On the Sunday before Labor Day, I decided to drive up to Nashville to see Bethune-Cookman University take on Tennessee State in the annual John Merritt Classic at LP Field. The game is held each year in honor of John Merritt, who for many years was the head football coach at Tennessee A & I/Tennessee State. The weather was perfect for a football game, and the battle between the two bands was definitely worth the drive. I was amazed at Bethune-Cookman’s snare line, all of whom had tambourines and cowbells attached to their snare drums, which was unusual. FOr some reason, the traditional “Fifth Quarter” battle between the bands was limited to 10 minutes per band. After the game, I had intended to go to M. L. Rose Burgers, but although they stay open until 2 AM, I learned that they don’t sell burgers after 1 AM, so I ended up having to go to The Slider House in Midtown Nashville near the Vanderbilt campus, since they stay open until 3 AM every night. Then, after stopping by Cafe Coco for a latte, I hit the road back to Memphis.
Tav Falco and the Panther Burns were a vague name on posters and albums at Poplar Tunes in my youth, and I sadly didn’t discover what all the fuss was about until later, long after Tav had left Memphis behind for Paris and Vienna. But the band, whose name is taken from a plantation home and post office in the Mississippi Delta, has alternately thrilled or exasperated Memphians for years with their quirky blend of punk-inflected blues, agit-prop political songs and theatre, rockabilly romps with an occasional tango or Frank Sinatra cover. Falco continued to record in Europe, but Memphis didn’t get to see him again until 2012, when he performed at the old Hi-Tone on Poplar as part of the release of his book Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor , Enigma and Death in Memphis (which is an epic, and a must-read for any fan of Memphis music). That night was marred by Tav’s hoarseness, the result of a grueling tour schedule, but Saturday night’s performance at the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival was a stunning success, with Tav in great form and an audience of true fans and admirers in front of the stage. Tav Falco’s music is slowly being reissued by Big Legal Mess Records, a subsidiary of the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. All of his albums are worth purchasing.
The Jack Rowell Jr. Blues Band is one of Memphis’ best-known blues bands, with a long-standing Thursday night gig at T. J. Mulligan’s in Hickory Hill. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, I noticed that the band featured my homeboy Cedric Keel on drums, and his solo toward the end of the set enthused the crowd.
The Anointed Cowan Singers are another Memphis gospel group whose performances and repertoire highlight the extremely close relationship between Memphis gospel and Memphis soul. In fact, the very first song I ever heard them perform, at a previous Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, was a song that resembled the classic sound of Stax in every way. They usually appear at the festival each year, and are not to be missed.
The Millennium Madness Drill Team and Drum Squad is a Memphis-based youth organization that provides opportunities for young people to be involved in drill team dancing and drumming, and is one of only a few such organizations that still involve young men as drummers, sadly. Although Memphis has a number of majorette teams and drill teams, the overwhelming majority of them don’t have drummers and do their routines to prerecorded compact discs. Millennium Madness travels the country, entering and winning a number of competitions against drill teams from many different cities. Their performance at this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival held the audience spellbound.
The city of Memphis has a formidable blues tradition, so young men who choose to play the blues are up against some legendary competition and a legacy that is at once inspiring and frightening. But Memphis bluesman Preston Shannon has proven himself equal to the task, a worthy successor to past Memphis greats. With four albums under his belt, and plenty of original songs, Preston Shannon is probably the best-known and best beloved Memphis blues singer today, and has appeared all over the country, as well as in movies and television. His performance at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was highly appropriate, and well-received.
Drums and drumming have played a tremendous role in the cultural life of Memphis’ inner-city Black communities, throughout most of the 20th and 21st century. The popularity of drumlines in urban Black neighborhoods is of uncertain origin, but probably derives from Blacks serving as drummers in the US Army during the Civil War and in state militia units afterwards, the use of drums by fraternal organizations such as the Independent Pole Bearers Society, and possibly even rural fife-and-drum bands associated with Labor Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. What is certain is that by 1969, Memphis had begun having events called majorette jamborees, at which a squad of female majorettes performed dance routines to beats provided by a squad of young male drummers. Originally sponsored by schools, drumlines were soon organized by community organizations and community centers as well, and the drumming and dancing traditions of inner city Memphis were immensely popular until the late 1980’s or so, but unfortunately there has been a decline in the popularity of drumlines in Memphis over the last 20 years, as majorette groups have learned that they can design their routines to compact discs. So it is entirely appropriate that drumlines like the Baby Blues are highlighted at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, since this is another Memphis cultural tradition that is endangered. The Baby Blues are one of the last remaining Memphis drumlines that is not affiliated with any school, and is one of the city’s best, easily rivaling drumlines whose members are much older. They frequently appear in unexpected places, like Church Park during Africa in April, or Clarksdale during the Juke Joint Fest, and they always draw a crowd.
Also on the Arts Memphis stage of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was a local indie rock band called Bean, which I seem to recall hearing at a previous Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Their music seems upbeat and tuneful, and they have a 7-song self-titled EP which can be purchased for download here.
By an odd coincidence of tradition, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival always coincides with another Memphis tradition, radio station WLOK’s Stone Soul Picnic, which is annually held on the Saturday before Labor Day in Tom Lee Park. WLOK used to be one of two Memphis soul stations, with the other being WDIA, which was the first Black radio station in the United States. WDIA sponsored something called the Goodwill Revue, and it is likely that WLOK came up with the Stone Soul Picnic as their station’s equivalent, and since the name is taken from Laura Nyro’s song of the same name which was a hit for the Fifth Dimension in 1968, I expect the event goes back at least that far. Unfortunately, nothing stays the same, and both WLOK and its event are now restricted to gospel music, which to me is kind of sad. Not that I don’t love gospel music, because I do, but one would expect a “Stone Soul Picnic” to incorporate gospel, blues, soul, R & B, and maybe even family-friendly rap. But still, despite the extreme heat, a good crowd was gathered in the park, listening to the Brown Singers on stage when I arrived. Their band musicians were really good, especially the drummer, and I recalled that my homeboy Danny Peterson played drums for the Brown Singers at one time.