Sunday, October 17, 2021

What Happened on Highway 61? - Part 5: Memphis, City of Kings and Conquerors

A Blog by A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 4 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Well that's alright mama, that's alright for you
That's alright mama, just anyway yo' do
And, that's alright."

Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup, 1946

Had René Cavelier started his river exploration from the Rocky mountains and not Lake Itasca, the Missouri would now flow all the way to New Orleans. Thus maintaining the convention of naming mighty rivers after the water course flowing longest from source to sea. The Mississippi is it's given name because a Frenchman was ignorant of the western extent of this great watershed.

In spite of this erroneously named waterway, Tom Sawyer would still have had his adventures, Chicago's killing floors would continue their grisly business and iron ore still smelted by black immigrant labor from further downstream. A gauche boy in crisp shirt, dyed black, slicked-back hair, with a patrimonic would commission a recording of him singing his mother's favorite song. Marion Keisker, Sun Studios' factotum would be sufficiently enamored to champion him to her boss. Seeing that behind the perfectly preened persona and coy checking out of his mojo here was a man uniquely talented and intent on realizing his ambition to become a king. A king soon to beguile baby-boomers and make the god-fearing fearful.

So, Memphis is not located on the longest US river as that of it's Egyptian city namesake but that of a pretender and the January wind blew cruel across its watery expanse. We were ensconced a block away from the mighty Mississippi and inclement weather was a small price to pay to be located a stone's throw from Beale. Our apartment was opposite the Chisca hotel from where was the song that changed the world was first broadcast. To our right, a now a derelict hotel where reputedly, the King conducted furtive dalliances with those in thrall to more than his velvet vocal chords.

Beale Street is much narrower, shorter and brasher than that of my youthful imaginings. No less so perhaps, than that experienced by North Americans when they first visit Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square in London. A few hours is all that is needed get the drift of it's shiny froth. Further down this famous thoroughfare, on the way to Sun studios, is the house of WC Handy. A worthwhile diversion, his modest home and contents are in contrast to Graceland 's down-home-mama's-boy-made-good-ostentation.

"Sun" is an obvious port of call, where "the" discovery was made. Often overlooked in this tale of serendipity (something of a theme running through the Memphis story) is that, had it not been for a fruitful, fortuitous meeting two years earlier. Elvis Presley might possibly have continued a career behind the wheel of a Kenwood rig.

When a saxophonist and pianist born and shaped on the musical anvil that was Clarksdale, made an appointment with Sam Phillips, he thought them another Blues act, like many he had recorded before. Destined at best to make a showing in the "Race Record " Charts, as Howling Wolf had done earlier. When the "Delta Cats" swung the self-penned "Rocket 88" in a tempo that became Rock and Roll, Sam Philips the hitmaker was born. Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's self-penned cross-over hit proved to be pivotal in securing both his business's viability and reputation as Star maker.

Southside, Memphis is home to "Soulsville USA." Once another recording studio that shaped the world. Again it was adventurers with good fortune to be in the moment and more important who grasped the opportunity provided by an abandoned cinema next to the record shop they owned. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon's dream to emulate Sun in recording and promoting home grown talent, proved to be just as successful.

With the nearby Booker T Washington Academy supplying a steady stream of talent and multi-racial house band, Satellite studios became better known by one of it's labels. STAX is now a museum, in which a serious researcher into soul music could spend many more hours than we joyously spent there.

For more photos, please click HERE

Memphis has more museums celebrating its musical legacy than you can wave a baton at and if tried, your arm would soon tire. They vary from pretty good to excellent but it is the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel charting the black struggle that is Memphis ' jewel in the crown. What better opportunity to visit than Martin Luther King day but thwarted by the queues to enter, imbibed the many events and musical performances staged in the South Main District celebrating the great doctor's life. Visiting a day later, seeing the exhibits charting the struggle against oppression, it became ever apparent the importance music plays in articulating inequity in all societies. Elegy sung in a minor key is universal and predates that with African American roots but it is that variant which gave birth to the melodies heard by my generation.

Perhaps, more than any, Memphis became a place where songs of sorrow, longing, ire and irony converged into the dominant popular form that endures universally today. Again, serendipity is central to it's story. When Sam Phillips first realized his tape recorder was running during the "The Blue Moon Boys" sound-check song, even as spools spun, he knew then that magic was in the making and that a country boy from Tupelo with a matinee idol looks, was the magician.

This takes the narrative of my journey to trace the Daddy of modern music almost full circle. To the shrine where for many of my generation, it all began - Graceland. A place which epitomizes a rags to riches story and that of a trillion dollar industry that this house's occupant, was it's Firestarter. A conflagration that gave rise to many imitators and innovators too, as Lennon and McCartney were inspired to be, and countless others also. Western popular music continues to evolve but it's roots, like all it's performers and audience, from wherever they hail, were once African.

Memphis may not be the hub on a great river confluence but it is from here that it's music flowed in all directions. If New Orleans was it's port of entry, then Memphis was where the musical genres met, morphed and were dissipated around the world. FedEx is now the economic drive of this great city and it is fitting that consolidation and dispatch should continue worldwide, albeit now commodities more than just musical. This city would be the starting point for another musical odyssey altogether, one which I have yet to make. It would be to where the music was made electric to be audible above urban din. North to the Great Lakes, West to where longhorns and iron donkeys share space and East to the heart of yet another American musical genre. This is for another time.

