, which started out a dazzling yellow, changing to a golden orange and then a deep red before it disappeared behind the treeline to the west in Arkansas. It was the perfect end to the day.
At the end of the evening, Kesha decided to stay with friends in Memphis, and I was starving, as the Fuel food truck had offered only tacos, so I headed to the Slider Inn in Midtown for a late-night dinner on the outdoor deck.
I was exhausted enough that I didn’t wake up early on Mardi Gras morning, and I barely stirred when my friend’s wife got the kids dressed to take them to her mother’s condo uptown so they could watch the parades. I had hoped to go to breakfast with Darren, assuming we could find a place open, which is not easy to do on Mardi Gras Day, but when I saw that he was not going to wake up any time soon, I got dressed and headed down the road to an IHOP that was open near the Oakwood Mall at the border between New Orleans and Gretna. I felt sorry for the people there having to work, but it was nice to be able to get some coffee and a good bacon and cheese omelette. After breakfast, I called Darren and found that he had woken up, but the price I paid for my breakfast was missing the Zulu Parade. But Darren and I headed across the bridge and uptown, and on Washington Avenue, we actually caught up with a portion of the Zulu Parade. Even though rain had been predicted, instead the sun was out, and the temperature was a pleasant 72 degrees. In fact, it seemed as if we had gone from winter to spring in 12 short hours. There were huge crowds along the parade route, and to my disappointment, the float riders in the Zulu parade were quite stingy with their throws, perhaps because they were getting to the end of the parade route. We still managed to catch 30 or so of the Zulu floats, and then we made our way down to the corner of 6th and St. Charles, where we were able to park at Darren’s mother-in-law’s condominium complex in order to catch the Rex parade. Although there were a few bands in the Rex parade, it was less bands and more floats, but the floats were interesting, as they had to do with New Orleans and Louisiana history. It seemed as if there were more beads being thrown in the Rex parade, and eventually, due to the hot weather, I got thirsty, so I walked across the street to the Gracious Bakery and Cafe, which surprisingly was open, and I got an iced coffee. When the Rex parade was over, it was immediately followed by a truck parade sponsored by the Krewe of Elks, but that parade soon came to a halt and stayed stopped for nearly an hour. We didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a shooting along the parade route on St. Charles Avenue, and a teenager had died. But I was not as interested in the truck parade, and hoped to run into the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians, so Darren and I left St. Charles Avenue and headed to the vicinity of Second and Dryades, a known location for the Indian tribes.
Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.
Anyone that has spent any time listening to the Hill Country blues style of Mississippi has doubtless heard the song “Coal Black Mattie” AKA “Po’ Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie.” The bouyant, uptempo party-feel of the song has made it a favorite standard of the genre, and few people probably ever stop to think of the words. Of course, like most Hill Country blues songs, the words are somewhat cryptic, and to the extent that there is a narrative at all, it is somewhat full of holes. The song opens with a verse about the woman for whom the song is named, a dark-skinned woman who “has no change of clothes” because she “got drunk” and “threw her clothes outdoors.” The incident sounds like one the anonymous author/composer gleaned from everyday life in North Mississippi, but what is not clear is why the incident is important. After the first verse, Mattie is never mentioned again, and in the third verse, the presumably male narrator mentions the woman he’s got, who is described as “cherry red”, that is, light-skinned. Perhaps “Black Mattie” is mentioned in contrast. Perhaps she is the singer’s ex-girlfriend. The song doesn’t fill in the gaps.
However, it is the second verse of the song that occasioned this post, as I was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with it at a recent Cam Kimbrough gig in Memphis. Although I had heard the song probably more than a thousand times, I had never noticed the implications of the verse until that recent night:
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair,
Reason why, Baby there.
Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair.
What on earth did the composer mean? What was “Memphis’ Worldly Fair”? The most obvious answer is in fact impossible, as a check of the list of all World’s Fairs shows that Memphis in fact never hosted a World’s Fair.
Fair or Fare?
