Fife and drum music was once found in Black communities throughout the South, but by 1970, it was found only in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, and by 1981, only in several Mississippi counties. With the recent retirement of Calvin Hurt of Panola County from playing,the Hurt Family Band seems to be a thing of the past, and there is really now only one Black fife and drum picnic in the United States, the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which nowadays takes place in Coldwater, Mississippi, after many years at Otha Turner’s farm near Gravel Springs.
This year, on Saturday, the event was hampered to some extent by storms and lightning, but there was enough breaks in the rain that the performers were able to come on stage, and there was a decent crowd outside the Northwest Shrine Club in Coldwater, which was the site of the festival this year. The evening opened with female blues singer Andrea Staten, who covered classic songs by Senatobia artist Jessie Mae Hemphill and longtime Como resident Mississippi Fred McDowell. She was followed by R. L. Boyce, who performed with an Australian blues musician named Dom Turner, who was visiting Mississippi,and with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums. Afterwards, the band 78 from Memphis came up to play a mix of originals and Hill Country standards.
Between the bands, Sharde Thomas brought out her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, and they marched through the crowd with fife and drum, attracting a group of dancers behind them. The second time the Rising Stars played, they marched onto the stage and were joined by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. That impromptu jam session was memorable indeed.
Unfortunately at that point, the thunder and lightning that had been visible to the southwest started approaching nearer to the festival grounds. With bad weather eminent, and having to drive back to Brownsville and then Memphis, I left the event early.
Home Place Pastures was originally founded in 1869 or 1871, depending on the source, as a cotton plantation in the wilderness east of the railroad town of Como, Mississippi. It has belonged to several successive generations of the Bartlett family, with the most recent owners having decided to convert it from traditional agriculture to sustainable and organic beef, pork and lamb. The decision was an inspired one, and more and more restaurant menus in our region bear the legend “We proudly serve Home Place Pastures pork.” In addition to pasture-raised livestock, the Home Place has also served as a wedding venue at times. But once a year, it also becomes home to one of the Hill Country’s most important food and blues events, the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic.
The French word “boucherie” literally means a butcher’s shop, but the Hill Country Boucherie is actually a five-course meal prepared by nationally-renowned chefs. This year, items from 25 of the South’s best restaurants were available, and many people chose to camp on the grounds for the whole weekend. There was also a rock and hip-hop music festival on Friday night called Muscle Fest, which included the groundbreaking Memphis hip-hop artist Cities Aviv.
Nevertheless, for lovers of the Hill Country Blues, it is the blues picnic after the boucherie that is the main attraction. The Home Place Pastures is actually the perfect location for blues music, with a large pavilion suited to the purpose, and a retrofitted school bus with its front wall cut away to convert it into a movable stage. Fans have to sit on bales of hay, but that is half the fun, and the kids love playing on the larger haystacks that separate the fans from the artists-only area backstage.
For those who didn’t buy tickets to the boucherie, the Blues Picnic always has excellent pulled pork, and this year was no exception, except that they also had delicious brisket sandwiches, provided by Smoke Shop BBQ in Oxford.
As for the music, the evening began with the Como Mamas, singing a capella, but their voices were so strong that they easily carried the crowd. They were soon followed by R. L. Boyce, the elder statesman of Hill Country blues, who had just celebrated a birthday a few days before. Boyce, who often improvises lyrics as he goes, sang that he had said he wasn’t going to sing anymore, but evidently had changed his mind. His slow and languid “Jesus Is Going To Meet Me By The River Jordan” is a study in discipline, a humid aural landscape based on the plagal cadence at the end of hymns, a fitting soundtrack to sweltering summer days, kids playing on haystacks, or slow-moving creeks and bayous in the late afternoons. As his fellow musicians often attempt to pick up its pace, Boyce calmly but firmly re-establishes the slow tempo he demands. It is a sound unlike any other in the region.
Kenny Brown is another matter altogether, a disciple of both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, who picked up the electrified sound of the latter man’s last stylistic phase. Hill Country blues amplified and electrified becomes a kind of rock and roll, and Brown, along with compatriot Cedric Burnside, are the two best exponents of this style and sound, which has a large following in and around the Oxford area.
The Home Place Band, AKA the Como-Tions, is Marshall Bartlett’s own band. They generally make an appearance at each year’s boucherie, and occasionally at the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas’ Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band. Although music is more a fun hobby than a vocation for them, they are actually quite good, and their “Hog Farmin’ Daddy” is a hilarious song that somewhat describes what Home Place Pastures is all about.
Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band were not on the published schedule, but nonetheless made a welcome appearance. Black fife and drum music is perhaps the earliest secular Black music in the Hill Country, and simply the right thing for a moonlight picnic near Como. The rhythms and polyrhythms demand action, and people get up to parade and dance and second-line around the grounds.
The headline performer of the evening was the Rev. John Wilkins, son of the late Robert Wilkins, of “Prodigal Son” fame. John is the pastor of Hunters Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, not far from the Home Place, and a major gospel music star in his own right. Playing a music that differs little from traditional Hill Country blues except for the lyrics has given Wilkins a forum that few other gospel artists could attain, for he plays many nights a year at festivals and even night clubs where he is often the only gospel act. Yet he never compromises his beliefs, or sings a secular song. One can only imagine how many blues fans, perhaps burdened with troubles or sorrows, have been comforted and perhaps encouraged by something the Rev. John Wilkins sang or said at precisely the right time. After reminding us that when God says we have to move, we have to move, he then reminded us that “You can’t hurry God” but He’s “right on time.” There was a final country band scheduled to go on stage after Wilkins, but there was really no better message to carry away from the Hill Country boucherie and blues picnic. God is always right on time.
After a breakfast at the Brunswick Kitchen at Brunswick near Lakeland, I decided to spend the afternoon putting up flyers for the R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration, which is being held on September 1 during the Labor Day weekend. Coffee bars make a great place to promote events, as they typically have large community bulletin boards, or plenty of window space, so I made my way around to several Memphis area coffee bars on what was a very hot day indeed.
At Cafe Eclectic, one of Memphis’ oldest coffee bars, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a beer tap with the Illy logo on it. As Illy doesn’t make beer, I was curious, and had to ask the barista what it was. She explained that it was nitro, or nitrogenated coffee, and to my inquiries of what it was like, she responded by giving me a cold free glass of it. Without any added sugar or cream, it was absolutely delicious, mild and rich, the perfect option for such a hot day.
Downtown in the Pinch district, I came upon the new Comeback Coffee on North Main Street near Westy’s. This is Memphis’ most recent coffee bar, and an amazing and cool oasis in the city, with excellent coffee, wi-fi, comfortable seating, and an awesome multi-story outdoor courtyard.
At breakfast, I had downloaded a new iPhone photo app called Hydra, and so I spent the afternoon experimenting with it. It basically takes multiple photos and then merges them to create amazing detail and clarity with your phone. Of course it has limitations, because that method of improving photo clarity does not work with moving objects like people, pets or vehicles. But for buildings, such as old churches and other historic structures, it works very well indeed. In the South Memphis area along Florida street, I came across an old warehouse that bore an inscription for Mr. Bowers’ Stores, an old Memphis grocery chain. A painted logo for one of the locations still exists on Jackson Avenue near Breedlove. Further down Florida was an interesting new lounge called D’s Lounge, with an attractive guitar logo painted above the door. Great blues and southern soul recordings were playing inside, and I would have liked to check with them and see if they ever book live bands. But a rather draconian sign on the door read “Members Only” so I thought better of trying to go in, and continued on my way down to Mississippi, as the blues picnic portion of the annual Hill Country Boucherie was starting at 7 PM in Como.
Signs had been posted in the Mason area regarding a large blues show at Zodiac Park for at least a month, and I had viewed the event with some interest, as I had often thought of Zodiac Park as a potential spot for a blues festival. The place is a historic Black baseball and softball field north of Mason, which has hosted car shows, but so far as I know never a blues event before. I would have conceived my event more as a roots event, with traditional blues artists and gospel groups, but this was more of a southern soul event being billed as a “Mason family reunion.” Terry Wright, himself a native of the area, was billed as the headliner, and rumor had it that he was the driving force behind the event, so I pre-purchased a ticket and made plans to go.
Despite the extreme heat, and the newness of the event, there was already a fairly large crowd at Zodiac Park when I arrived, and quite a few vendors, including a full bar. People were continuing to arrive throughout the afternoon, and several bike and car clubs had come as a group. A band was warming up on the outdoor stage as I arrived.
Unfortunately, the event was plagued by a number of issues, many of them beyond the organizers’ control. The extreme heat eventually gave way to heavy downpours of rain, which forced everyone under tents temporarily, but thankfully, the rains passed, and the sun came back out. Of greater concern were electrical problems on the stage, which occurred intermittantly all day.
Having been to only a couple of southern soul shows in the past, I had imagined that each of the acts would have their own band, but to my disappointment, the opening acts all performed to tracks instead. They included a local artist from Tipton County known as Big Poppa, someone called Big Sam, well-known female blues artist Karen Wolfe, and Mississippi artist Vick Allen. Even as these artists performed to tracks, electrical problems kept causing the microphones and tracks to cut out. Even so, a large crowd gathered in front of the stage, particularly when Karen Wolfe was on stage.