So, my story comes to an end sharing my reflections when airborne above MIA, that of in many visits to the US, this had been the first to Southern states. It's where I left my heart and where I hope to return. Although, often troubled and yet to be reconciled with its turbulent past, the ordinary folk that populate this great land, are some of the warmest anyone could hope to encounter. The racial divide that still exists in a country built by those seeking refuge, fleeing injustice or disadvantage or enslavement is an enigma I hope soon to be solved. Perhaps, only an outsider looking in can see that too many still, are prisoners of their own recent history. A history sad enough without the grotesque version thrust forefront by the resentful and fearful, aiming to poison all with their irrationality. The prison bars from behind which they are voluntarily imprisoned, forged in another time, fail to prevent light shining through and just as easily, could be slipped through. As music in it's many forms illustrates - our preference for harmony over dissonance is innately human and in that, are we not all equal?

I hope that my heart rests in the right place, for my love affair with the Southland has yet to end.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

What happened on Highway 61? - Part 4: White Castles and the Camino to Liberty.

By A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 2 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Ah woe, fare ya well, never see ya no mo'
Why don't ya hear me cryin'
Ah woe, smokestack lightnin'
Shinin', just like gold."

 - Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett, 1956

It's ironic that many Palladian plantation palaces of the South emulate an Athenian ideal. The much vaunted democratic seedbed, ancient Athens, was a democracy for the few, sustained by the enslaved. It was a society that was doomed by design, for it was built on fear - both oppressed and oppressor lived in dread. Just as Doric columns of alabaster could not prevent Athens' collapse, those fashioned from mere Cottonwood contained the very spores that ensured eventual rot from within. Even as this precarious system of wealth creation in the South was made increasingly unsustainable by an industrialized world outside*, the enslaved became currency. Lest we forget, this system was in place, not in another millennium but in recent history - in a land founded on liberty for all, in a written proclamation, held high for all to see. A very Black history it is too, with the question of what to do when the slaves** are freed, long unconsidered and perhaps, still to be answered. So what happened when the river Jordan was finally crossed, if at all? Many of the newly emancipated trekked North, to seek a new beginning, taking their music with them.

My leaving New Orleans was a sad severance. A piece of me still remains but I console myself that departing was but physical. Continuing our odyssey, our next encampment was Indianola, proclaimed hometown of the Blues Boy.

Although born in Itta Bena, he made Indianola his own. It is here that he is buried and Riley King's ossuary is as regal as his namesake. He was clearly mindful, when considering his legacy, of the fate of many of his peers and mentors' final resting places at the hands of rapacious developers. It is only with foresight and charitable intervention, that some of the grave sites of these luminaries continue to be commemorated and preserved for posterity.

The B B King museum itself, newly built and airy, has some refreshingly unexpected exhibits documenting his life. There are of course, the clichés, including ubiquitous versions of "Lucille" to remind us that, while the trill is gone the guitar remains. Perhaps, it is a somewhat sanitized portrayal of this fascinating artist, for he was not always the man he seemed. Nonetheless, very interesting and with hindsight gained by subsequent visits to other Blues expositions, better than many. If a fan, then it's a must - If it's pizza you're looking for in Indianola, then I can safely advise that you drive on.

Clarksdale has taken the Blues story to an altogether different level. You can throw a plectrum in any direction and it will land where many a Blues Journeyman (and woman) was born, buried or busked. A roost in the great migration on the route to the firey chimneys of the North, it was our penultimate stop-over before Memphis. Taking the advice of a newly acquainted jolly Mississippian, Morris Burns, we eschewed the Shack-Up Inn in favor of loft accommodation closer to Clarksdale's attractions. It was there that our native musician host provided insider recommendations to add to our to-do list and an oil-can guitar, thoughtfully tuned to open G. Fortunately, a porch with rocking-chair was not a feature in this particular hostelry on which to render my version of "Stones in my Passway" Much to the relief of neighbors.

"Ground Zero" is to Clarksdale what "Oyrish" pubs are to cities throughout the world and equally ersatz. However, Mississippi's current most famous son, Morgan Freeman, is at least modest and respectful enough not to erect a shrine to his thespian achievements. He instead spreads his largesse in providing a venue to venerate his earlier forebears' musical artistry and one in which current exponents of their musical legacy might perform. Artfully placed, sawdust rustic and turns abound - it is more metaphor than perhaps the reality of Juke joints of old but that said, the burgers aren't half bad. And, the deliciously named Lucious Spiller did a decent turn on the open mike night. He managed to coax a Slash wannabe on stage whilst keeping a watchful eye on the volume control of his Fender Champ amp. After leather-clad renditions of Guns 'n Roses set-list had ensued, Lucious trawled the audience for more appropriate interpreters of the musical genre that made Clarksdale famous. Alighting on me, decided that with my English accent, that I must be Phil Collins!? Had he mistaken me for "Albert" I would have been flattered but then sufficiently concerned about his myopia, to alert his employer to his obvious impairment.

A more "authentic Blues experience" is to be had at "Red's", where entertained the following night. Testament to this was the tarpaulin stretched across the ceiling and where the strategically arranged buckets served an additional purpose other than receptacles for the band's tips. This is a shabeen, literally located the wrong side of the tracks. There is even a taller Ike Turner look-a-like, dressed entirely in red with matching fedora, there presumably, simply to dot "i's" and cross "t's." I mused that he might have been a less fortunate colleague of the eminent Morgan Freeman who, in between resting, might be playing the role of Red? Perhaps, much in the way that Jay Hawkins played the anchor man in Jim Jarmusch's film, "Mystery Train?"

The Delta Blues Museum provides a somewhat tired, monochrome offering, made more so by subsequent visits to such venues. And, of course, no visit to this illustrious town is complete without browsing Cat Head record store's shelves for past recorded gems and the fruit of current Blues young bloods.

Clarksdale 's Cafes too offer reasonably priced, decent fare. A local Alderman introduced himself to us in one of them, gifting us badges to remind us of the specialness of his hometown. Later, introducing us to visiting (State?) officials as having "travelled all the way from London," we imagined that we might have been enlisted as bit-players to help in his tugging at purse-strings for some sort of subvention. Clearly assiduous in his role as elected representative, we hope that if this was indeed was his ruse, that we helped him succeed.

Also informative, is to take a detour along the actual highway 61, that still exists, not far outside Clarksdale. There is a world as described by the aforementioned Morris, little different to the Mississippi of yore.

Just as Stratford upon Avon in the UK mines the gold of it's native son, so it is hoped that Clarksdale can continue to do the same from it's equally talented offspring. My first impression (albeit in January) was that it may be over-reliant on the Baby-boomer dollar. Perhaps a little reinvention is required and done so, without losing it's homespun charm. A notion actively being considered maybe? We loved Clarksdale, warts and all, just the same.

Next, we're off to Memphis, the real crossroads where souls were bought (and sold.) TO BE CONTINUED...

* Adherence to Habeus Corpus made Slavery illegal under English Law. Trade in Slaves made illegal 1807 and finally, in 1833 abolished in the British Empire. The latter, resulting in no small part by the Abolitionists and not least for economic considerations. In our system, a much cheaper, more efficient system existed. That of a kind of indentured and child labor, which together with machination might easily be be seen today, as enslavement. To secure abolishment, the Slave Compensation Act 1837 was passed, not as the name might suggest but to indemnified British Slave OWNERS for their loss!  A total of approximately 27.5 million dollars paid by the British tax payer, the final claim by their descendant finalized in 2015.

** One of the world's oldest traded commodities, it is a sad fact that a market in human bondage for forced labor should still exist today. And, an awful indictment of humanity, that this extreme exploitation of our fellows should persist. Human trafficking, forced marriage, and tied labor is slavery by another name.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Lynching At The Courthouse: Lamar Smith Deserves A Courthouse Marker In Brookhaven

By Dick Scruggs
August 28, 2021
Originally published in the Mississippi Free Press

Shortly before 10 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 13, 1955, Lamar “Ditney” Smith got a phone call asking him to come to the Lincoln County Courthouse in downtown Brookhaven. Smith, a successful Black farm owner, businessman and World War I veteran, was one of the few African Americans registered to vote in the county.

Lamar Smith and wife Annie Clark Holloway Smith
Lamar Smith, a World War I veteran, ran a successful farm in western Lincoln County with his wife, Annie Clark Smith. He was murdered on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven on Aug. 13, 1955. Photo courtesy Mary Byrd Markham Photograph Collection via Keith Beauchamp

Smith was working then to get local Black people to use absentee ballots to support challenger Joe Brueck for the Beat 5 supervisor’s race against incumbent J. Hughes James, both white men. Voting absentee, they wouldn’t be hassled at the polls.

That Saturday, Smith took his latest batch of absentee ballots to drop off as he drove downtown. At the courthouse, he walked up to the steps where he encountered three white men. They tried to block him, telling Smith he could not enter, and he argued back, leading to a physical altercation.

Suddenly, prosecutors would later say, a man named Noah Smith pulled out his .38-caliber pistol and shot Smith in the ribs under his right arm at close range. Ditney Smith stumbled and then fell into bushes, where he soon died. He then was left lying on the ground for several hours.

Sheriff Bob Case saw Noah Smith leaving covered with blood. He soon learned that Mack Smith and Charles Falvey were with Noah when they stopped him. All these suspects lived in Beat 5 in the Loyd Star community out in the county toward where Ditney Smith lived and farmed.

Despite efforts by two district attorneys, E.C. Barlow in 1955 and the newly elected Mike Carr in early 1956, the three prime suspects never went to trial because not a single witness would agree to testify. Now all three accused men are dead.

But it is not too late for the community to commemorate the life of businessman and veteran Ditney Smith and memorialize his death in a respectful way.

To that end, I am supporting an effort underway in Brookhaven to erect a historical marker that both honors Ditney Smith’s courage and acknowledges the brutal manner of his death. Thanks to the efforts of his descendants, a nationwide movement to memorialize lynchings, and local Brookhaven citizen groups, a promising biracial coalition, including myself, is seeking the approval of the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors to place a historical marker on the courthouse lawn where Smith died.

‘Some Race Trouble’ Downtown

Lamar Smith’s unresolved, unacknowledged murder has always haunted me. I was a boy of 9 growing up in white Brookhaven when, first, Smith was killed and then two weeks later on Aug. 28—66 years ago today—Emmett Till was murdered in the Delta.

On Aug. 13, 1955, like most summer Saturdays, I was about to ride my bike to the show—the movies at the Haven Theater on West Cherokee Street—when my mother got a phone call. She then told me I couldn’t go. When I pleaded for a reason, she said on account of “some race trouble” downtown.

After pressing her for more, she finally told me there’d been a “lynching at the courthouse.”

School picture of Dickie Scruggs at Brookhaven Elementary School in 1958-59
Dick Scruggs was a boy when he heard about the lynching of Lamar Smith at the courthouse. Today he wants his hometown to commemorate the fallen veteran. Courtesy Dick Scruggs

I thought that meant that someone had been hanged, but she said no, that some men “from out in the county” had shot a colored man. The “county” phrase had special significance to me, because the kids I was in grade school with at Brookhaven Elementary “from out in the county” were somehow meaner and rougher than the in-town kids I usually played with.

Like adults in Brookhaven I know who kept quiet about witnessing Ditney Smith’s murder, I was afraid of people “from out in the county.” I still am.

A Way to Help Heal and Educate

To this day, neither my hometown nor Lincoln County has honored or even publicly remembered the bravery and determination of a man who stood up for the ideal that all Americans are created equal. His execution at a place where laws were supposed to protect the county’s citizens occurred in the presence of numerous bystanders who customarily gathered around the courthouse on Saturday mornings; many are probably dead now.

