The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.
Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.
I had agreed to drop off a co-worker at work on my way out of town, so I ended up getting on the road at 5 in the morning. I had intended to grab breakfast at the well-known Blue and White Cafe in Tunica, but I found them closed, as they don’t open until 7 AM, and while there was a breakfast restaurant in Helena, Arkansas, I didn’t know a lot about them. So, after looking on my Yelp app and seeing a place called Jim’s Cafe in Greenville, I decided to head that direction, and at Lula, I got on Highway 1. The morning had been totally dark up until that point, but as I approached the community of Rena Lara in Coahoma County, beams of light began to appear just above the horizon of the flat Delta land. The Great River Road Country Store was open, and I stopped there for a soft drink before continuing down the road. Each mile brought an increase in light to the east. Dark lakes, bayous and swamps were steaming in the winter cold, and the road passed through occasional clouds of dense fog. At Beulah, the sun finally appeared, and I stopped there to take pictures of an old, decrepit general store.
When I finally reached Greenville, I came upon Nelson Street, which had a different look than when Sherena Boyce and I had seen it a few years ago. This street had of course been the Main Street for Blacks in the Delta, serving a similar role in Greenville as Beale Street had in Memphis or Farish Street in Jackson. While the redevelopment of such streets in bigger cities have become political briarpatches, in Greenville, nobody has ever really discussed redevelopment of Nelson Street in any normal sense of the term. The Flowing Fountain, its most famous blues club, had burned several years ago, and although a building was rebuilt on the site, it remains closed. Several other sports bars, clubs and cafes remain, all seemingly intended to serve the residents of the nearby neighborhoods. No tourists venture to Nelson Street anymore except to go to Doe’s Eat Place.
Downtown Greenville shocks these days by its emptiness. There were hardly any cars at all, and free parking still does not attract shoppers or visitors to the area. An old Elks Lodge on Washington Avenue was collapsing, despite its obvious historical value. It had been surrounded by a fence to protect passersby and nearby buildings. Jim’s Cafe was in the next to last block before Lake Ferguson, and was relatively crowded. Some men with northern accents were sitting at a table talking about the upcoming elections. I could not tell if they were reporters or political consultants for one of the candidates. Jim’s specializes in breakfast, and I was not disappointed. It is of course not a fancy place, but my bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious, and they gave me so many hashbrowns that they had to use a second plate for them! The biscuits were great as well.
After breakfast, I walked around the area shooting some pictures. The opening of a brewery and the Downtown Grille a couple of years ago had led me to believe that Greenville was experiencing something of a downtown renaissance. I learned on this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The brewery closed in late 2018, and although the Downtown Grille has remained open, many other places were closed, including the former Key West Inn, which was boarded up, the adjacent Cajun Shot Gun restaurant, and the Columbus and Greenville Railroad depot, with its old kitchen equipment left outside to rot. A block to the north of Washington Avenue on Broadway was a beautiful Victorian wood-frame house which had also been abandoned and left to rot. One of the eaves had a beautiful rising sun pattern in the woodwork, and the house was clearly historic, despite the lack of a historic marker, or any effort at preservation. The current state of Greenville is tragic and depressing, especially considering the area’s deep cultural and music history, and the considerable tourism potential of the city. Clarksdale has learned how to leverage its culture and history for tourism; Greenville seems unable or unwilling to do so.
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.
2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.
The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.
There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!
After a breakfast at the Brunswick Kitchen at Brunswick near Lakeland, I decided to spend the afternoon putting up flyers for the R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration, which is being held on September 1 during the Labor Day weekend. Coffee bars make a great place to promote events, as they typically have large community bulletin boards, or plenty of window space, so I made my way around to several Memphis area coffee bars on what was a very hot day indeed.
At Cafe Eclectic, one of Memphis’ oldest coffee bars, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a beer tap with the Illy logo on it. As Illy doesn’t make beer, I was curious, and had to ask the barista what it was. She explained that it was nitro, or nitrogenated coffee, and to my inquiries of what it was like, she responded by giving me a cold free glass of it. Without any added sugar or cream, it was absolutely delicious, mild and rich, the perfect option for such a hot day.
Downtown in the Pinch district, I came upon the new Comeback Coffee on North Main Street near Westy’s. This is Memphis’ most recent coffee bar, and an amazing and cool oasis in the city, with excellent coffee, wi-fi, comfortable seating, and an awesome multi-story outdoor courtyard.
At breakfast, I had downloaded a new iPhone photo app called Hydra, and so I spent the afternoon experimenting with it. It basically takes multiple photos and then merges them to create amazing detail and clarity with your phone. Of course it has limitations, because that method of improving photo clarity does not work with moving objects like people, pets or vehicles. But for buildings, such as old churches and other historic structures, it works very well indeed. In the South Memphis area along Florida street, I came across an old warehouse that bore an inscription for Mr. Bowers’ Stores, an old Memphis grocery chain. A painted logo for one of the locations still exists on Jackson Avenue near Breedlove. Further down Florida was an interesting new lounge called D’s Lounge, with an attractive guitar logo painted above the door. Great blues and southern soul recordings were playing inside, and I would have liked to check with them and see if they ever book live bands. But a rather draconian sign on the door read “Members Only” so I thought better of trying to go in, and continued on my way down to Mississippi, as the blues picnic portion of the annual Hill Country Boucherie was starting at 7 PM in Como.
Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.
The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.
But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.
Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.
The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.
Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.
Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.
When the Bentonia Blues Festival outgrew its place in front of the Blue Front Cafe in downtown Bentonia, Mississippi, it moved to a former Black baseball field north of town on land that seems to belong to the family of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Unfortunately, being what it is, the largely treeless flat field offers no refuge from the mid-June heat, making Bentonia Blues Festival one of the hottest blues festivals anywhere. What little shade there is can be found around the parking area near the front of the road behind the stage, where teenagers play basketball.
However, despite the withering heat, several hundred blues fans turn out annually to enjoy some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer. Unlike many other festivals in and out of state, the Bentonia Blues Festival is a free festival, with the only charge one for parking a vehicle.
This year’s line-up included Como blues legend R. L. Boyce, former member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, Dominican blues musician Tito “Harlem Slim” Deler of New York City, the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley featuring Kinney Kimbrough on drums, and of course the man everyone came to see, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, founder of the festival and a living legend of the Bentonia style of blues.
Toward the late afternoon, some clouds and rain developed in areas, and things began to cool off some, as the son went down. After Eric Deaton’s performance, Sherena Boyce, R. L. Boyce and I decided to head down Highway 49 to Pocahontas, Mississippi in order to eat dinner before the long ride back to North Mississippi. Although thoroughly tired, it had been a remarkable day of fun and great music.