During the warm months, Blues on the Porch in Holly Springs, Mississippi brings the area’s best blues performers to the front porches and yards of some of the town’s most historic and beautiful old homes, some of which predate the Civil War. The atmosphere is family-friendly and congenial, and there is usually plenty of good food.
The August Blues on the Porch occurred at the end of a beautiful Saturday which was not all that hot despite the time of year, at a mansion a few blocks south of the Court Square. The opening act was a band which included the house’s owner, but the main act was Lady Trucker, a blues and Southern Soul singer who is the wife of the great Hill Country drummer Artemas LeSeur. Trucker’s band for the evening included bluesman Lightning Malcolm, and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena came to jook and play the tambourine. With the weather so pleasant, a large crowd turned out, well over a hundred people, who enjoyed a night of food, fun and great music.
Afterwards, a friend and I headed to Marshall’s Steakhouse, arguably the county’s best restaurant for a late dinner, and they also were featuring a live band in front of their building. Our steaks were delicious, and it all made a perfect ending to an awesome day.
“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.
Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.
Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.
My friend loves the Bar-Kays, so when she heard that their former lead singer Larry Dodson would be performing in Oxford, Mississippi, she wanted to go, and since my homeboy Danny Peterson plays drums for Dodson, I was able to get us tickets. As it turned out, the performance was no ordinary one, but rather a tremendous birthday celebration for a man named Vic Martin.
I had never heard of Martin, but saw a clue to his importance in that the event was being held in something called the Martin Center, which was out on a rural road south of Oxford off of Highway 7. Apparently Vic Martin is a prominent and important Black businessman in Oxford; the Martin Center is a large event complex behind what presumably is his house. He owns a construction and contracting firm, a catering firm, and an entertainment promotion business, and on this particular occasion, the room was filled to overflowing with guests at tables with white tablecloths, plenty of food and beverages. Several bands/acts performed including Bird Williams and Chic Rogers, and a resolution from Oxford Mayor Ryan Tannehill was read in Mr. Martin’s honor.
Later, Larry Dodson came up. I had warned my friend that he might perform more of his solo songs than Bar-Kays material, but she was thrilled when Dodson in fact performed a lot of there classic Bar-Kays songs she knew. Unfortunately, it was extremely hot in the large event center, and by the end of the night, my homeboy Danny on the drums had stripped down to his white T-shirt because he was too hot in his dress clothes from playing.
Not only did my friend get to dance, but she also got to meet Chic Rogers, Larry Dodson and Bird Williams, and had a great time indeed.
Duwayne Burnside is one of the sons of the late R. L. Burnside, and is a living legend of the Hill Country blues tradition in North Mississippi, but peculiarly, he has not frequently played in Memphis in recent years. That changed this summer, with a weekly residence at the outdoor Railgarten venue in Midtown, which got under way on May 7th after a couple of cancellations due to weather.
A number of Memphis blues aficionados and musicians came out, including the legendary Stax Records drummer Willie Hall, who sat in with the band on a tune. Actually, Railgarten makes a nice venue for blues, with its massive array of outdoor tables and bars. In pleasant weather, it’s perhaps the best venue in the city. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused modifications in its operations, and things are not entirely back to normal yet. The diner, which once featured a more adventurous culinary menu, is closed, as is the ice cream parlor, and currently only bar food is available. But there seem to be renovations going on at the diner, and hopefully it will be reopening in the future.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
Lundi Gras is really a holiday in New Orleans, with schools and some businesses closed, and a lot of people off work. My friend Darren Towns, his wife, his four daughters and I all headed across the Huey P. Long bridge fairly early in the morning to the Elmwood neighborhood in Jefferson Parish to a new restaurant called Sunny Side Up. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it had really good food, and the kids particularly enjoyed it.
