When Garry Burnside told me where we were playing on a Sunday night, I was confused. The place was almost to Highway 4 along Highway 309 near Wyatt and Chulahoma, but I didn’t see anything but houses. He had said there would be a lot of cars parked beside a house, and when I found that, I turned in. Although there were no signs, there was a sort of rough juke joint behind a house, and that turned out to be the spot.
Roosevelt’s Place is the name of the semi-secret spot; no signs will lead you there, and there is no logic to when or if they have a live band; it’s basically a two-room shack. The larger front area contains the small bar and pool table, and the much narrower, smaller back room barely has space for the band and perhaps ten or so patrons. But this is the environment in which Hill Country blues thrives, and must be somewhat similar to the vibe at Junior Kimbrough’s old juke along Highway 4 before it burned.
Whether Roosevelt’s is open to the public as such is also unclear; it certainly draws a crowd from people who live in the area and know about it, although I expect that many nights there is just a DJ and not a band. Visitors should enquire in the area to see if a band is playing.
Roosevelt’s Place is behind a house on the east side of Highway 309 about a mile north of Highway 4.
The Hill Country blues season generally begins with the Juke Joint Festival in April, and ends with Como Day in Como, Mississippi, which is usually held late in October. Como in Panola County is an important town, which for many years was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sid Hemphill, and which remains the hometown of R. L. Boyce. Jessie Mae Hemphill lived nearby at Senatobia, and Glenn Faulkner lives and Otha Turner lived between Senatobia and Como at Gravel Springs.
It is a tradition in many predominantly-Black towns to have a “day,” when those who moved to other parts of the country can come home and celebrate their roots in small-town Mississippi, and Como Day is part of that tradition. But Como Day is perhaps one of the biggest of these kinds of celebrations, attracting hundreds of visitors each year to plenty of free music , good food and fun.
After two years of lockdowns and disruptions, the 2021 Como Day was extremely well-attended, with people coming out for what was one of the few public events since the onset of COVID-19. Performers included Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. As always the area near the stage was full of dancers, and the crowd was well-behaved. Como Day makes a great way to end the annual blues season.
Blues singer Beverly Davis’ family owns the only store in Chulahoma, a small town about halfway between Senatobia and Holly Springs in the Mississippi Hill Country, and in October of 2021, they allowed her to hold the first annual Chulahoma Blues Festival in a cleared field behind the store on Highway 4.
Chulahoma has a long history with the blues. Photographer and blues researcher Michael Ford visited in the early 1970s, and the rural community was home to blues legend Junior Kimbrough’s second and most famous juke joint until it burned down in April of 2000. More recently, the area has continued to be the scene of occasional blues yard parties and at least one clandestine juke joint.
October is still hot in the Mississippi Hill Country, and this particular Saturday afternoon was steaming, but a fair number of people turned out to see Beverly Davis as well as Duwayne Burnside and the Garry Burnside Band, and the weather cooled off after the sun went down. There was plenty of good food, great blues and dancing in front of the stage, and like so many Hill Country events, the feeling that we were standing on historic ground where these kinds of events have been going on for over a hundred years. The festival is intended to be an annual event.
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.
Garry Burnside, one of the sons of legendary Hill Country bluesman R. L. Burnside moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County not long ago, and was instrumental in getting the city of Ripley to build and dedicate a wonderful Blues Alley, which commemorates the Hill Country and Mississippi blues traditions with beautiful paintings of historic artists, a guitar-shaped table and benches. In addition, in October of 2011, he planned the first Alice Mae Blues Festival, named for his mother Alice Mae Burnside, held on a grassy field beside the First Monday Trade Day grounds on Highway 15.
The weather was incredibly hot for an October day, and crowds were small at the beginning of the day, but more and more people arrived as the weather cooled in the evening. Those who attended enjoyed great blues from Garry Burnside, Kent Burnside and Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s adopted son Kenny Brown from Potts Camp, and other local area performers.
In addition to music performances, there were food vendors serving delicious foods, and even a bar cart serving alcohol. When the sun went down, both the vendors and the stage were lit up in festive lighting, and the great Hill Country blues went on until the event’s end.
My fascination with the life of Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin is well-known, all the more so as I walked past his house for years with no awareness of him during my high-school years, and even went to Bartlett High School with one of his grandsons. I had discovered his old house in 2017, standing amongst a wood in the middle of an otherwise-suburban subdivision on the road that bears his name. I had heard that the land, which still belongs to the Guffin family, was occasionally used for special events.
