A Hot Saturday in Covington on the Square

I drove up to Covington to Breakfast Cove on a Saturday morning to meet up with a friend so that we could discuss the possibility of a West Tennessee Music and Heritage Festival in Mason for the next year, and after breakfast, I drove on to the Covington Square where there was some sort of car show and sale day going on. Covington, like many West Tennessee towns, is built around an historic square with a courthouse in the center, and Covington’s is fairly well-preserved so I found quite a bit to take pictures of. North Main Street off the Square was the traditional Black business district, where there used to be cafes and pool halls; a few cafes still remain on Spring Street. My biggest find was the beautiful Hotel Lindo, which has been restored and converted to condominiums; it was a truly huge hotel for what at the time it was built must have been a small town indeed. On a window of the square was a poster for an afternoon concert by Southern soul artist Big Poppa at Mason’s Zodiac Park that I would have like to have attended if I could. But I had to play with Duwayne Burnside at the Chulahoma Blues Festival in Mississippi, so I headed south through Memphis and into Mississippi.

The Mason Family Reunion: Great Weather, Good Food, Fun and Fellowship, But No Musicians

Predominantly-African-American towns in Mississippi have a tradition of annual “days,” named for the towns, in which there are live performances, and in which people from those towns return from the North and West and other places where they have relocated for a sort of town reunion. The dynamic does not seem to occur in Tennessee, perhaps because there are few Black-majority towns. One exception is the town of Mason in Tipton County, located in the center of Tennessee’s Delta region, bordering both Fayette and Haywood Counties, and only about 25 miles from Shelby County. Since 2019, the Southern Soul artist Terry Wright has sponsored a Mason Family Reunion at the Zodiac ballpark north of town (although the event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).

This year, posters went up announcing the event in the Spring, setting the date as the 4th of July. New improvements had also been made to the Zodiac A’s park, including a new snack bar with covered tables and chairs, and a small permanent stage with a DJ booth. At a time when so many Black ballfields have been abandoned or have disappeared, it is encouraging to see this investment in keeping Zodiac Park up to date and viable. Tickets to the event were $30, yet there was already a significant crowd present when I arrived.

Because the small stage would have been inadequate for the expected crowds, the organizers had brought in a larger stage pointed away from the snack bar and toward the outfield. There was no large tent with cafeteria seating as there had been in 2019, and the outfield was mostly people’s personal tents and chairs. Up on the hill were a number of vendors, selling just about anything a person might want to eat or drink. At one of the stands, I recognized Myles Wilson, the former Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, who was also once an owner of legendary Club Tay-May and who had consulted me on my masters thesis about Black fife and drum bands in Tennessee.

In 2019, there were ongoing problems with the power supply to the stage, and that situation continued this year. Early performers had their performances interrupted due to sudden power failures; worse, at least for me, was that I did not see any drums, amps or guitars. I began to wonder if anyone was going to perform with musicians. Eventually I ran into Terry Wright’s keyboard player, who told me that it was going to be strictly a track show. Karen Wolfe was on stage at the time, struggling with intermittent power. I suppose the limited power issue made using live instruments impracticable.

Disappointed, I spent the remainder of my time catching up with people I knew from Mason, which is actually what a lot of people seemed to do. The weather was beautiful even if it was hot, and a lot of people turned out; there was plenty of fellowship, and no fighting. But a blues and Southern Soul show without musicians just seems and feels wrong.

A Friday Evening in Jackson, Tennessee

I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Brownsville, so I headed out Highway 70 from Bartlett, and stopped in Mason, Tennessee to see if there were any announcements about upcoming events now that the pandemic seemed to be waning. To my surprise, there were several events coming up, including a retirement party for the Zodiac A’s, the local softball team in Mason for 35 years, and a community gospel concert at Fredonia Missionary Baptist Church. The biggest event coming was the July 4 Mason Community Family Reunion sponsored by the southern soul artist Terry Wright, for which I had already pre-purchased tickets.

However, in Brownsville, I could not reach my friend on the phone, and after driving around the town for a half hour or so, I headed on to Jackson, Tennessee. First, I drove by Reggie’s Bar-B-Que to pick up some bags of their pork rinds, which are unique and unlike any other brand, and then I headed from the east end of town toward downtown. Along Whitehall Street, I came to an old and seemingly-abandoned motel which seemed frozen in time. I decided to stop and photograph it, and to my surprise, an elderly couple came out of one of the rooms, so apparently the motel wasn’t quite as abandoned as it seemed.

