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.
Old habits die hard in Mississippi, and candidates for office still see a value in hiring the old-time blues musicians to play for rallies. With Tuesday August 6 as election day, Friday night the 2nd was a busy evening indeed with blues musicians hired to play for campaign rallies in places like Senatobia and Holly Springs. Carlton E. Smith, a state senate candidate from Holly Springs is running for a senatorial district that combined Marshall County and Tate County, so he thought it wise to conceive of a campaign rally in Senatobia that celebrated the musical legacies of both counties. He ended up hiring Robert Kimbrough Sr from the Holly Springs area and R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi to play for his event in Senatobia’s Gabbert Park near downtown, on a late afternoon where temperatures were approaching 90 degrees.
When I arrived, perhaps because of the hot weather, almost nobody was in the park other than the candidate and members of his campaign staff. Robert Kimbrough was on stage, with the latest version of his band, the Blues Connection, consisting of J. J. Wilburn on drums, G. Cutta on second lead guitar and Artemas LeSeuer on bass. This line-up had played with Robert in the early days of his career, and had a rawer, more traditional sound than some of his more recent versions. Kimbrough calls his music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues” at least in part because of a community called Cotton Patch near the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 72 in Benton County where Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers used to play together at a juke in the late 1960’s. One notable point from Kimbrough’s performance on this afternoon was the extent to which he performed songs from his brother David Kimbrough, who passed away on July 4 this year. Ultimately, Robert had been hired to play for another rally for a candidate, J. Faulkner, at the Bottomless Cup in Holly Springs, so his band had to quickly break down and head to the other engagement.
Lightnin Malcolm had already been there with his son, and soon R. L. Boyce made a grand entrance, arriving with a whole lot of kids, some of them at least his grandchildren, and Ms. Carolyn Hulette from Senatobia, whose son Travis used to play guitar with R. L. before he moved to Nashville. Lightnin performed a couple of songs with Artemas LeSeuer’s wife Peggy Hemphill LeSeuer, better known as Lady Trucker, before R. L. came up on stage to perform. By that point, the weather had begun to cool off, and a small crowd of older Black folks had appeared, willing to dance to R.L, and Lightnin’s grooves. When R.L. finally slowed things down a bit, he improvised lyrics to some of his friends in the crowd, pointing out that God had awakened them that morning and that one day they would have to “meet that Man.” The secular and the sacred merge together in R.L. Boyce’s Hill Country vision.
As for politics, Carlton Smith spoke a couple of times to the crowd, but he kept it brief, and to the point, talking about the need for healthcare, and the need for reducing taxes and utility costs. By the end of the evening, there was a fair number of people in the park.
Unfortunately, one thing was different from the campaign rallies of old. Traditionally, in addition to the blues or fife and drum music, there would have been a whole hog roasted, with food for everyone. Times have changed, and the campaign only had cookies, chips and bottled waters. Kids enjoyed them well enough, but at evening’s end, I was starving, so I decided to make my way to the Windy City Grill in Como for a pizza. As was typical for a Friday night, the place was packed, with a Panola County band called the Hilltoppers playing in the front right corner of the bar. In one of the windows on Main Street was an announcement of an upcoming movie screening at the Como Library, a showing of Michael Ford’s documentary Homeplace which was filmed in the Hill Country in the early 1970’s, and which features footage that was shot in and around Como as well as other places in the area. The film will be screened at 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, August 24, the same weekend as Sharde Thomas’ GOAT Picnic at Coldwater. Both events are not to be missed, for true fans of the Hill Country blues.
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
When the Bentonia Blues Festival outgrew its place in front of the Blue Front Cafe in downtown Bentonia, Mississippi, it moved to a former Black baseball field north of town on land that seems to belong to the family of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Unfortunately, being what it is, the largely treeless flat field offers no refuge from the mid-June heat, making Bentonia Blues Festival one of the hottest blues festivals anywhere. What little shade there is can be found around the parking area near the front of the road behind the stage, where teenagers play basketball.
However, despite the withering heat, several hundred blues fans turn out annually to enjoy some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer. Unlike many other festivals in and out of state, the Bentonia Blues Festival is a free festival, with the only charge one for parking a vehicle.
This year’s line-up included Como blues legend R. L. Boyce, former member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, Dominican blues musician Tito “Harlem Slim” Deler of New York City, the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley featuring Kinney Kimbrough on drums, and of course the man everyone came to see, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, founder of the festival and a living legend of the Bentonia style of blues.
Toward the late afternoon, some clouds and rain developed in areas, and things began to cool off some, as the son went down. After Eric Deaton’s performance, Sherena Boyce, R. L. Boyce and I decided to head down Highway 49 to Pocahontas, Mississippi in order to eat dinner before the long ride back to North Mississippi. Although thoroughly tired, it had been a remarkable day of fun and great music.
