A Delta Journey: A Vicksburg Renaissance

On my last venture into downtown Vicksburg, I recall that an old building on Clay Street was collapsing into the street. A large pile of bricks had fallen, and the city had simply put workhorses around the pile to warn motorists to drive around it. I got the impression that like many cities, Vicksburg’s commerce had fled the downtown area to the outskirts, and I expected that the downtown would continue to deteriorate. But my Sunday afternoon visit en route from Monroe to Memphis showed me that a remarkable transformation has taken place. I am not sure if it is due to the casinos, or other forms of tourism, but Vicksburg is now home to downtown restaurants like Cottonwood Public House, and the Biscuit Company, a microbrewery called Key City, the Highway 61 Coffee House, museums, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot, and many other restored buildings. The place that had so resembled a ghost town on that visit years ago is now booming, and certainly worth a visit. However, almost everything other than restaurants is closed on Sundays. Tourism or not, this is still Mississippi.

A Delta Journey: Great Food, Lovely Views at Miro’s in Monroe

Most people, when they think of Louisiana, think of New Orleans. Monroe is a whole different experience altogether, yet it has a couple of things in common with the better known city four hours to the South—plenty of rivers, lakes and bayous, and great restaurants. In a few of Monroe’s best restaurants, those two things come together, and the most recent example of this is Miro’s, a trendy new waterfront bistro in downtown Monroe.

Formerly a Mexican restaurant called River and Rail Cantina, Miro’s takes its name from Fort Miro, the original French name for the outpost that would eventually become the city of Monroe. It is a large building with the Ouachita River on the west, Walnut Street on the east, and the railroad bridge across the river on the south, and as such, it features beautiful views of the river, both from inside the restaurant and from the outdoor tables on the patio and deck. But it is the food that should lure you to Miro’s. Hamburgers might not seem like a fancy lunch or dinner, but Miro’s makes fancy hamburgers. My barbecue bacon cheeseburger was truly huge, cooked perfectly to order, with crispy bacon and a pleasantly-sweet barbecue sauce. Perhaps most interestingly, they burned a fleur-de-lis into the top of my burger bun. I saw others ordering pizzas, and they looked delicious as well. Prices, while not cheap, were reasonable, considering the quality of the food and size of the portions.

My waitress told me that Miro’s features live music on weekend nights, and it would seem to be a great location for that. Altogether, Miro’s seems a great addition to the North Louisiana dining scene, and should not be missed when in Monroe.

Miro’s

201 Walnut Street

Monroe, LA 71201

(318) 855-6234

A Delta Journey: Lake Chicot and Old Juke Joints in Eudora

Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.

Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.

A Fall Celebration on Mason’s Lower End

Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.

Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.

Commemorating a Holy Site of the Bentonia Blues

2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.

The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.

There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!

Celebrating The Legacy of R. L. Boyce at Como, Mississippi

What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.

Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.

Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.

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.

Haute Cuisine and Hill Country Blues at Home Place Pastures in Como

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.

A Sunny Afternoon in Memphis

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.

Books Coffee and Blues in Greenwood

Part of my plan when I decided to go to Vaiden to take pictures on a Saturday afternoon was to try to make it to Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi before they closed at 6 PM and buy a copy of Michael Ford’s new book of photographs North Mississippi Homeplace, which I had read about online. Scott Barretta, the promoter of all things Mississippi blues-related, had been discussing the book and the film on social media, so I texted him on Facebook to see if he wanted to meet for dinner in Greenwood, but he told me he was going to Tallahatchie Flats to see someone called Ben Wiley Payton. I told him I knew the place and would meet him there.

But the first challenge was to get from Vaiden to Greenwood before the book store closed. The distance didn’t seem that far, but the road from Vaiden to Carrollton seemed to take awhile, and although I left Vaiden by 5 PM, it took until 5:45 PM to get to downtown Greenwood, and so when I got to Turnrow Books, I had little time to browse before they closed. It was just as well, because the store was full of books that I would have loved to have owned, and I had limited money. One of the peculiar things about Mississippi is the number of truly excellent book stores in the state. Square Books in Oxford, LeMuria Books in Jackson, Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, and of course the store I was at in Greenwood. All of them are always full of treasures and it is hard to avoid spending too much money. Fortunately, Turnrow had plenty of copies of Ford’s book, signed by the author, and I was able to buy one, and then go on my way so they could close up the store.

Down Howard Street was a coffee bar called Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House, which the people at Turnrow had suggested was likely already closed for the evening, but which I found wide open. There had apparently been a bicycle race in Greenwood on that Saturday, and so the coffee bar stayed open to accommodate the race visitors, and I was able to get a latte before I headed out Grand Avenue into the wilderness along the Tallahatchie River toward Money, Mississippi to the north.

I was headed to Tallahatchie Flats to meet my friend, but unexpectedly, I came upon an historic marker for bluesman Robert Johnson outside a church called Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Although I had always been told that the burial location of Johnson was disputed, I decided I ought to stop and take photos at the spot and I did. Apparently, the general consensus now is that Little Zion is in fact the burial place of Robert Johnson, with documentation available to support the contention.

Tallahatchie Flats proved to be not at all far from the Little Zion church, practically walking distance. It reminds one of a Greenwood version of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, with rentable sharecropper shacks, and a big tavern building where Ben Wiley Payton was performing. Tallahatchie Tavern proved to be packed to the rafters with fans, some of them blues lovers and some of them people in town for the bike race. Ben Wiley Payton was not an Americana artist as I had imagined, but a Black bluesman, originally from Mississippi but who had lived in Chicago for a period of time. His repertoire was a mixture of traditional blues and soul and R & B covers, and the crowd was enjoying every minute of it.

The tavern itself was of interest. Scott had told me that it had once been owned in part by Steve LaVere, the blues researcher, and perhaps because of that, it was full of Memphis blues memorabilia on the walls, rare flyers and posters for events which I had never seen. I made sure to take photographs, particularly of a flyer that announced a sort of Barn Dance somewhere out in the Fisherville area, which featured performances from Furry Lewis and a band called Common Law Catfish, which sounded like another one of Jim Dickinson’s concoctions.

I had come to watch and listen, but Scott asked me if I wanted to sit in with Ben Payton, and since the tavern had a worn, beat-up piano that was yet reasonably in tune, I agreed. I ended up having a ball playing with Ben and his band, but when it got to be 8 PM, I reluctantly had to leave, as I had made reservations for 8:30 PM at Lusco’s in Greenwood. So I walked the long distance back to my car, and made the drive back into town.