The parades were not until the evening, and we missed the first one, but Orpheus started later, and we managed to find parking south of St. Charles Avenue near Sixth Street. I had heard a great marching band as I walked up to the parade route, but I didn’t know who it was. When I caught up with Darren and his dad at the parade route, I learned I had missed Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South. Stillman College and Coahoma Community College bands were two of the first to go past after I arrived, and the darkness was illuminated by brilliant-lit and colored floats, as well as the traditional flambeaux carried by young men which used to be part of all Mardi Gras parades. While the floats interested the younger kids, the interest for Darren, his dad and myself were the marching bands. Despite the obvious differences between marching band and brass band styles and cultures, New Orleans is a city of serious “band heads,” as they are known, and most of the city’s better brass band musicians began their musical careers in school bands, some of which are now famous. Bands from St. Augustine, Marion Abramson, Edna Karr and Landry Walker were among those marching in Orpheus on Monday night. Despite being focused on the bands, I managed to catch some beads, but one thing that was not very much fun was getting hit below the left eye by a cup thrown from a float. Even though I was standing a considerable distance from the float, the cup struck me hard, and led to soreness and swelling below the eye. Darren managed to get the cup, which was emblazoned with Orpheus 2020, and gave it to me, even though I was not at all sure that I wanted it! I later learned that float riders were supposed to hand the cups to people, not throw them.
All too soon, the parade was over, and although we had talked about going down to the Central Business District for pizza at Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, that was near the end of the parade route, and we thought better of it. Instead, we headed the opposite direction to Pizza Domenica, way uptown on Magazine Street, arriving just before they were scheduled to close. This restaurant makes a good mainstay during the Mardi Gras holidays, as they remain open normal hours, and cheerfully serve people coming from the parades. And the pizza is outstanding as well.
Afterwards, I had suggested to Darren that we go to Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for coffee and beignets, but he was tired. Instead, he informed me that a place called Coffee & in Marrero was open 24 hours a day and had coffee and beignets. So I stopped there and got a cafe au lait and an order of beignets. If they weren’t quite as good as the Cafe du Monde, they were certainly good enough, cost less, and were more convenient. I was surprised at how crowded the place was on the night before Mardi Gras, and it was nearly midnight, at which time Mardi Gras day would begin.
We were all thoroughly exhausted. Even after drinking cafe au lait, I had no problem drifting off to sleep.
Drum practice can be noisy, and in the early days of young people learning to play, whether snare drum or the set, parents demanded that they practice in the backyard, in the wood shed so as to not disturb the house. Over time, practicing became known as “hitting the woodshed” and eventually just “shedding.” Informal gatherings at which several drummers battled back and forth became known as “shed sessions” or “drum sheds.”
In the milieu of Black gospel music, where many musicians are largely self-taught, aside from possible mentoring by older musicians in the tradition, shed sessions gave young drummers an opportunity to practice in conjunction with other drummers and other musicians, and continue to be an important part of the way Black music styles are transmitted from older musicians to younger musicians outside of a formal classroom setting.
Sheds are also exciting, and a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, they are not generally advertised ahead of time, and often are spread only by word of mouth. Even if they are mentioned on social media, it is not always clear where they are being held. So when South Memphis’ K3 Studio Cafe announced something called the Start Playing Drum Shed on a Wednesday night, it was both exciting and somewhat unusual. With February 12 being a Wednesday night, and a cold, wet one at that, I was not sure just exactly how many people would attend.
To my shock, the tiny venue was filled within an hour of doors opening. There were four drumsets, and about three keyboards, and although I had come with the intent of watching and documenting with my phone, I ended up playing the Rhodes piano, and fortunately one of the drummers who was taking a break filmed while I played. That particular groove turned into a Prince-ish funk romp that I enjoyed immensely By that point we had three keyboard players, four drummers, two saxophonists and a bassist. I had supposed that this was the shed, but we soon learned that the actual shed would be after the workshop presented by Memphis drummer Chris Pat.
Chris has been impressing me for some time with his recorded solos on the Memphis Drum Shop channel. Although they are intended to sell drum sets or cymbals, they are well-composed musical solos in their own right and not just product demos. Pat is a versatile drummer who is at home in gospel or behind Christina Aguilera, and who has as good a sense of swing as any jazz drummer I ever heard. More impressively on this workshop occasion was his great advice to young drummers and his humility. He also played drums against three recorded tracks and was absolutely amazing.
At that point, it was 10 PM, and it was announced that the shed was going to begin in earnest. I had to work the next morning at 5 AM, so I was not able to stay. I suspect that it went on until the wee hours. Did I mention that there was also no admission charge?
When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.
The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.
The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.
Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.
Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.
Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.
One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.
The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.
In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.
After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.
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.