The Last Black Fife and Drum Picnic in America

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.

Catfish’s Big Day in Belzoni

I had no phone service at all while I was at Swiftown, but as I approached Belzoni, my phone started ringing. Blues musician Duwayne Burnside, for whom I play keyboards, was calling frantically from the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni because we were about to go on stage in less than a half-hour. Getting to Belzoni was no big deal, because I was only about five miles away. But what I hadn’t counted on was how gridlocked everything was because of the festival. Hayden Street, the main street of the town, was blocked off in the downtown area, and it was only with great difficulty that I was able to find a way to drive behind the stage area. Fortunately, Duwayne had talked to the festival people and I was allowed to park in the sheriff’s department parking lot at the Courthouse.

A blues artist named Mississippi Marshall was performing a solo acoustic set on the Humphreys County Courthouse steps as we unloaded our equipment. The weather was grey and overcast, but the rain had held off, and it was warm, so there was a fairly large crowd on the courthouse grounds, and even more along the downtown streets where vendors had set up tents. Marshall’s performance was followed by a Miss Catfish Pageant, and then we got to go on stage, set up our instruments and perform. As for food, there was, of course, catfish. And pretty good catfish it was too, provided by Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena, some 30 miles up the road.

As the Blackwater Trio went up on stage next, I took the time to walk down Hayden Street, looking at the various stores and vendors. Belzoni, like all Delta towns, had suffered hard times in the modern era, but they had experienced something of a renaissance with the advent of aquaculture, specifically farm-raised catfish. As a result, the downtown area was dotted with various catfish statues, painted in brilliant colors. But even the catfish industry had grown old in Belzoni now. Many of the statues were located in front of vacant, decaying storefronts. Even the posh digs of the Catfish Institute proved to be vacant- the institute relocated to the “big city” of Jackson some years ago. A few clothing shops were having “Catfish Festival sales” but otherwise, the downtown area seemed to be in poor shape, despite the crowds of people walking around.

Around the corner on Jackson Street, things seemed a little livelier, because of a place called Belzoni Sports Bar & Grill, which was actually the club we were scheduled to play at later in the evening. The place was a sports bar, restaurant and pool hall, and already had some people inside. A man was passing out flyers on the street for Duwayne Burnside’s performance there later in the evening.

Down the next street, which led back toward the courthouse and the main stage, I came upon a beautiful brick building, with the Coca-Cola logo worked into its facade on two sides. Although it was now being used as a daycare, I imagine that it had once been the Coca-Cola bottling plant for Belzoni.

When I returned to the courthouse, I managed to get my equipment loaded into the car, and then drove around through the neighborhood behind the courthouse along George Lee Street (the name commemorates a Black man who was murdered in Belzoni in 1955 for organizing a voter registration drive) and around to Jackson Street, where we were to play. But now the rain had begun to fall, and by the time I began to load into the club, it was pouring down.

Despite the rain outside, the little sports bar was soon jam-packed as we played. Their posters announced several upcoming blues shows, and it seems as if they are going to try to keep the live music going in Belzoni, which is a good thing. Afterwards, I got quite wet putting my instrument and amp back into the car, but I was soon on my way through the storm up Highway 7 toward Itta Bena, Greenwood, and hopefully dinner.

Celebrating R. L. Boyce’s Birthday at Como, Mississippi

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. 

A Reception for the Mentors and Apprentices of the Tennessee Folklife Arts Project


After the six months of mentoring under the Tennessee Folklife Arts Program, mentors and apprentices were invited to a reception at the Tennessee Arts Commission office in Nashville in order to highlight what they learned during the program. So Kesha Burton from Brownsville, R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce and Willie Hurt, who had all been involved in the project to reintroduce fife and drum music to West Tennessee, all headed out to Nashville for the reception. Although the weather was stormy and wet in Memphis, we found that Nashville was dry and sunny, with the downtown area extremely busy with various events and festivals. In addition to the fife and drum project, other apprentices learned basket-making, chair-making, guitar-making, Panamanian dress making, buckdancing, Black gospel quartet performance, and square-dance calling. Although the space for the reception was somewhat cramped, everyone had a good time. Afterwards, I took Kesha Burton to Shipwreck Cove out at Percy Priest Reservoir to celebrate. After a stop for gelato at Legacy Gelato, and a run by Trader Joe’s to pick up some items that we cannot get in Memphis, we headed back to Brownsville, and then I to Memphis.

Blowing The Blues Away At Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival



This year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale had to contend with any number of unusual obstacles this year, including rain, a downtown power outage that lasted several hours, and in the afternoon, a sudden blast of wind that overturned tents and sent them blowing down streets! What was so odd about it was that the rain had ended several hours before, and there had even been periods of beautiful sunshine in the hours leading up to the wind gusts. Despite all the problems, musicians continued playing acoustically where they didn’t have power, and all the power had been restored by the evening performances in the juke joints.

The Lost Town of Mercer and the Bridges at The End of the Road


In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill