Blues In The Alley At A Crossroads?

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

Marshall County, Mississippi and its county seat of Holly Springs are ground zero when it comes to the subgenre known as Hill Country blues. After all, the style’s two greatest stars, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside were from the county, and largely pursued their music careers there for the better part of their lives. As such, there is potential for blues tourism in Holly Springs, and the powers that be there have been slowly attempting to capitalize on it, sponsoring a weekly summer event during the months of July and August on Thursday nights called Blues in the Alley. On previous years, this event has showcased a lot of local and regional talent, including R. L. Burnside’s sons Duwayne and Garry, and Junior Kimbrough’s sons David and Robert, as well as Little Joe Ayers, and other blues musicians steeped in the Hill Country style. A stage is set up on the courthouse square, and on average, several hundred people show up to dance, party and enjoy the music.
Unfortunately, this year was different. When the event kicked off on June 30, Potts Camp legend Kenny Brown was on stage, and he had invited his friend Duwayne Burnside to perform as well.A crowd of several hundred people turned out to enjoy the kickoff, which was capped by a fireworks display. A week or two later, Lightning Malcolm, also familiar to Hill Country fans was the featured artist. But sadly, that was as good as it would get this year. As the summer stretched on, it became apparent that the festival organizers did not intend to book Duwayne or Garry Burnside (Duwayne ultimately appeared at Foxfire), nor Cedric Burnside (who played at New Albany’s Park on the River on July 2), nor David or Robert Kimbrough (Robert played a Sunday evening at Foxfire later in the summer), nor Little Joe Ayers. In fact, as the festival booked unknown bands like the Around The Corner Band, and out-of-town groups like the Juke Joint Three, something even more disturbing became apparent. For the most part, this year’s Blues In The Alley was booking only white artists. In fact, by the time the festival ended on September 1 with Gerod Rayborn, as best I could determine, only two Black artists had been featured all summer, and one of them, Oxford’s Cassie Bonner, is a singer/songwriter and not a blues artist at all. Ultimately, the programming choices affected attendance, which was way down, and skewed the crowds that did show up racially, with far fewer Blacks choosing to attend the weekly event. And this was all the more noticeable, as Holly Springs and Marshall County have a large Black majority. Sadly, it seems there is no way this was coincidental. Local Marshall County artists that are world-famous were passed over in favor of unknown (but white) bands from somewhere else. Although I asked a number of my friends in Holly Springs if they had heard any reason for the drastic change in booking policy, no justification for the change was ever readily forthcoming.
Ultimately, if Holly Springs wants to capitalize on its blues legacy as Clarksdale has managed to do, it must choose to become far less race-conscious as a town. The organizers of Blues in the Alley must understand that the Kimbrough and Burnside names are known all over the world, and that these are the artists that need to be booked if the goal is to get people to visit Holly Springs from other states or other countries. There’s nothing wrong with booking highly-talented white blues artists with impeccable Hill Country credentials like Lightning Malcolm, Kenny Brown or Eric Deaton. But Holly Springs and Marshall County are predominantly-Black, and Blues in the Alley should offer something for the Black majority as well…particularly if public funds are being expended. Otherwise, there may eventually not be a Blues in the Alley at all.