The FBI later estimated that there were 50 to 75 potential witnesses, and not one would testify about what they saw, shamefully denying witnessing the crime. The FBI reopened the Lamar Smith case in 2008 as part of a new cold-case initiative for unresolved civil rights-era murders. The agency examined the evidence and confirmed the identity of the three suspects—Smith, Smith and Falvey—but closed the case in 2010 because all three had died.

This means real justice is not possible for Ditney Smith, but that does not mean his memory should die. The Brookhaven Daily Leader wrote in January 2020 that the Lamar Smith case must be remembered: “Some in Brookhaven would prefer to forget parts of its past, including the Smith murder. But in doing so, we are choosing to ignore a key piece of the state’s civil rights history. We are also choosing to diminish the sacrifice Smith made so that black voices would count.”

People must come together so the effort to erect a marker to Smith on the courthouse grounds will be successful. It may be especially challenging because relatives of two of the three men arrested for Smith’s murder presently hold influential political offices. But I still believe this can happen.
Emmett Till murder trial marker
This marker sits outside the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner where the murder trial for Emmett Till took place in 1955 with an all-white jury acquitting the murderers, who admitted the heinous crime later. Photo courtesy Deborah Douglas
Hopefully, passions and fears have waned since 1955, and local residents and county leadership will see the wisdom of first acknowledging and then turning the page on this sad chapter in the community’s past. Honoring a fallen veteran and a role model in the local quest for Black freedom and self-reliance is a way to heal, educate and show just how far the community has come since 1955.

Please join this effort if you can. It’s important, and it’s time that we get this done. As the Daily Leader wrote last year, “Don’t ignore the past, even when it’s painful.”

Also read what Donna Ladd discovered about Lamar Smith murder, his murderers and other lynchings in Brookhaven, in her in-depth historic piece on his murder, “Buried Truth: Unresolved, Disregarded Lamar Smith Murder Haunts Lincoln County.

Learn more about Lamar “Ditney” Smith in MFP Advisory Board member Keith Beauchamp’s documentary, “Murder in Black and White: Lamar Smith” and more about Emmett Till in “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

What happened on Highway 61: Part III: On Highway 90

By A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 2 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Laissez les bons temps rouler"

What does the Bayou have to do with the Blues Trail?

I am fortunate to live in both the UK and Southwest France, in Occitanie. A region deriving it's name from the language which, until the aftermath of the First World War, was widely spoken. My adopted Gallic home, a wild, mountainous land, was once a separate fiefdom, subsumed into France at sword point. It still enjoys a distinctiveness of it's own. There are other regions of France, remote from Paris, often historically turbulent, where cultures differ. When opportunity across the Atlantic presented itself, the more intrepid or desperate, disparate people settled in this "Acadie," in hope of better lives led of their own choosing.

It is this background, curiosity, love of music, and a recommendation, that led me to the Cajuns of Louisiana's swamps. A persecuted diaspora often holds dear it's culture, faith and especially, music, when an Acadien promise proves to be yet more "les haricots ne sont pas salés." An old French idiom (unsalted beans) meaning hard times, possibly corrupted to "Zydeco" - song of lament and Blues by any other name?

So, with friends, we set out from New Orleans to Lafayette and beyond, turning right across the flat lands to Eunice, where our accommodation awaited. Eunice is home to American manufactured accordions what Nazareth is to Martin guitars and as equally venerated for their tonal quality. And, a squeeze-box made by Savoy Music is the ultimate Acadian instrument, due as much to it's beautiful construction and portability as to it's sound and thus, to Eunice's claim of being at the heart of Cajun music. This boast may or not, be true but it is Mamou and Fred's Lounge, which is it's beat and the ultimate destination in our quest for the real deal.

Monday, September 6, 2021

What Happened on Highway 61 - Part 2: The Big Easy

By A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 1 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Baby please don't you go down to New Orleans, you know I love you so. Baby please don't go."
--Big Joe Williams (1935)

There are cities you can't help falling in love with. They have that intangible something, an aura, a magic that permeates the very air that surrounds them. New Orleans is such a City and I was smitten from the moment the A300 touched tarmac at Louis Armstrong airport.

We were billeted in the French quarter, where tourism is displayed in Technicolor and Dolby surround sound. Often, careworn and grubby, it clings precariously to life, held together only by the Blutack of collective will; it's magnificent patina a magnet to many. It has no pretensions, displaying it's light firmly placed before the bushel and heart worn proudly on it's sleeve for all to see. At once cosmopolitan and provincial, conservative and carefree it is a haven to the deviant and dispossessed, embracing diversity as a mother would an itinerant but talented, favorite child. Yet, and for good reason, the Big Easy's citizens live in the now; tomorrow is an indulgence only the tourists can afford. Enjoying the moment is the raison d'etre of the natives of Nola and all-comers are welcome to join them in their hedonism. And, what better way to jig than to a tune of the Devil's making?

It was indeed, the music created in this great city which was the primary drive to begin my odyssey. A cradle to all the greats so, inevitable that I should visit all the places chronicling their lives and to experience some of the vibe of the Petri dish where their talent was nurtured. The French quarter bars look as though they might be constructed in a studio back-lot in Burbank and transported to Bourbon Street, but convey something of how it might have been. In any case, troubadours hustling tourist dollars for song requests is in keeping with this great city's tradition.

Amongst the wealth of museums and exhibits celebrating New Orleans' gift to the world, is the Katrina Exhibition. Not that the descriptives of celebration or gift can be applied to this tearful, moving experience, which documents a human catastrophe on a Pompeiian scale. However, the resulting outcome, with its message of optimism for the future and can-do attitude is, at least uplifting. At the of risk of this particular Limey telling grannie how to suck eggs, I would urge that you include this in your itinerary if planning to visit. It probably says as much about the fortitude of this fascinating city, and determined inventiveness of it's people as any musical construct of 12 bars. More on the pride the citizens take in their heritage, later in this missive.

