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.
The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
Along Highway 61’s strand of tired, worn buildings and washed-out towns, Wilson, Arkansas first appears as a grove of trees on the horizon straight ahead in the flat, Delta landscape. Only when entering does it prove to be a town, and a bizarre oasis of a town at that, with its anachronistic British Tudor architecture, its beautifully-landscaped square and streets, its appearance of prosperity in the midst of the deprivation that characterizes the Arkansas Delta. One might imagine that such a village is mystical, perhaps like the mythical Brigadoon that only appeared every hundred years or so. But Wilson, Arkansas is a real place, its difference caused by its unique history as a company town.
Robert E. Lee Wilson was just a boy in Tipton County, Tennessee when both of his parents died. Forced to become a man at an early age, he ended up cutting timber for a sawmill in Eastern Arkansas, a place where death from injury and disease was common. Beating the odds, Wilson saved enough money to buy some swampy timberland in southern Mississippi County, Arkansas, across a former Mississippi River channel from the island town of Reverie, Tennessee. In order to process the timber he cut, he founded a sawmill town he called Wilson, around the dawn of the 20th Century. That town of Wilson was subject to flooding, and Wilson soon decided that it needed to be relocated further inland. The new town was a model town in every regard, patterned around a well-landscaped square, with a car dealership, tavern, store, gas station, and railroad, all owned by Lee Wilson & Company. Once the timber had been cut, Wilson had turned to agriculture, growing cotton across vast acreages. When existing railroads tried to charge Wilson outrageous prices, or would not schedule trains that met his needs, he built his own railroads, the Delta Valley and Southern and the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern. While the town of Wilson was always his crown jewel, he founded other towns as well, Evadale, Marie, Delpro, Keiser and Armorel (the latter was said to be named for Arkansas, Missouri and “R.E.L. Wilson”). Even the Great Depression was no mountain to climb for Robert E. Lee Wilson. Although he paid his employees in scrip redeemable only at the company-owned businesses, they didn’t starve, and Wilson drew the largest check in the history of Memphis’ Union Planters Bank during the 1930’s. But cotton could not remain king forever. The Lee Wilson company diversified, acquiring holdings in Utah and other parts of the country, and several generations of the Wilson family ran things from the company headquarters in Arkansas, but more and more the business was turning down offers from would-be buyers eager to acquire the vast amounts of land held by the company. Finally, in 2010, the Wilson family agreed to sell.
One of the great fears was that any purchaser of the company’s land and holdings would not be interested in the town that went along with the purchase, a fear that initially proved to be true. Gaylon Lawrence Jr, the multi-millionaire who paid $110 million for the Wilson company and its land had little need for a town in the Arkansas Delta, and originally planned to sell it off. But after visiting it, he decided to try something else, hiring an architect and academic from Nashville named John Faulkner to act as a city manager for the Town of Wilson. The Wilson Cafe has reopened as a farm-to-table restaurant, with many of the vegetable coming from the nearby Wilson Gardens. A private school called the Delta School has been opened in one of the Wilson family mansions, and a concert series has been started. One of Johnny Cash’s relatives has opened White’s Mercantile in a former service station on Highway 61, a branch of a store of the same name in Nashville. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the shelves were full of colorful and unique items, and the shop was full of browsers, many of them just having come from lunch at the Wilson Cafe. The address of the store, 17 Cortez Kennedy Avenue, reveals another recent change, the renaming of Highway 61 for Wilson’s most famous native son, a star NFL football player who died earlier this year. A museum of Native American artifacts dug up at the Nodena site near the Mississippi River is under construction on the square. More plans are being discussed, including one that would turn the large office building east of the railroad tracks into a luxury hotel. But of course, it is all too early to tell if any of this planning will make any real difference in the town stuck in the middle of a region of persistent poverty and outmigration. But the effort to save such a unique town should be applauded, and Wilson is an experience not to be missed.
2 North Jefferson Street
Wilson, AR 72395
Open daily for lunch 11-2 PM
Open for dinner Wed-Sat 5-8:30 PM
There are currently no hotel rooms in Wilson, but rooms are available nearby in Marion or Osceola.
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.
