What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.
Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.
Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.
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.
Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.
As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.
The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.
The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.
Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.
Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.
What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.
While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.
At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.
In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.
Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
Although Saturday, August 25, 2018 was even hotter than the day before, the crowd that gathered in the late afternoon in Coldwater for the second day of the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was even larger than the one from the day before. The surprise of the early evening was an R & B singer from Coldwater named Felita Jacole, who had a band of talented musicians backing her up, and who, to my surprise, did some original material, including a song called “Weekend.”
She was followed by the legendary R. L. Boyce, the last of the original Hill Country bluesmen, who performed with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums, and his daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and dancing.
Later in the evening came exciting sets by Nashville-based Blue Mother Tupelo, and Mississippi bluesman Mark “Muleman” Massey, but as it was the previous night, the most excitement in my opinion was the raw and exuberant processions of Sharde Thomas and her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band between the performances on stage. After dark, the interplay between djembe, bass drum and dancers became truly uninhibited, and the crowd gathered around to watch.
Confronted with the challenges caused by moving to a new town and venue, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic managed to rise to the occasion. The weather was perfect both days, with the grounds after dark illuminated by a beautiful full moon overhead, and a crowd of several hundred people in front of the stage.
Back in 1950, Othar Turner, of Gravel Springs, a few miles east of Senatobia in Mississippi’s Hill Country region, decided to hold a picnic for his friends and neighbors in the community. He killed and barbecued goats, and he and his friends ate, drank and danced to fife and drum music, a rural pre-blues form of Black music that had once been found across the South. By the time musicologists like David Evans visited Tate County in 1970, the event had been going on for 20 years, and eight years later, the famed musicologist and documentarian Alan Lomax visited the Turner Family Picnic as well. Othar, whose friends called him “Otha”, went on to make two full-length record albums, and contribute a song to the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York , and by the time of his death on February 27, 2003, he had passed the tradition of his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on to his granddaughter Sharde Thomas.
Unfortunately, last year, a family dispute within the larger Turner family led to the eviction of the annual picnic from Otha’s old homestead, as well as the demolition of most of the structures that had been used for the event. While there was something different about this year’s picnic due to the necessity of relocating it from Gravel Springs, it is also true that Sharde Thomas chose a location in Coldwater that greatly resembled the old location, with a number of old wooden structures. Attendance was somewhat light at the beginning, as the weather had been quite hot on the Friday of the first night, but the crowds soon grew larger, as bands like blues-rockers 78 (named for a major highway in the Hill Country) and artists like Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones and Robert Kimbrough Sr performed on the stage under a tent. The Thomas family’s stand was selling catfish and goat sandwiches, and RC’s Soul Food Restaurant from Como had a stand as well. A large, full moon (some said a “blue moon”) shown overhead. But the high point of the evening, at least for me, were the interludes between stage acts when Sharde Thomas, alternately playing djembe or fife, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, marching across the picnic grounds. Occasionally, these processions developed into djembe vs. bass drum battles between Sharde and Chris Mallory, one of her drummers, and on other occasions, dancers came and got down low to the ground to the rhythms of the bass drum. Despite the new location, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was a success.
Last year marked the first time we had organized a large outdoor birthday party for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, and that first picnic, with limited promotion and budget, attracted an amazing crowd of 500 people. This year, with the involvement of Amy Verdon of Fancy Magazine and Go Ape Records, we were able to plan the event on a slightly bigger level, and despite the threat of rain all around, we enjoyed great weather and a larger attendance.
The event, held on Friday August 17 to avoid conflict with the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic which was being held on Saturday, began with an exhibit opening of photography by Como artist Yancey Allison, who has been documenting the Hill Country blues for many years. Live music began in nearby Como Park at 6 PM, with the performers being documented this year by the Memphis-based Beale Street Caravan radio show. A crowd of around 600 braved the threat of rain to enjoy fife and drum bands like The Hurt Family and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and blues and soul artists such as Andrea Staten, Kody Harrell, Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones, Cameron Kimbrough, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, Willy and the Planks, Dee Walker and Duwayne Burnside. Several times, the guest of honor, R. L. Boyce made his way to the stage to perform, and on one of those occasions the crowd joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
In addition to the five hours of some of the best Hill Country blues and soul, attendees also enjoyed free hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked sausages until they were gone.
It appears that the R. L. Boyce Picnic will be a major event in Como, Mississippi for many years to come.
Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.