New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.
I had never heard of Thunder on the Water until my friend Sherena Boyce mentioned it to me a month or so ago as a festival where blues artists were supposed to be performing. So when I saw that the festival was being held on the weekend of June 12th and 13th, I told Sherena and we decided to go to Grenada Lake. Ironically, we never found the music stage, as the Thunder on the Water event was spread out at several locations near Grenada Lake and Grenada Dam. But what we did find was an absolutely gigantic festival at Grenada Lake, with a midway as large as the Mid-South Fair, and plenty of food and fun. Up on the dam, people had chosen spots overlooking the lake to set up tents and chairs for the fireworks, which were set off over the lake at 9 PM. In addition, a large number of pleasure boats were dotted all over the lake, which is not surprising given that Thunder on the Water started as a water safety awareness event. After a brief stop by the barbecue festival, we headed to Jake & Rip’s in Grenada for a late-night dinner before heading back to Senatobia.
A few days after the Tate Street Block Party, the anti-violence group Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives (FFUN) sponsored a youth rally at Foote Homes, the only remaining public housing project in Memphis. Toys were distributed to the younger children, hot dogs and chips were given out, and horseback rides were given to young people. A DJ provided the music for the occasion, and of course some politicians showed up as well.
Although there are fall jamborees, the cold winter months are the high point of majorette jamboree season in Memphis. Majorette jamborees exist in other cities, but they are a unique part of Memphis culture, at least in their original incarnation, where drill teams and majorettes worked out routines to beats and grooves provided by a squad of drummers. This concept dates at least as far back as the late 1960’s, and at least one such squad, the Klondike Drum and Bugle Corps, was described in a Commercial Appeal article in 1970 as doing a step called the “Moonwalk”, long before Michael Jackson became famous for it. Unfortunately, the majorette jamborees I recall from my teenage years are largely a thing of the past, as today’s majorettes tend to work out their routine to popular songs on compact discs rather than drums and drummers. However, at the Sophisticated Divas jamboree at the JIFF Center in Downtown Memphis last Saturday, at least three of the competing groups included drummers, so the traditional format is at least hanging on by a thread. The Millennium Madness Drill Team has always included drummers, but this year’s squad is larger than what I’ve seen in the past. The Black Diamonds had a drum squad that competed in one category, and Crump Elementary always has a drum squad and a majorette team. The rest of the competitors were working out to recordings, but I was also impressed with a local dance group known as M-Town Image. A number of reasons have been proposed for why drill teams and majorettes have dispensed with drummers, including lack of money or equipment, lack of interested young men wanting to play, and lack of suitable percussion instructors. In a city where there are far too few wholesome activities for young people, particularly young men, here’s hoping that someone steps up to get the young men interested in playing drums, or other musical instruments.
I took a vacation day from work, and headed out I-40 into Arkansas on a very hot day indeed. I had decided to drive up to Greer’s Ferry Lake and check out Fairfield Bay, but I wanted to stop off in Little Rock at Arkansas Record Exchange and browse for some new music. Amongst the 45 singles, I found a copy of the Adolph and the Entertainers “Old Folks Shuffle” on the Alarm label out of Shreveport, a record that I had been looking for for some time. Then I headed on to Conway, where I stopped at the Marketplace Grill and enjoyed a late lunch. It was about 3:30 PM when I left Conway, heading north on Highway 65, which was an endless string of flea markets and antique malls. I would have liked to have stopped at all of them, but the day was rapidly getting away from me, so I only stopped at one that featured a big sign announcing “RECORDS”. They did indeed have records, although nothing much that I cared to purchase, so I continued north into Clinton, and from there headed east toward Shirley and Fairfield Bay. The terrain was more mountainous than I had expected, and the road made quite a few twists and turns before I came to the main entrance of Fairfield Bay. When I was young, Fairfield Bay had been a new resort development, always offering people from Memphis a free vacation if they would agree to take a one-hour tour/seminar about purchasing real estate, condominiums or timeshares. I always wanted us to do it, and my parents never wanted to, so I was surprised to see the rather desolate look of the place as I entered it on Dave Creek Parkway. In the intervening years, Fairfield Bay had changed from a development to an incorporated town, with a mayor and local government, but the first thing I noticed was