Each year in B. B. King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, deep in the historic Delta region, the great bluesman returned in late May for an event called the Homecoming, where he performed for the people of his original hometown, and on the occasion of the 2014 Homecoming, he stated that that year’s event would be his last. The old man’s health was fading, and the travel was hard on him. But none of us could have imagined that he would not live to see the next one. This year’s Homecoming, coming a week or so after B. B. King’s death, was a sad occasion, and yet an opportunity for many great blues musicians to come together and honor King’s life and legacy on the grounds of the museum that bears his name. Just as the occasion was both joyful and sorrowful, the day was alternated by periods of heat and sunshine and downpours of rain, but in between the showers came a diverse array of performers, including Greenville blues diva Eden Brent, youthful St. Louis blues star Marquise Knox, Lil Ray, son of the Louisiana blues star Raful Neal, and the North Mississippi All-Stars, with Cody and Luther Dickinson, featuring Sharde Thomas on the keyboards and fife, and Lightning Malcolm on the guitar. The crowd ebbed and flowed due to the weather, but at its strongest seemed to be about 200 or so, equipped with lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets, and even sparklers. The North Mississippi All-Stars had barely finished their outdoor set, when the rains came a final time, more decisively, and some of the crowd headed around to the Club Ebony for the indoor evening performance. There really couldn’t have been a better way to honor B. B. King.
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I really was not familiar with the Memphis rapper Crisis 901 who was putting on an event called Dope On Arrival at the House of Mtenzi in Midtown Memphis on a Friday night in January. But I did of course know the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy band that was providing the musical backdrop for the MC’s, and my homeboy Otis Logan was playing drums with them on the gig in place of Donnon Johnson, so I decided to go down and support the event, and I enjoyed myself. Most of the artists were young new artists from Memphis, and I wasn’t familiar with them, but they were all decent MC’s. Crisis, who was celebrating his birthday, closed out the set, and I learned was not only a rapper but also an R & B singer as well. He refers to himself as “The Dark Knight” and uses a considerable amount of Batman references. Apparently the Dope on Arrival events are regularly-scheduled recurring concerts that happen about every three months or so.
A few years ago, when I visited the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, I was unaware of the existence of another museum dedicated to the African-American cultural practices of the Lower Ninth Ward. Indeed, Ronald Lewis’ amazing House of Dance and Feathers, located in the back yard of his residence, was nearly destroyed by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, and many priceless artifacts were lost, but volunteers and donors helped rebuild the museum and restock it with photographs and objects that preserve a record of the neighborhood’s unique culture, a culture that at times seems more Caribbean than American. When the Neighborhood Story Project published a beautiful book about the museum, many people around the world (including myself)became more aware of the great work that Lewis has done to preserve a record of the Lower Ninth Ward and its significance to New Orleans as a whole. The museum contains artifacts of Black Indian culture, of social aid and pleasure clubs, and of brass bands and musicians. It also contains articles and books that deal with the history of New Orleans and related Afro-Caribbean cultural practices which resemble those of New Orleans, such as those of the Garifuna people of Central America. Mr. Lewis was very gracious in opening up the facility for me, his only visitor on the afternoon I was there, and explaining many things to me. A visit to the House of Dance and Feathers (as well as the Backstreet Cultural Museum) is a good place to begin to get an understanding of the culture which produced jazz, brass band music, R & B and even bounce music.
Also on Saturday’s busy day is ArtsMemphis’ Stax to the Max festival, featuring the appearance of three classic Memphis soul vocal groups The Temprees, The Mad Lads and The Astors, all of whom recorded for Stax back in the day. Although I was unable to get a detailed schedule, the flyer indicates who will appear.
Richard “Rip” Lee Pryor is the son of the late Chicago bluesman Snooky Pryor who himself was from Lambert, Mississippi in nearby Quitman County. Like his father, Rip is a harmonica player and guitarist, and he thrilled the modest crowd outside Clarksdale’s Rock & Blues Museum during Juke Joint Festival on Saturday. The museum is worth a visit, not only for the exhibits, but also for the good selection of used vinyl and compact discs that are for sale.
The B.B. King Museum in the famous bluesman’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi states that its purpose is to promote the values of B. B. King, but it has also promoted an increase in tourism to what was a sleepy Delta town. The live music outdoors that motivated me to drive down from Memphis was sponsored by the museum, and the museum has now assumed control of the historic Club Ebony, located just to the southwest of the museum campus.