Predominantly-African-American towns in Mississippi have a tradition of annual “days,” named for the towns, in which there are live performances, and in which people from those towns return from the North and West and other places where they have relocated for a sort of town reunion. The dynamic does not seem to occur in Tennessee, perhaps because there are few Black-majority towns. One exception is the town of Mason in Tipton County, located in the center of Tennessee’s Delta region, bordering both Fayette and Haywood Counties, and only about 25 miles from Shelby County. Since 2019, the Southern Soul artist Terry Wright has sponsored a Mason Family Reunion at the Zodiac ballpark north of town (although the event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).
This year, posters went up announcing the event in the Spring, setting the date as the 4th of July. New improvements had also been made to the Zodiac A’s park, including a new snack bar with covered tables and chairs, and a small permanent stage with a DJ booth. At a time when so many Black ballfields have been abandoned or have disappeared, it is encouraging to see this investment in keeping Zodiac Park up to date and viable. Tickets to the event were $30, yet there was already a significant crowd present when I arrived.
Because the small stage would have been inadequate for the expected crowds, the organizers had brought in a larger stage pointed away from the snack bar and toward the outfield. There was no large tent with cafeteria seating as there had been in 2019, and the outfield was mostly people’s personal tents and chairs. Up on the hill were a number of vendors, selling just about anything a person might want to eat or drink. At one of the stands, I recognized Myles Wilson, the former Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, who was also once an owner of legendary Club Tay-May and who had consulted me on my masters thesis about Black fife and drum bands in Tennessee.
In 2019, there were ongoing problems with the power supply to the stage, and that situation continued this year. Early performers had their performances interrupted due to sudden power failures; worse, at least for me, was that I did not see any drums, amps or guitars. I began to wonder if anyone was going to perform with musicians. Eventually I ran into Terry Wright’s keyboard player, who told me that it was going to be strictly a track show. Karen Wolfe was on stage at the time, struggling with intermittent power. I suppose the limited power issue made using live instruments impracticable.
Disappointed, I spent the remainder of my time catching up with people I knew from Mason, which is actually what a lot of people seemed to do. The weather was beautiful even if it was hot, and a lot of people turned out; there was plenty of fellowship, and no fighting. But a blues and Southern Soul show without musicians just seems and feels wrong.
On and off over the last few years, I have been playing with Duwayne Burnside, the extraordinary blues guitarist and son of Hill Country blues great R. L. Burnside. Our rehearsals recently have been in Holly Springs, but up until last weekend, I never noticed the work of folk art on what appears to be a garage behind a house at West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street. “The Color of My Skin Is Not A Weapon,” says one sign, while the other proclaims “White Silence=White Consent.” Both are surrounded by African masks.
Down Boundary Street to the south toward Highway 7, I noticed another building for the first time, a large two-story building with a chimney at both ends which looked quite historic, but which for some reason I had never noticed before. It looked to be quite old, but I had no idea exactly how old it actually is. The building, once the University of Holly Springs, was built in 1837! It later housed a boys’ school called the Chalmers Institute. Although it looks abandoned, it is apparently in the process of being restored, and will supposedly become a venue for music concerts, weddings and receptions.
Mattie B’s is an old ballfield and juke joint in far western Marshall County, where for the last month or so, they’ve been having live Hill Country blues with Duwayne Burnside. The address is Byhalia, Mississippi, although the club is really closer to Independence, in Tate County. Beginning on Sunday nights in November, the blues night has moved to Friday nights since the third week in December, and will continue in January after a hiatus for the holidays.
On one particularly cold and wet Sunday night, the crowd was late in arriving, and the musicians were just chilling, hanging out, and playing pool.
One of the worst things of 2020 was the cancellation of nearly all live music events, gigs, festivals and parties. It was understandable, in the light of COVID, but it was still disappointing. Having not played a gig since August, I was thrilled when the great blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside called me to play his birthday party out in the rurals between Independence, Mississippi and Holly Springs. With the weather unseasonably warm, I imagined there would be a fairly good turnout.
Duwayne chose to have his party at a rural club and baseball field called Mattie B’s along the Wall Hill Road east of Independence in Marshall County. The place has the look and feel of a real Mississippi juke, complete with pool tables, but it has a surprisingly ample stage. When I arrived, there were a lot of cars in the back near the baseball field, and a food truck had set up there selling plates. The inside was not drastically crowded, but there was a good number of people inside, among them the blues musician Robert Kimbrough, and the DJ was playing good blues and southern soul inside.
Duwayne took the stage at about 8 PM, and we played until around 10:00 PM, with Pinkie Pulliam on bass and Artemas Leseur on drums. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when Duwayne played the late David Kimbrough’s song “I Got The Dog In Me,” which was the first time I had heard him play that song. Blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah also made an appearance, and Kenny briefly joined Duwayne on the stage. The crowd especially took to the more upbeat Hill Country tunes, filling the dance floor in front of the stage. It made a nice throwback to how things were before the pandemic.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
The Fisherville and Cordova communities in eastern Shelby County, Tennessee are among the few places in the Memphis area that have retained something of their rural character, but like similar places in Fayette and Tipton counties, the areas are severely threatened by the expansion of new residential development and commercial development eastward into the area.
On a hot but sunny Sunday afternoon, I decided to ride out into those areas and take pictures of the historic buildings that remain. Using an iPhone app called Filmroll, I was able to take beautiful pictures that have the finish of classic films, such as Agfa Ultra 50 and Kodak Ektar 100, and I was especially impressed with the results. Only a couple of historic buildings remain in Fisherville, which was never a large community, but Cordova’s old downtown is remarkably well-preserved, despite its annexation by Memphis. Even its old railroad depot remains standing, unlike the ones that have vanished in towns like Bartlett, Brunswick and Millington.
The blues researcher Bengt Olsson indicated that the Independent Pole Bearers Band No. 12 of Mount Pisgah used to march and play in Cordova, and I imagine it used to take place around the depot and the stores across the street. Sadly, the place is very quiet now. The only noise is the sound of car tires on pavement.
Fayette County, in the part of West Tennessee that we might call the state’s Delta region, was for most of its history a highly rural county. Primarily an area of large cotton plantations before the civil war, it had few large towns. Even its county seat, Somerville, was and remains tiny by most perspectives, with only about 2,000 residents. However, in recent years, the proximity to Memphis has begun to take its toll, and many of the old rural scenes and locations are disappearing into a realm of tract subdivisions and shopping centers, particularly in the western parts of the county nearest to Memphis and its suburbs.
Still, in the northwestern corner of the county nearest to Mason, Tennessee, one can find reminders of the county’s past. On nice and warm days, I still occasionally ride the backroads in these areas, looking for things to photograph before they too disappear to new development.
Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.
Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.
There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.
The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.