My friend Sherena Boyce was not ready to go home after the Beale Street Caravan Blowout event came to an end, so I suggested that we go up to Wild Bill’s in North Memphis. Even before Beale Street started charging an admission fee, Wild Bill’s juke joint was a great, authentic blues and soul alternative to the disappointing tourist-oriented entertainment district downtown. Of course, despite its history, Bill’s had been through a string of ownership changes, and a couple of closures, so I wasn’t exactly sure what we would find, as the place was under new management since the last time I had been.
When we arrived, I soon found that the parking lot was completely full, and we had to park on the street nearby. We were welcomed in, and found places at one of the long tables, but the place was nearly packed to overflowing. A good soul and blues band was on stage, with an especially-funky drummer as the rock-hard foundation. Several singers took turns getting up to sing with this band, including the Memphis female blues singer Joyce Henderson.
Although there was hardly room to dance, people got up and did so, including Sherena, who had brought her tambourine with her, and jammed onstage with the band. Unlike a few previous visits where there had been a lot of Midtown hipsters, the crowd on this night was mostly people from the neighborhood…old regulars, and long-time blues fans.
For those wanting to visit Wild Bill’s, you will be welcomed, but some awareness is needed…this is not a hipster bar. There is no beer on tap, and certainly no craft beers. They sell 40 ounces, and they have chicken wings to eat. You will have to sit at tables with people you don’t know. They allow smoking, as most juke joints do. But it is by far the best authentic music and the best authentic atmosphere that the Bluff City has to offer. Don’t miss it.
Duwayne Burnside had played The Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi earlier in the fall, but I had not been able to attend, so when it was announced that he would be playing there again on New Years’ Eve, I was eager to be there. It would prove to be both my first, and sadly my last, visit to The Shelter.
The venue was a coffee bar and live music venue, which also served a very limited food menu, some desserts, and craft beer. The atmosphere was extremely laid back, with couches, benches, chairs and tables in a rather haphazard pattern near the stage. The night of Hill Country blues featured not only Duwayne Burnside but also Kenny Brown, and a few local Oxford musicians, including guitarist Kody Harrell. At first Duwayne’s drummer had not shown up, so he was playing a sort of “unplugged” acoustic set. After his drummer arrived, he picked up the pace and intensity level to an extent, and the moderate crowd in the seats loved every minute of it. Como bluesman R. L. Boyce then joined Duwayne on stage for a few songs, and some local musicians came up to sit end toward the show’s end. At 10 PM or so, Duwayne brought things to a halt, as he had another show at The Hut in Holly Springs starting at 11, and we all left in a happy frame of mind. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we got to visit The Shelter on Van Buren. A week into the new year, it abruptly closed for good.
In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.
Down the street from The Pit, somebody was already performing and barbecue was smoking at the Delta Furniture Stage, but this location also draws a huge crowd on Saturday. During Juke Joint Fest, the sound of great blues and the smoky smell of great barbecue drift in from every direction.
Photos of my trip to Little Rock and Dallas last weekend for the artist Shamrock’s instore at Grapevine Mills Mall. I enjoyed touring the Yums clothing headquarters (which contains a skateboard course), buying vinyl at EntertainMart, hearing live jazz at Buttons in Addison, and several really good meals.