Downtown, I pulled up to the Blacksmith Bar and Grill, and, faced with the prospect of eating dinner by myself, I posted a message to any of my Jackson friends on Facebook to meet me up at the restaurant. To my surprise, one of my friends from Huntsville responded, Codie G, who was in town doing contract work for the U.S. Army. We had a decent time catching up with one another over dinner, and then, resisting the temptation to run by Green Frog Coffee, I hit the road back to Bartlett.

A Rapidly Vanishing Rural Past in Fayette County, Tennessee

Fayette County, in the part of West Tennessee that we might call the state’s Delta region, was for most of its history a highly rural county. Primarily an area of large cotton plantations before the civil war, it had few large towns. Even its county seat, Somerville, was and remains tiny by most perspectives, with only about 2,000 residents. However, in recent years, the proximity to Memphis has begun to take its toll, and many of the old rural scenes and locations are disappearing into a realm of tract subdivisions and shopping centers, particularly in the western parts of the county nearest to Memphis and its suburbs.

Still, in the northwestern corner of the county nearest to Mason, Tennessee, one can find reminders of the county’s past. On nice and warm days, I still occasionally ride the backroads in these areas, looking for things to photograph before they too disappear to new development.

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.

Experimenting with the Petri 2.8 Color-Corrected Super Rangefinder Camera

Although I have spent most of my life working with electronic cameras, both during the film era and since the advent of DSLR cameras, I have always wanted to own a Leica camera. The Leica, with a rangefinder rather than a viewfinder, was famous as a great camera for street work, at least in part due to its almost silent shutter. Unfortunately, Leicas, even the film ones, are extremely expensive. But while searching for them on Ebay earlier this month, another kind of rangefinder camera appeared, a Petri 2.8 “color corrected super” 35 milimeter camera. In contrast with the Leicas, it was eminently affordable, and a beautiful instrument as well. Reading descriptions of it, I learned that it was fully mechanical and needed no batteries. Having desired to experiment with film photography to see how the final product differed from the look of today’s digital pictures, and feeling that it would give me good practice on using a rangefinder, I bought the camera.

What I have since learned is that film, particularly a good film like Agfa Vista 200, if you can still find any, gives a vibrant, rich color palette that is missing in today’s digital photos. Agfa film isn’t made anymore, but I was able to find some online.

However, there have certainly been some bumps in the road, too. Film is hard to find, and has become really expensive. You cannot buy just one roll anymore, at least not at retail. Black-and-white film is not available in stores, and most stores, if they sell film at all, only sell one ISO speed, usually 200 or 400. Fuji and Agfa are out of business, so Kodak is the only option currently made. as best I can tell. Developing, too, is a chore. Gone are the days when you can get same day processing, or even next day processing. Walgreens takes more than a week, and you won’t get your negatives back. The local place I ultimately used, Memphis Photo Imaging is much quicker, but charges $20 if you want scans, which of course I do.

The hardest part for me of course has been learning how to use F-stops and shutter speeds, since cameras have been largely automatic most of my life. My first roll of film was not usable at all, and my second was destroyed by the camera, as it wasn’t threaded properly on the take-up reel. But my third roll, a 36-picture roll of Agfa Vista 200, resulted in the images above, after I had done some research on what is called the “Sunny 16 rule” and thus had some idea of proper F-stop and shutter speed for a bright and sunny day.

As the day wore down, of course, the light level grew less, and I failed to change the settings to account for it, resulting in less-satisfying pictures. But I enjoy the occasional use of film. It probably won’t replace my good Nikon D3200, but I intend to keep playing with the Petri rangefinder, and seeing what results I get.

Celebrating Mason’s Blues Legacy With Music, Food and Family

Signs had been posted in the Mason area regarding a large blues show at Zodiac Park for at least a month, and I had viewed the event with some interest, as I had often thought of Zodiac Park as a potential spot for a blues festival. The place is a historic Black baseball and softball field north of Mason, which has hosted car shows, but so far as I know never a blues event before. I would have conceived my event more as a roots event, with traditional blues artists and gospel groups, but this was more of a southern soul event being billed as a “Mason family reunion.” Terry Wright, himself a native of the area, was billed as the headliner, and rumor had it that he was the driving force behind the event, so I pre-purchased a ticket and made plans to go.

Despite the extreme heat, and the newness of the event, there was already a fairly large crowd at Zodiac Park when I arrived, and quite a few vendors, including a full bar. People were continuing to arrive throughout the afternoon, and several bike and car clubs had come as a group. A band was warming up on the outdoor stage as I arrived.

Unfortunately, the event was plagued by a number of issues, many of them beyond the organizers’ control. The extreme heat eventually gave way to heavy downpours of rain, which forced everyone under tents temporarily, but thankfully, the rains passed, and the sun came back out. Of greater concern were electrical problems on the stage, which occurred intermittantly all day.