Another most surprising and rewarding experience in New Orleans was that provided by the Ranger Service.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

What happened on Highway 61? - Part 1

A Blog Series by A. Tyke Dahnsarf

"Now I'm a man, way past twenty one, I tell you honey child, we gonna have lotsa fun."

--Bo Diddley (1955)

So, I finally made it. The trip I'd promised myself for decades; the Blues trail up the delta to see the birthplace and stomping grounds of the musical hero's that informed my youth.

Like the millions of ingratiate Baby-boomers raised in post war Britain, the land of hope and glory was not our sceptered Isle but country on the far side of the Atlantic. A place portrayed on 9 inch screens, in black and white. A tableau peopled by the square jawed and white, with teeth to match. Beneath wide-brimmed hats, they rode Palominos or running boards of Chevy's - able to discharge firearms with amazing accuracy, considering the speed that their chosen mode of transport often travelled. Females were portrayed as victims who screamed a lot and got rescued from precarious situations by the square jawed. Uncannily, their coiffures and make-up always survived the ordeal where their captors or protagonists often did not. In this safer real world, that our parents had bravely sacrificed their youth to make possible for us, there were no Colts, neither with 4 legs nor 6 chambers. Nor Stetsons, Borsellinos or Chevrolets. It was a world in reality, as Black and white as that projected onto screens or via a cathode ray tube. 

So, we went further in embracing this perfect, mythic continent by imbibing it's music so that it became the soundtrack of our youth. Rock n' Roll was it's name and the more our parent's hated it so, we loved it the more. Then, when a home-grown, watered-down, insipid, mish-mash was offered once a week for an hour by Aunty Beeb (BBC TV) as a sop to the youth (and an establishment with an eye to future voters.) Some of us were audacious enough to seek out the itinerant father of Rock n' Roll - the Blues. Our parent's hated this even more. A number of those who had "discovered" this music also realized that the Devil had contrived to make it a musical genre (apparently) easy enough for whites to emulate. And so, some did just that, even I, but more of this later...

So, my informative years, like many in that post-World War II cohort, were first shaped by photogenic all American white boys--only just out of school--who regaled us with songs of love lost or gained. The most original and influential of them was one hailing from Texas and the other from Mississippi. With not a few ditties in their repertoire, a pastiche of songs from an all-together older generation, with very different life experiences, the raw immediacy of these ditties was not lost on us, even if the context of where and how they originated was. 

One of these "oldies" was Chuck Berry, who along with perhaps Cliff Gallop launched a thousand guitar wannabes. Berry was not one to waste a good riff on one song when it could be applied to further telling of fast cars and even faster female. His witty couplets succeeded in making subsequent refinements somehow different, and I could not accuse Berry of lazy, moon in June lyrics in his telling of trysts with the opposite sex. I loved him then and still do. Keef, Mick, Eric et. al., also felt the same too. Along with adulating Messrs. Morganfield, Burnett, Hooker and many a King, they helped pave the way to resurrecting the careers of many these Black American Blues artists, catapulting them from cult following into the mainstream. But they were not solely responsible for my getting acquainted with Blues music. Nay! It was another champion, Chris Barber. A noted UK jazz band leader, it was he who first introduced me and thousands of others to these great performers, via TV--together with a Glaswegian banjo player and Parisian born guitarist, both members of Barbers band. The former with the moniker of Lonnie Donegan and the even more exotically named, Alexis Korner. Together they guided our musical journey and their example launched an untold number of Rhythm 'n Blues Bands.

The Denyms

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Mt. Zion Memorial Fund with RL BOYCE PICNIC Presents Walk Like A Big Blues Mane Workshop Weekend w/ RL BOYCE

Plan to Get DUSTY in Como, MS

Oct. 16 & 17 2021


RL BOYCE, Living Hill Country Blues Legend gathered the best of Mississippi Blues players for his 2019 family picnic. Recorded live in Como, RL's newest release is 60 minutes of unfiltered, raw and rocking hypnotic electric Blues from North Mississippi A complication of astounding artists show-cases the wide range of unique sounds happening in Mississippi today. All players were inspired by the traditional music making methods RL BOYCE has employed for the last 50 years. Crowned King of the Hill Country Boogie RL BOYCE closes the disc with a transcendent jam that takes you HIGHER! 

Come celebrate in person with the Big Blues Mane. 

Grab yourself a copy at the RL BOYCE PICNIC Walk like A Big Blues Mane Workshop Weekend Oct. 16 & 17, 2021, Como MS. RL will have a mess of copies on hand, and ready to sign. CD ONLY limited release available on WoodB Records. Recorded SEPT. 1, 2019, RL BOYCE PICNIC, COMO, MS. 

These recordings were made possible with generous support from the Mississippi Arts Commission

Monday, August 9, 2021

The History of Race and Memorialization in the United States: Resources from the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund

In response to ongoing issues of race and memorialization in the United States, we have compiled a list of resources for teachers to use in classrooms to help students understand the history of the present; journalists can draw on them to provide historical context for current events; researchers can draw on them to inform future scholarship. 