miles of streets that were little more than gravel tracks leading deep into the woods, with no sign of habitation whatsoever. I had seen on billboards that Wyndham Hotels had taken over the rental management of the resort facilities, but the first thing I saw was an assisted living home, and then gradually I came to the Village Mall, which was supposed to be the business center of town. But here too, an air of tired desolation prevailed, for the Village Mall was almost totally vacant, and the Conference Center across the street had clearly been abandoned, with grass growing through numerous cracks in its empty parking lot pavement. There was a rental office in the area with cars out front, and I had seen a couple of open convenience stores, but back on Dave Creek Parkway were two abandoned restaurants, one of them a Pizza Hut with a “For Sale” sign out in front. Fairfield Bay was beginning to look like a venture that had obviously failed. As I headed further south toward the lake, I noticed a community park with miniature golf, and a farmer’s market, and there were people around there, but the wholse community had an eery, empty feel. I followed a sign off the main road toward the Bay View Club, which was in a beautiful, Old-English-style lodge, with a large, crowded swimming pool behind it. The club was primarily a restaurant, but restricted to members and guests, and I could not determine whether memberships were sold at the door, as they are at so many Arkansas establishments. At the road’s dead end, there was a beautiful vista of the lake and mountains to the south, but it was too obstructed by houses for me to photograph. Heading back to the main road and further south, there were more houses (almost neighborhoods, finally), and I kept heading toward the lakefront, following signs for Hampton Cove Marina. The roads were quite hilly even inside the community, and there were some beautiful lake views, but no public overlook, so I was unable to photograph anything, since I would have had to walk on private property. At Hampton Cove, there was another swimming pool, and it too was crowded with kids and parents, but there was also a walking trail down to the lake, but I soon found that much of it was under water due to abnormally high lake levels. I took some pictures there, and then headed back west toward the main marina area, but there, once again, lake levels had wreaked havoc, and roads were closed. I walked out to the marina store, and took pictures from there, noticing Sugarloaf Mountain coming up out of the lake to the southeast. There had been a snack bar at the marina, but a sign said it was closed due to high water. The beach area nearby was also underwater, but people were still swimming at the places where roads dropped off into the lake, and at that point I took some of the best pictures of the lake. It was getting late, however, and the sun was disappearing behind some clouds, so I headed up Highway 330 looking for a restaurant called the Back In The Day Cafe, but when I found it, it was closed and for sale. I decided to head on around the lake, wondering what economic holocaust had hit Fairfield Bay so hard. Summer should have been the busy season there. At the village of Edgemont, the road came close to the lake, and I came upon a restaurant called Jannsen’s Lakefront Restaurant, where a large crowd was milling around outside. I expected quite a wait, but I was taking a sort of one-day vacation, and was in no hurry, so I stopped there and put my name in for a table. The crowd of waiting people had spilled over into some formal gardens behind what seemed to be a motel or some apartment buildings. There had once been steps down to the lake, but high water earlier in the year had destroyed them. Nearby was a boatdock, where a pontoon boat had pulled up to the shore, and some kids were having a lot of fun in a mudbog nearby, although their parents weren’t too happy about it. I walked down to an old bridge in the woods that must have once been part of the main road, and took some photographs there, but my table was soon ready. I ordered a dinner of pacific rockfish, which was excellent, although I was tempted by the steak offerings on the menu. While waiting for my table, I had seen the homemade chocolate mousse pie, so I tried that as well, and was very pleased. Afterwards, with the sun setting on the lake, I parked at a gravel road on the other side of the bridge, and walked out on the bridge to take photographs. Then I headed out toward Batesville, heading back to Memphis. When I came to Concord, I remembered reading about an old pressing plant there, so I stopped at a gas station and asked the girl there if she knew anything about an old record pressing plant, or where it had been. She was young, but she did know about it, and told me that I had already passed the building down the road, but that the record in it had been given to a museum. Batesville was a beautiful town, lit up in a dark valley and visible for several miles, and from there I passed through Newport, which was a steamy, dark river town with nearly nobody on the streets. When I got to Memphis, it was about 11 PM, and I headed straight to the house.