But on October 26, I was hot and tired, having played with Duwayne Burnside at the Pink Palace Arts and Crafts Festival in Audubon Park, and my original intent was to go home. But I saw on Facebook that a homeboy of mine named Randy Mickens was at a car show somewhere near Bartlett, so I messaged him and he told me it was on Guffin Road. So I changed my mind and headed out there.
By the time I arrived, the weather had cooled off considerably, and there were a lot of people out there, as well as many beautiful custom cars and motorcycles. There was a bounce house for the kids to play, a DJ playing music and a food truck. But as it was late in the day, the awards were being given out, and cars were beginning to leave. The kids were standing near the entrance beside Lum’s old house, trying to get the drivers to “peel out” once they turned onto Guffin Road. Most of them did; one got a little too enthusiastic and hit the curb!
I had thought I might run into a lot of people I knew. Actually, I only ran into Randy, but it was good to catch back up with him, and it was a fun and pleasant ending to a beautiful day, not to mention the vague but real feeling of inspiration from standing on Lum’s sacred ground.
After my final performance at the Oxford Blues Festival with Duwayne Burnside, my friend and I were hungry for barbecue. Although there was a barbecue restaurant on South Lamar near the festival, we had been there before, and wanted to try a new spot. Lamar Yard, located south of Oxford on Lamar Boulevard is a new restaurant and outdoor venue which had served as the location for the blues festivals Thursday kickoff party, which we had been unable to attend.
When we arrived, a guitar duo was just wrapping up on the outdoor stage. The outdoor aspect of the place was truly huge, with plenty of picnic tables, and cheerful lights strung between a large tree at the courtyard entrance and the buildings on each side. Although we were quite late, the staff was cheerful about taking our order. I opted for two meats, pulled pork and beef brisket, which came with two sides, french fries and macaroni and cheese. Good brisket is hard to find outside of Texas, but Lamar Yard’s is quite decent, with a nice pink color and the smoke ring that should always be evident on brisket. The portion of pork shoulder was small, but it was also quite good. The french fries were OK, but the macaroni and cheese was extremely cheesy and quite delicious.
In addition to the large outdoor space, Lamar Yard has a spacious inside dining area as well, which is where we chose to eat, at least in part due to the humidity and bugs. All the same, the courtyard is available for special event rental, and would be a fun setting for a concert or a party. We found the experience enjoyable, the service attentive and the food good, and will be back.
Not all that long ago, the Oxford Blues Festival was a sparsely-attended hot summer festival on The Grove at the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. It always featured great blues music, but was adversely affected by the hot August weather, sudden showers or the blackout dates which the larger North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic imposed on its artists.
In 2021, Darryl Parker, the promoter who runs the festival solved both problems with a change of date to September 24th and 25th, and a change of location to Harrison’s, a relatively-new Oxford bar on the location of the old Frank and Marlee’s. Harrison’s has built a beautiful outdoor yard, with shelter, plenty of outdoor booths and lounge chairs, an outdoor bar and room for a large outdoor stage. If the Hill Country Picnic exudes rural outdoor remoteness, the Oxford Blues Fest represents a sophisticated and urbane alternative.
The line-up of performers was stellar too, including such regional artists as Lightning Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Effie Burt, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and Australia “Honey Bee” Neal, as well as bigger names including female blues artist Ghalia Volt, Nashville-based Patrick Sweany and Chicago bluesman Lurrie Bell. October also guaranteed perfect weather for the two-day event
Unfortunately, Oxford is changing from Yoknapatawpha Country to something more resembling Nashville or even Las Vegas, with tall hotels and condominiums popping up everywhere. The nature of some of these condos is that their residents could enjoy the festival from their balconies for free instead of paying, but apparently, instead of enjoying it, they chose to complain to the police about the noise. The festival was soon beset with Oxford Police officers with noise meters checking to see if the sound exceeded the decibels allowed by city ordinance, which seems a stupid and self-defeating move for a city that to some extent depends on travel and tourism. Furthermore, one wonders why anyone would move to the area of the Oxford Square if they object to noise, music, traffic or crowds of people. All the same, most visitors and musicians had a wonderful time, unmarred by bad weather, equipment problems or any other negatives. The Oxford Blues Festival is scheduled for October 6-8 in 2022, presumably in the same location.