“A Juneteenth Dilemma: Freedom and Self-Determination” by Channon Miller and T.J. Tallie (Perspectives on History, 2021)

“Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape,” a Virtual AHA webinar featuring David W. Blight, Annette Gordon-Reed, and James Grossman (YouTube, 2020)

“A Monument to Black Resistance and Strength: Considering Washington, DC’s Emancipation Memorial” by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove (Perspectives on History, 2020)

“Named for the Enemy: The US Army’s Confederate Problem” by Ty Seidule (Perspectives on History, 2020)

“Can We Right the Past? Memory and the Present” by Caroline E. Janney (AHA Today, 2018)

“The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction” by Sarah Jones Weicksel (AHA Today, 2018)

“What Should We Do with Confederate Monuments?” by Dane Kennedy (AHA Today, 2017)

Monday, May 31, 2021

"They Say Drums was a-Calling": African-American Music from the Mississippi Hill Country

By Bill Steber, 1999

All Photos from the Alan Lomax Collection

Ed Young and Lonnie Young, 1959
On a small, nondescript farm in rural northeast Mississippi, between the towns of Senatobia and Como, is one of America's last and most tangible links to its African musical past.

It's here, at country picnics in the community of Gravel Springs, that 92-year-old Otha Turner still performs on the homemade cane fife as younger family members beat out African-based rhythms on drums, and members of the local community gather to dance, drink corn whiskey, and eat goat sandwiches just as they have for well over a century.

Otha Turner, known by friends as "Gabe," heads the last African-American fife and drum band in a region that once supported more than a dozen. And like the archangel of the same name, when Otha blows his instrument, it's a rallying cry linking the community to its ancestors. Dancers yell, "Blow it, Gabe" as they encircle Otha and his drummers, moving in harmony to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums as parts of a larger organism.

African-American fife and drum music can be traced back to British and early American military music. Thomas Jefferson's personal body servant even organized a small band to help rally the revolutionary war effort. But in the hands of slaves and their progeny, the stiff, formalized music used to direct military movements was transformed by the same African syncopations and poly-rhythms that eventually gave birth to jazz and blues.

In a time when drumming by slaves was strictly forbidden for fear of illicit communication, the fife and drum was an acceptable outlet, even used by confederate armies during the civil war.

Today, the fife and drum music performed by the Turner family has more in common with the music of West Africa than the Spirit of '76. These musical ties are reinforced by the dancers, who "salute" the drums with pelvic movements not unlike traditional dances still seen in Africa, Haiti and the West Indies.

Folklorist Alan Lomax, who was the first to record fife and drum music in 1942, considers it one of his greatest discoveries in a lifetime of research. In his 1993 book, "Land Where the Blues Began," he wrote: "in vaudou ceremonies, dancers make pelvic gestures toward the drum to honor the holy music that is inspiring them. I never expected to see this African behavior in the hills of Mississippi, just a few miles south of Memphis."

When asked about the origin of the fife and drum, Otha Turner replies "How old it is? I don't know. They said it's African, back in African times, that's what they say, I don't know, I wasn't thought of. And they say drums was a-calling. If a person ceased, and you carry them to the cemetery, loaded in the wagon, all them drums get behind them and marched, just like it was a hearse, and they brought them to the cemetery, playing the drums."

In the North Mississippi hill country of Tate, Panola and Marshall counties, the traditional venue for fife and drum music was the summer weekend picnic. Following an afternoon baseball game, fife and drum and black string band music was performed late into the night. Rural blacks heard the drums from miles away and were directed by the sound, arriving by foot or wagon.

Annie Faulkner of Abbeville remembers when her father Lonnie Young played: "If [daddy] was playing somewhere close around, like this time of evening [dusk], when he hit that drum we could hear it from our porch from across the river over there, a long ways away."

Dr. Sylvester Oliver, an ethnomusicologist from Rust College in nearby Holly Springs, sees the drums as the historic cultural centerpiece of Hill Country music. "I have interviewed several elderly individuals who told me...they would not start their picnic unless the drums came and kind of sanctified the area. They always wanted the drums to come and bless the area."

Today, the picnics held on Turner's farm in late summer and early fall are the last link to that tradition. The picnic begins with the slaughter of one or more goats early in the day that will be barbecued and served as $3.00 sandwiches along with beer and soft drinks, sold from Otha's picnic stand. People begin arriving at dusk as Otha, followed by two snares and a bass drum, begin performing the "Shimmy She Wobble", (a standard fife and drum tune named for the type of dancing it often inspires), and snake their way slowly across the farm lot usually inhabited by chickens, dogs, horses and goats.

In his younger days Otha could play for hours without stopping as dancers kicked up clouds of dust late into the night. Now in his nineties, he allows himself frequent breaks and augments the picnic entertainment with performances by local blues musicians like "Rule" Burnside, R.L. Boyce and Luther Dickinson. In the last few years, he's also brought in a DJ to provide music for the younger crowd. But the focus of the picnic is, as it has always been, the drums.

Otha's daughter, Berniece Turner Pratcher, still plays drums for her father and remembers the picnics of her youth. "Back then you could hear fife and drum pretty much whenever you got ready too," says Pratcher. "The picnics died out as the people died out. My daddy is about the only one who still has a picnic."

Annie Faulkner recalls attending picnics where her family's fife and drum band played: "The picnics that I went to, it was exciting. People would be kicking up dust. They'd be down on the ground. Kicking that dust, have dust flying. Both feet would be white with dust."

Otha Turner learned the fife by observing older local players like John Bowden, who used to perform at picnics when Turner was a teenager.

"He'd get on that fife man, it'd get late over in the evening, folks was running, hollering, ‘Blow it ,John,'" recalls Turner. "That son of a gun would get to blowing, kept his cap sideways, and I'd be walking along behind him, that son of a bitch would blow it for them."

Bowden, who at age 95 is the oldest known living fife player in the state, has long since retired from playing, but still recalls his glory years. "It's all gone," recalls Bowden. "Used to be a good time in them days. I didn't want to miss nothing. I'd hear a drum hit, and man I just, Whew!, I'd have a fit."