Having been to only a couple of southern soul shows in the past, I had imagined that each of the acts would have their own band, but to my disappointment, the opening acts all performed to tracks instead. They included a local artist from Tipton County known as Big Poppa, someone called Big Sam, well-known female blues artist Karen Wolfe, and Mississippi artist Vick Allen. Even as these artists performed to tracks, electrical problems kept causing the microphones and tracks to cut out. Even so, a large crowd gathered in front of the stage, particularly when Karen Wolfe was on stage.

When it was time for Terry Wright to come to the stage, his band warmed up first, but the keyboard player took his instrument down and put it away, apparently because of the ongoing power concerns. Even without the keyboard, the band proved to be too much for the power available to the stage, and the microphones cut out, so a decision was made to have Terry perform with tracks instead of his band, and at that point, I made the decision to leave and go home.

Although some of the problems disappointed me, I have to say that I still had fun, many other people had fun, and there were no bad feelings or attitudes the entire day. I managed to see a number of people I knew, including Myles Wilson, one of the former owners of Club Tay-May in Mason and the former superintendent of Fayette County Schools.

Hopefully the event will continue in future years, and the only improvements I could recommend is making sure that there is enough power on stage, and having a house band to back all of the day’s singers.

Surveying The Old St. Paul Cemetery, Mason, Tennessee

One evening, while sitting at a table at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason, I was looking at topographic maps of the Mason area on my phone, and I noticed that the map (which was from 1965) showed a cemetery on the St. Paul Road north of Highway 59, and I was surprised, because I had never noticed a cemetery in that area. So on a subsequent trip to Mason, I decided to drive up that road to see if I could find a cemetery there, and all I could see was a fairly dense wooded area surrounded by farmers’ fields.

Upon parking, I walked up into the woods as best I could, finding that the area had become overgrown, and that dumpers had left all kinds of old appliances and trash in the area as well. But I soon found what I was looking for- a gravestone, and then another, and then at least one more. They were hard to read, as they had been half buried in mud- apparently the area floods frequently, but I was able to make out the name “Taylor” on two of the three stones, and the word “Mother” on one of them. The one I could read the full name of belonged to “Charlie Taylor.”

Area historian John Marshall indicated to me that the cemetery had been adjacent to the original site of St. Paul Episcopal Church, a Black congregation which had moved out to a new building at Gailor near Keeling in 1965. The church still owned the old location, but many of the gravestones had been carried away by flooding, or perhaps buried in mud.

The current condition of the cemetery is disgraceful, and the area is desperately in need of clearing, cleaning and restoration. People’s loved ones are buried in this historic site, and it should be maintained.

Breakfast, Worship And Black History at Salem Missionary Baptist Church at Mason, Tennessee

A while back, I had crossed paths on Facebook with the Rev. T. Ray Greer, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in the countryside just to the north of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County. He was interested in the research that I and John Marshall were doing into the history of Mason, and so he reached out to invite us to come to a breakfast at his church, meet some of the older members, and perhaps gain new information into the history we were working on.

So on the Sunday morning after my journey to the state archives in Nashville, I drove out Austin Peay Highway, and made my way to the historic church, which was founded in 1868, although the current building was built in 1913. There was a huge quantity of cars outside, and my friend John Marshall was already there when I arrived.

Inside, we were warmly welcomed, and there was coffee and breakfast. John Marshall had brought a copy of the church’s deed, which he had copied from the county courthouse in Covington, and he was sitting and talking with a woman that was said to be 94 years old.

After breakfast, there was a rousing and joyful service, with a choir, and a drummer and a keyboard player. Although the congregation was fairly small, the members filled the stage area in front of the pulpit with all kinds of donated food goods for the needy and poor of the Mason area. When it was time for the offering, the keyboard player took a break, and to my surprise, a young man sang a song accompanied only by the drummer, who impressed me with his funky playing style.

Then it was time for John Marshall to get up and make his historical presentation. He outlined what he knew of the church’s history and property boundaries, and named many of the notable families that had helped to found the church, He also discussed the Salem School, which had been across the road from the current church.

Afterwards, I made a brief presentation regarding my research into Black fife and drum music in the Mason area. I mentioned the horse races at Booster Pete’s on the Tabernacle Road, and the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band, and a few people in the church recalled what I was talking about. I ended up leaving with about three phone numbers of people that might be willing to be interviewed on the subject of the horse races, trade days, fife and drum bands and picnics, and then headed back to Memphis.

Celebrating Mason, Tennessee’s Important Legacy

Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. 

Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city. 

Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991. 

One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely. 

I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.