Bentonia, Mississippi is not a big town. It’s not even the biggest town in Yazoo County, yet the unique blues style of musicians from this town has made waves all over the world. Henry Stuckey, a blues guitarist who never made a recording, is said to be the founder of the unique Bentonia style of blues, which scholars say is based on a minor chord tuning, and which seems to have more in common with Hill Country styles further to the north. The Bentonia Blues Festival, which is the oldest continuing blues festival in Mississippi, celebrated its 47th year this year, and dedicated this year’s event to the memory of Henry Stuckey, who was pictured on the official poster and festival T-shirts.
In addition to being Mississippi’s oldest blues festival, the Bentonia festival is also one of the longest, with events beginning on Monday at the Blue Front Cafe, and continuing each night until the actual festival day on the following Saturday. At one time, the festival itself was held in front of the cafe, but it has long outgrown that, having moved to ample space on a Black baseball field north of town.
The Friday night event at the Blue Front seems to be showing signs of outgrowing that location as well. When we arrived at the cafe, there were literally hundreds of people out in front, as well as 60 or so inside the tiny venue where someone was performing. R. L. Boyce, who had ridden down with us was scheduled to perform fairly quickly, so there was no time to go and grab dinner. But there were a number of food vendors stretched out along Railroad Avenue, so getting a bite was not a big problem.
Jimmy Duck Holmes, the owner of the Blue Front and living legend of the Bentonia blues, went on stage at 8 PM, and performed for nearly an hour. His style is to play a nearly-continuous medley of various blues lyrics from the tradition, rather than playing individual songs, and he is a consummate showman, joking and interacting with his audience. That is, in fact, one of the great things about the Blue Front, as its small size and lack of a raised stage creates an intimacy that is lost on the big outdoor festival stage.
Holmes was followed by R. L. Boyce, and indeed, the two men’s style resemble each other to a large extent, despite the distance between Como and Bentonia. Boyce performed a number of his signature tunes, and then he and Holmes played together. Eventually they were joined by a female blues singer known as Lady Australia, who, I was told, is a sister of the late Fat Possum artist Paul “Wine”Jones.
Eventually things began to wind down, and we headed to our hotel rooms in Yazoo City for the night.
Sunday is always the biggest day for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival in Holly Springs. The day of live blues starts early in the afternoon, and really doesn’t stop until the wee hours of morning. The day of music featured appearances from Duwayne Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Eric Deaton, Garry Burnside and Lucius Spiller, but the real highlight was David Kimbrough Jr, who had been in and out of the hospital with cancer all year. Although weak, his performance was as strong as ever, and afterwards he made a short speech, telling his fans that he had at least made it this far. We couldn’t know that day that it would be the last performance David would ever give us. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, died on July 4, 2019. His loss is not merely a loss to Mississippi or the blues, but a loss to the world at large.
The second night of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival occurred on Saturday night, again inside The Hut in Holly Springs, featuring for the most part a different line-up of performers.
When I arrived, Little Joe Ayers of Benton County was on stage performing. He is one of only a handful of blues musicians remaining from his generation, and he did some classic tunes like “Two Trains Running” and “Feeling All Right,” backed by the great J. J. Wilburn on drums.
A few of the artists from Friday night appeared, including Robert Kimbrough, Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside, but arguably the highlight of Saturday night was the appearance of Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, who is equally talented on both drums and guitar. He can perform blues standards like “Mellow Peaches,” but he also has a unique gift for creating original compositions that fit the style of Hill Country blues.
As is always the case at The Hut, the little building was packed from wall to wall, and dancers pounded the floor in front of the stage. The weather was hot and steamy, but nobody noticed or cared. There was too much fun, food and good music to worry about the weather.
At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.
Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.
My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.
In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.
Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.
When I finally made it back to Clarksdale, there was a fairly large crowd at the tiny Eighth Street Grocery, and a lot of cars parked in the block near it. But the musicians were still outside in the front yard, and though it was after 8 PM, things had not yet gotten underway.
The normal store stock had been moved to make way for tables and chairs, and the band had set up their instruments against the north wall of the building, near two television screens that were hanging there. A large table selling food had been set up near the entrance.
When Big A and Space Cowboy finally came inside and began playing, the place soon filled up to overflowing. The old building was set up on blocks off the ground, and the wooden floor sagged with the pounding it was taking from the dancers. There was hardly room for the tables and chairs, but somehow it all worked. Unlike the experience of hearing blues in a modern club or at a festival, this intimate setting was more exciting, as there was constant interaction between members of the crowd and the musicians, who after all, knew each other, Clarksdale being a small town.
I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to leave, but with me having to work the next morning, I had to leave at 10 PM to make the two-hour journey back to Memphis. I expect the revelry and good music went on far into the night.