When it was time for Terry Wright to come to the stage, his band warmed up first, but the keyboard player took his instrument down and put it away, apparently because of the ongoing power concerns. Even without the keyboard, the band proved to be too much for the power available to the stage, and the microphones cut out, so a decision was made to have Terry perform with tracks instead of his band, and at that point, I made the decision to leave and go home.
Although some of the problems disappointed me, I have to say that I still had fun, many other people had fun, and there were no bad feelings or attitudes the entire day. I managed to see a number of people I knew, including Myles Wilson, one of the former owners of Club Tay-May in Mason and the former superintendent of Fayette County Schools.
Hopefully the event will continue in future years, and the only improvements I could recommend is making sure that there is enough power on stage, and having a house band to back all of the day’s singers.
Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.
Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.
I recalled Pace, Mississippi being the site of some degree of controversy in my younger days back in the 1980’s. Like the similar town of Tchula, Mississippi, the transition from white government to Black government did not sit well with some of the town’s white residents. I recall that some of the controversy was over the renaming of Pace streets for prominent Black citizens. But Pace today is a fairly sleepy and quiet town, although with several juke joints, probably one that jumps late at night on weekends. The local supermarket is vacant, and the downtown consists mainly of clubs- Club Escape, the Brass Rail and Bradley’s Place. The men sitting in front of the Brass Rail were friendly and amenable to my taking photos of the jukes, and told me a little bit about the town. There might have been live music at one time in Pace, but nowadays the clubs strictly have DJ’s, I was told. Although food was being grilled outside, I had decided to have dinner in Cleveland before heading back to Clarksdale for the blues show, and as it was nearly 5 PM, I got back on the road toward Cleveland.
A while back, I had crossed paths on Facebook with the Rev. T. Ray Greer, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in the countryside just to the north of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County. He was interested in the research that I and John Marshall were doing into the history of Mason, and so he reached out to invite us to come to a breakfast at his church, meet some of the older members, and perhaps gain new information into the history we were working on.
So on the Sunday morning after my journey to the state archives in Nashville, I drove out Austin Peay Highway, and made my way to the historic church, which was founded in 1868, although the current building was built in 1913. There was a huge quantity of cars outside, and my friend John Marshall was already there when I arrived.
Inside, we were warmly welcomed, and there was coffee and breakfast. John Marshall had brought a copy of the church’s deed, which he had copied from the county courthouse in Covington, and he was sitting and talking with a woman that was said to be 94 years old.
After breakfast, there was a rousing and joyful service, with a choir, and a drummer and a keyboard player. Although the congregation was fairly small, the members filled the stage area in front of the pulpit with all kinds of donated food goods for the needy and poor of the Mason area. When it was time for the offering, the keyboard player took a break, and to my surprise, a young man sang a song accompanied only by the drummer, who impressed me with his funky playing style.
Then it was time for John Marshall to get up and make his historical presentation. He outlined what he knew of the church’s history and property boundaries, and named many of the notable families that had helped to found the church, He also discussed the Salem School, which had been across the road from the current church.
Afterwards, I made a brief presentation regarding my research into Black fife and drum music in the Mason area. I mentioned the horse races at Booster Pete’s on the Tabernacle Road, and the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band, and a few people in the church recalled what I was talking about. I ended up leaving with about three phone numbers of people that might be willing to be interviewed on the subject of the horse races, trade days, fife and drum bands and picnics, and then headed back to Memphis.
Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and its county seat of Ripley have a significant blues tradition. Petey Wheatstraw was from Ripley, and Noah Lewis and John Henry Barbee were from Henning, the town made famous by Alex Haley. The blues researcher Bengt Olsson had suggested that there had been fife and drum bands in Lauderdale County, so I drove up to the Lauderdale County Library in the hopes of finding information in the back issues of the weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. Unfortunately, to my shock, the county library did not have any of the back issues of the local newspaper. The microfilm of them is instead kept at the Enterprise office, which of course was not open on a Saturday. I soon came to realize I had come to Ripley for nothing at all, but I called an acquaintance Gwen Blackman, who happened to be a block from the library at an agricultural fair, and who attempted to put me in touch with some community people who were old enough to perhaps remember some fife and drum bands or picnics, but she really could not reach anyone on that particular day. So, with little else to do, I ventured over into the Black neighborhood east of the railroad tracks, where I took some photos of historic spots and locations…old stores, old clubs, and old cafes. It was not the research toward my thesis paper that I had intended, but it was fun.
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.