Glenview, a neighborhood of single-family homes along Lamar Avenue southeast of downtown Memphis was one of the first historically-white neighborhoods to open up to African-American residents. Their coming was not without controversy, as the first house purchased by a Black family was firebombed in the late 1940s. Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood became a fairly stable Black community, but the business district along Lamar has not fared as well, with many abandoned businesses.
Paint Memphis is a local non-profit which seeks to improve the look of neighborhoods by painting colorful murals on abandoned buildings in the city. They have done so twice in the Glenview area, and both times much of their work had a music theme. On a hot September Sunday I found images of the Mighty Souls Brass Band, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding among the bright murals along several blocks of Lamar. Other images included useful slogans like “Take the good with the bad. Everything has its season,” and “if you love it, do it everyday.” On the wall of a daycare was the slogan, “Show us the way to love,” and a block east of that, an image of Beale Street with the legend, “I love the blues, she heard my cry.” As an organization, Paint Memphis has not been without controversy. Many of the artists involved are not from the communities where the murals have been installed, and that has occasionally garnered controversy and even demands for removal. Occasionally, some have requested the removal of certain images that seem grotesque or bizarre. But the presence of so much artwork in public areas seems to have caused others not affiliated with Paint Memphis to add more slogans and images.
In the same area were slogans like “RIP George Floyd,” and “We Must Vote,” along with beautiful stylized images of jazz musicians on the boarded-up window of a building adjacent to Glenview Park. Also adjacent to the park was an old mural that read “Glenview” which looks as if it dated from the 1970s, but which seems to have been repainted.
Although the murals with their brilliant colors definitely bring cheer to a streetscape which had been quite drab, the large and historic Lamar Theatre still is a cause for concern. The building, which would make a wonderful live music club or venue, has been vacant for many years. Restored and opened, it could make a wonderful catalyst for a transformation of that stretch of Lamar Avenue into a destination for Memphians and out-of-town visitors alike.
Each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi in Marshall County usually has a series of blues concerts on or near the town square. The town and county are in the dead center of the region of Mississippi known as the Hill Country, and are famous for the Burnside and Kimbrough families of blues musicians. But in both 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the city’s ability to have large events. Several weeks were cancelled, and so at the end of August, a final Bike Night was scheduled, neither on the square nor in the historic area known as The Alley, but rather in the large city park north of the square. The previous city administration had built a brand new pavilion complete with electricity in the park, but the newly-elected mayor and town officials felt that the pavilion was unstable and unsafe, so they had it roped off, and the musicians had to perform on a flatbed trailer in front of the new mural in honor of the Kimbrough family.
Originally, the night was supposed to be dedicated to Duwayne Burnside, but the organizers made a decision to let acts whose weeks had been cancelled earlier make up their missed performances, which led to a degree of argument over which acts would go first. Into that confusion came the new mayor, threatening to shut down the entire park because nobody was wearing a mask. After warning people from the microphone that she would have the police clear the park unless everyone put on a mask, the mayor left, and it was decided that Lady Trucker would go first, then Dre Walker and the Mississippi Boys, with Duwayne Burnside closing out the evening. Since I had time, I walked over to the Rodeo Cafe to get a bacon cheeseburger and to take a break from the heat.
The park was filled to overflowing with folks when I returned. Although there were not a lot of motorcycles, there were a lot of slingshots, the car/bike hybrids with three wheels, and a number of them were done up in neon. Lady Trucker gave a long performance to open the event; in walking around the park, I ran into both Robert Kimbrough and Little Joe Ayers amongst the crowd. But then Dre Walker came on with his band. Dre is more of an R & B singer than a blues performer, and he does almost exclusively cover songs, but he is a consummate showman, and has a way with crowds, especially women. After his performance, I had to go on stage to perform with Duwayne Burnside. Unfortunately, by then it was quite dark, and the city had not made any arrangements for lighting. Instead a few of the slingshots rode up through the crowd to the stage and shined their lights at us, which was better than nothing.
Only at the end of the night, after Duwayne had paid me and I was in my car with the air conditioning running did I realize that I didn’t have my white Kangol on my head which I had been wearing. I had apparently left it in the Rodeo Cafe which was by then closed. I never saw it again.