Turner acquired his first fife from a neighbor, R.E. Williams, when he was a teen-ager. "He was out there to the lot feeding his hogs," says Turner. "Fife in his pocket, he'd pull it out, he'd walk around there and blow, standing around and look at the hogs, he'd walk and blow.

"I said ‘Mama!' [She said] ‘What?' ‘I hear that man blowing that thing, I want to go up there mama.' She said ‘All right young man, I tell you what, I'm gonna let you go up there a little while and don't you stay long. Don't let me to meet you.' I went flying, I run every step up there, I had to go.

"‘Mr R.E.!' He looked around, ‘What?' I said ‘What is that you blowing?' He said ‘That's a fife son.' I said ‘A Fife?' He said ‘yeah.' Well I thought a fife was a dog. I said, ‘Mr R.E., will you make me one of them things?' He said, ‘If you be smart and industrious and obey your mama and do what she tell you, I'll make you one.'

"About a month after that he called me, handed it to me, said ‘Here's your fife' I said ‘THANK YOU! THANK YOU!' I said, ‘What's the price?' He said, ‘You don't owe me nothing.' I said, ‘I sure do thank you.'

"He said, ‘You ain't going to blow it'. I said, ‘I'm gonna try'. He said, ‘That's the best words you spoke, don't nothing make a fail but a try, son.' He said, ‘If you try and want to blow it, you gonna blow it, but if you never try, you never will blow it.'"

The sound of his early musical attempts annoyed his mother, so he was forced to practice on the sly. But his persistence eventually paid off.

"When I learned how to note that cane, I said, ‘I got it now!'" recalls Turner. "I learned it good. Sometimes I'd walk, going to visit somebody at night, I'd blow my cane all the way over there and back. [People] would hear it, ‘Man, you sure was blowing that fife last night.'"

His reputation got him jobs at picnics playing for men like George "Pump" Toney, and Will Edwards, who ran a racehorse track and provided barbecue and music for his guests.

It was at these gatherings earlier in the century that the fife and drum often alternated with a now-defunct musical form that equally characterized the unique music of the Hill Country: the black string band. These bands performed ballads, reels and old-time music on instruments like the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, string bass and guitar – playing in a style that many now think of as exclusively white in origin. Ironic, considering one of the primary instruments of white folk music, the banjo, is an entirely African-derived instrument.

Little is known about these early bands, since few recordings exist from the period, but Dr. Sylvester Oliver notes that the location of the Mississippi hill country helped create a unique regional mixture of "Southern Appalachian culture and the Mississippi Delta" within the black string band tradition.

Black hill country string bands played for white as well as black audiences all over the region, at movie houses, formal gatherings and private parties until their commercial potential was diminished by the Jim Crow laws of the '20s and '30s, according to Oliver.

Sid Hemphill, 1959
Perhaps the best known of these musicians was Sid Hemphill, who was born in 1878 and was the master of nine instruments, but was primarily known locally as a hot fiddle player. Hemphill was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942 and again in 1959 performing ballads, break-downs, and fife and drum music: a cross section of 19th century black folk music pre-dating the blues. Most surprising was Hemphill's performances on the "quills," an ancient instrument heretofore unknown in black folk music with ties, according to Lomax, to Romania, ancient Greece, South America the Pygmies of Africa.

Sid's granddaughter, famed female Hill country blues guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, remembers a time when "country music" had a decidedly darker hue. "That white guy what play that fiddle about ‘Turkey in the Straw,' all of that come from my granddaddy," says Hemphill. "Wasn't no white band playing nothing like that. What they playing now, all that come from my granddaddy."

And just as blues from the Delta gave birth to rock and roll, the music of the North Mississippi Hill Country predates the Delta blues.

Dr. Oliver notes that the rhythms and percussive drive of fife and drum music had a "strong influence" on the development of Hill Country blues guitar, since most early bands performed fife and drum, string band music and/or blues – depending on the occasion and desire of the audience.

The most famous guitarist typifying Hill country blues was Fred McDowell, who, beginning in the '60s, often left his home in Como to play festivals where he became the darling of the blues and folk revival circuit. But Oliver considers the late David "Junior" Kimbrough to be "the last bastion of what Hill music was all about from a Folk perspective."

Kimbrough, who died in January of 1998, was a social and cultural institution in Marshall County. His house parties, and later his juke joint on Highway 4, provided the central gathering place for many blacks in the extended Hill country community since the late 1950's. He personally trained, or at least influenced, most blues musicians in the Marshall County area, including the late rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, whom he taught to play guitar.

"[Junior] was like a magnet," says Oliver. "It was his university. He could draw musicians young and old. He didn't do a whole lot of talking with them but he would allow them to experiment. He would allow them to add their uniqueness to whatever he was doing."

And the complexity of what he was doing was often difficult to follow. Junior's son and long-time drummer Kinney Kimbrough remembers "It took me a long time to learn how to feel his music. He played his bass line and his rhythm all at the same time. See, other bands have their changes every 6 bars or so, but daddy [would] have his changes, this one on 3 bars, next time on 10, this time on 1 or 3. See, you have to know him, you have to feel him to know how to play with him."

Junior adapted hill country traditions into his own original compositions and style of playing that had a profound effect in the area. And like the fife and drum, Kimbrough's music had a propulsive, hypnotic quality that inspired people to dance. As he played songs like "All Night Long" and "You Better Run" with repeating guitar riffs, a song could stretch on for a half hour as dozens of bodies moved as one in the stifling summer heat of his country juke joint.

"People loved the rhythm of his music," remembers Kinney Kimbrough. "It makes them move. You know it's like a hill country funk blues or something."

Despite Junior's death, Kinney still opens his father's juke joint every Sunday night for crowds that have hardly diminished. "I really kept it open because I know how many people loved him," says Kimbrough. "And I know that that's the only way that they can feel kind of close to him. Some think of the place as their home away from home. It makes them feel good."