An Open Letter to Governor “Bobby” Jindal

Dear Governor Jindal, you are quoted this week complaining about the emphasis minorities place upon their background and heritage. You decry their refusal to assimilate into some “American” culture that you assume exists. To put this issue in proper perspective, it is important to go back and look at American history from a time long before you were here, and long before your ancestors had immigrated to America.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the southern states quickly set about enacting laws that were called “Black Codes.” These laws made a distinction between whites and Blacks, and set up a standard of second-class citizenship for Black people. The passage of these laws helped bring about a period of so-called “Radical” Reconstruction, where, for a brief period of time, Black people were permitted to vote and hold office. But even then, most of the Reconstruction governments authorized separate and segregated education at primary, secondary and college levels. After the era of so-called Redemption, Blacks were summarily stripped of their right to vote, and then harsh laws requiring separation and segregation of the races were enacted in all Southern states, and by the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these laws were expanding to many northern and western cities and states. Clearly the white majority in America did NOT want Black people to be assimilated into American culture, because in reality, assimilation is a two-way street, and they rightly understood that elements of Black culture would influence whites as much as white culture would influence Blacks.
Nor was the desire to prevent assimilation restricted to Black people. Many businesses in northern cities denied service or employment to the Irish or Italians. These communities were often viewed with suspicion because of their extreme poverty, because they came to America in large numbers, and because they tended to be Roman Catholic in their religious orientation. Laws were passed in the 19th Century to forbid immigration by Chinese people altogether, presumably because, once again, the culture of Asian people was thought to be “foreign” to America and its form of government.
America also denied the chance of assimilation to the native peoples whose land this country was founded on. Despite a long history of self-government, the native tribes were forcibly removed from the South and restricted to reservations in Oklahoma or other western states.
As for African-Americans, by the time laws requiring segregation and separation were dismantled, bitterness and disillusionment had already set in. Black people had largely grown up in segregated, all-Black environments, and many of the unpleasant incidents of the 1960’s only reinforced their discomfort with attempting to blend into mainstream society. And for the last 30 to 40 years, incidents continue to occur which remind Black people that they are really not welcome in America, and that they are not merely separate by choice, but by design of those who have engineered America’s social and economic structure.
In closing, let me point out, Governor, that nowhere in your comments did you address the considerable amount of damage done by white people who insist on holding on to their “heritage.” Many conservative organizations openly state that America’s heritage is a legacy of white, Anglo-Saxon protestants, and that this legacy is under attack from “diversity” and “multi-culturalism.” If it is necessary that all other races give up their pride of race and heritage in order to be “good Americans”, should not white people have to do the same? And if not, why not? Such a double standard is indeed a glaring proof of the racial hypocrisy that has always been a part of the United States.

Sincerely,
John Shaw

The Battle of Morris Park

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Rarely do gentrifiers explicitly tell you their plans, but this flyer I picked up at the Trolley Stop in Memphis sets forth exactly what the Victorian Village Community Development Corporation wants to do with Morris Park. The urban park features two basketball courts currently and the best basketball in the city, but the Victorian Village folks claim that “families” are afraid to use the park due to “100” crimes that have occurred there in the last year. Their flyer calls for a “Greener, Cleaner, Safer” park, and at first glance, what could be wrong with that? But the problem is, the folks that like to hoop in Morris Park are mostly young Black men, and by “greener” Victorian Village Inc means getting rid of the basketball courts. To be such a storied town for basketball, Memphis has few public courts. The city removed most of them in the 1990’s after residents claimed that they attracted crime. Now, if the Victorian Village CDC is successful in their efforts, there will be no place for young people to play basketball in Downtown Memphis. While crime in parks is an issue that needs to be addressed, basketball doesn’t cause it and eliminating basketball will not prevent crime.

The Real “Heart of Memphis”: Bitter, Divided and Defeated

#008 Memphis United At the well-meaning Heart of Memphis rally Saturday morning, speaker after speaker praised those of us who had braved the weather to show a different set of values than the Ku Klux Klan. “You are the true heart of Memphis,” was said more than once. Unfortunately it was all wishful thinking, and on Monday, the county commission meeting revealed the bitter truth about the real “heart of Memphis.” After an observer pleaded for a referendum in the county to abolish the residency requirement for all public school teachers, Commissioner Walter Bailey said that would allow outsiders to “absorb” jobs that should go to county residents. Commissioner Terry Roland saw fit at that point to remind his colleagues that he can go to the Republican-controlled state legislature and get the residency requirement overturned. That was followed by Commissioner Henri Brooks complaining that she had been disrespected by her white colleagues on the Commission, comparing their actions to the Ku Klux Klan. So, it is past time that we halt any absurd notions about peace, love or brotherhood being the true heart of Memphis. If it were, we would elect leaders who exemplify those values in their public lives. It is no accident that the KKK repeatedly comes to Memphis to stage rallies. They know fertile ground when they see it.