One of the difficulties we face when analyzing a text from oral tradition is whether we really heard what we thought we heard. In the absence of a published text to consult, the words we think we are hearing may not be what the singer actually sang. In addition, changes in text can occur as other singers pick up the song, forgetting the lyrics, or changing them intentionally in ways that please them. One question in the “Coal Black Mattie” verse quoted above is whether the singer is singing the word “fair”, or the homonym “fare”. It is at least superficially possible that the author was referring to “Memphis’ worldly fare”, the food, drink, clothes and other merchandise of the big city. To someone from a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, Memphis would be a world-class city. While that solution to the text seems logical, there are other facts that argue against it. The primary one would be that the phrase “worldly fare” would be a fairly sophisticated and poetic construction for early African-American blues lyrics. Of course it could have come over into blues from religious sermons or gospel songs and hymns, but no such hymns readily come to mind, and such a lyrical construction seems unlikely. Another possibility is that blues singers occasionally used the term “fair” or the related “fair-o” to refer to a sweetheart or girlfriend. (Both terms are probably derived from the phrase “fair one”). But the grammatical construction of the verse we are considering rules that out as well. The phrase “Goin’ to Memphis’ worldly fair” clearly suggests a place rather than a person, and “Baby” is distinguished from “fair” by the lyrics stating that she is “at” the “worldly fair.” In the light of the best evidence, it would seem that the lyrics can only be referring to an exposition or a festival of some sort.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
One possibility is that the lyrics are referring to the St. Louis World’s Fair, which occurred early in the blues era, and would have been the nearest such fair to North Mississippi. World’s Fairs had been staged earlier in the United States, one in New Orleans in 1884, and another in Chicago in 1893. But the New Orleans fair was too early to have had any impact on the music that would become blues, and while blues was undoubtedly developing and emerging by the time of the Chicago fair in 1893, there is no evidence that it had made its way up north yet. The St. Louis fair was the talk of the country in 1904, and even gave birth to a dance called the World’s Fair. This dance was mentioned in conjunction with two other Black dances of the era, the Bombashay (probably a corruption of the Creole “bambouche” meaning “a dance”) and the Passemala, all of which were well known on Memphis’ Beale Street. The obvious problem with this theory is that the song mentions “Memphis’ worldly fair”, not St. Louis’. Perhaps the composer felt that “Memphis” fit the flow of the melody better than “St. Louis”. And of course, Memphis was the big city to those who lived in North Mississippi.
The 1911 Tri-State Colored Fair
Another possibility is that the reference is to the Tri-State Colored Fair, a large fair held on the fairgrounds in Memphis across the railroad tracks from Orange Mound, beginning in 1911. There was also a white Tri-State Fair, but Black Memphis businessmen had formed the Black equivalent as a response to discrimination and limitations placed upon Black Memphians at the “white” fair. This separate fair for Black citizens continued until 1959, retaining the Tri-State name even after the predominantly-white fair had renamed itself the Mid-South Fair in 1929. This fair was massive in scope, and featured not only agriculture exhibits, but also beauty contests and band performances. Although it was not by any stretch a “World’s Fair”, it might have seemed so to someone from rural Mississippi.
The 1919 Memphis Centennial Celebrations
Yet another possible answer was the massive celebrations that the City of Memphis organized for its Centennial in 1919. The events ranged over an entire week, and included parades, pageants, fireworks and an industrial exposition. A cantata for choir and orchestra called Song of Memphis was commissioned from the composer Creighton Allen and performed during the week of festivities. Perhaps no event in the city’s history more resembled a World’s Fair than this one, and so it might have made an impression on the author.
While we will never likely be able to pin down the exact fair that inspired the lyrics of “Coal Black Mattie”, the point is the same. The narrator has apparently put down the dark-skinned Mattie for the “cherry red” woman that is at the “worldly fair” in Memphis. And the likely events help us peg the probable date of the song’s composition to a period from 1904 to 1919, making “Coal Black Mattie” likely one of the earliest blues songs to emerge. More amazing is that the song is still performed today, and shows no signs of waning popularity.
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.