Junior's music lives on through Kinney and his brother David Kimbrough Jr., who combines his father's guitar sound with modern influences, but can play "Junior" like no one else. "It's just by the grace of God that I inherited playing music with my brother David," says Kinney, "So we could keep it going."

Junior Kimbrough's longtime friend and music partner R.L. Burnside still plays at the club on Sundays when he's not on tour across America or Europe promoting his latest album. Both Burnside and Kimbrough have become hill country blues phenomena over the last five years on the strength of critically acclaimed releases on the Oxford, Miss., blues label Fat Possum.

Kimbrough's first Fat Possum release, "All Night Long," was the recipient of a rare five-star (classic) album review in Rolling Stone magazine. In 1996, he did a two-week tour opening shows for punk/shock-rocker Iggy Pop.

Burnside, who first recorded his traditional hill country blues in 1967 for the Arhoolie label, has achieved even greater success in the wake of collaborative musical efforts with post-punk noise rocker Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and tours opening for acts like the Beastie Boys.

But similar to collaborations in the '60s of African-American blues men like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters and various British and American rockers, the results do more to increase the bluesman's name recognition and earning power than for creating memorable (or even listenable) music.

"I didn't like it when I first heard it," says Burnside of his latest Fat Possum release featuring dance remixes of his powerful, grungy hill country blues. "I thought it was coming out just like we did it, you know. And then it come out remixed. I didn't like it. But it's selling."

Burnside's music, though marked by the same propulsive, repetitive rhythms that distinguish hill country guitar, is a link between this tradition and post-war blues sound of John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins.

Burnside learned guitar from Hill country musicians like Ranie Burnette, Son Hibler and Fred McDowell, but he spent his formative years going to the picnics where fife and drum music was performed.

When asked if fife and drum music influenced his playing, Burnside responds: "Yeah, I think it did. A lot of people say that the blues sounds like fife and drum music. All the blues, they say, started from fife and drum bands."

If Burnside's music, like Junior Kimbrough's, lives on, it will be through the musical efforts of his sons, especially DeWayne Burnside, who plays in a style closest to his father's.

But what of the mother of all Hill Country music, fife and drum? Who will evoke the spirit of Pan and inspire future lines of drummers to musical abandon? Who will keep the centuries-old tradition alive?

Most folks in the Gravel Springs community put their hope in the hands of Otha's precocious 8-year-old granddaughter Sharde, who made her musical debut at age 5 and continues to be the highlight of every picnic.

"Sharde's gonna be good," beams Otha, "She just needs somebody to keep pushing her, be with her, boost her up."

On the night of the picnic, everyone is waiting for Sharde to perform and they crowd around as she hits her first tentative notes on the fife to let the drummers know she's ready. As the snares begin their roll and the bass drum drops in, she leads the drummers with a seriousness and confidence that belies her 3-and-a-half-foot frame.

After playing a few phrases on the fife with authority, she breaks down into a dance that causes the crowd to erupt into cheers, laughter and shouts of encouragement. Her grandfather, Otha, stands close by, his hand hovering near her shoulder, a look of utter joy on his usually stern face for the first time tonight.

"Take your time," he calls to her, "Blow that thing!" She magically coaxes notes from her primitive cane fife that cut through the shouts and drum rhythms into the night air. All eyes are on her, but she is unshaken by the attention. She feels her grandfather's presence and is buoyed by his gentle encouragement. "Take your time."

When she blows her final notes and raises her fife into the air, counting out the final three beats of the song to end the drums, the crowd exhales a cathartic cheer. Someone emerges and embraces her. Adults laugh loudly and slap each other on the back, "That little girl is something else!"

Otha beams quietly, watching his granddaughter receive her praise with grace, confident in the knowledge that his legacy is in good hands.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Meaning of "Panther Burn"

Sharkey County, Mississippi

In the book It Came from Memphis, Robert Gordon forwards one explanation behind the band name for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns: 

  • “The band’s name reflected the lore surrounding Panther Burn, Mississippi. This town was menaced by an elusive wild beast that, when finally cornered, was set aflame. Its dying shrieks so horrified the citizens that they named the community for it. The moniker was appropriate for” Tav Falco’s assembly of musicians, The Panther Burns.

It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vicksburg Whig in 1860 that explains how the town got its name.

Population in 1987: About 100 families

Industry: Panther Burn Co., a plantation with about 6,500 acres of farmland growing cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat. The plantation employs 60 to 150 people, depending on the season. 

Settled: 1832 Government: The area is not incorporated so there is no local governing board. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

Of Note: The last reported panther sighting near here was about five years ago by farmers. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Nov 1, 1987.

On February 17, 2021, I posted a link to the above blog post on a Facebook post containing an interview with Tav Falco [click here for the interview], and I was fortunate enough to get a lengthy response from Mr. Falco himself, who not only took the time to correct a couple of grammatical errors in my post--namely that I hade misspelled Vicksburg as "Vickburg" as well as got the name of the newspaper incorrect; instead of the Herald, it was the Whig. Both have now been corrected in the above post. I find Mr. Falco's response both enlightening and informative; thus, I republish it here for your reading enjoyment!

"Thank you for your comment. You have written, "It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vickburg Herald in 1860 that explains how the town got its name."

One might wonder how many panthers in Mississippi were shot down, trapped, maimed, or burned alive inadvertently or otherwise. I should imagine lots of them, esp. during the times when the wilderness was being cleared for cultivation of crops. Murdered and destroyed along with legions of other august creatures such as bear (Mr. Faulkner attested to that), bobcats, wild boar, foxes, and so on. That item Mr. Moore has cited appears to be from the Oxford Intelligencer 1860, yet it is credited to the Vickburg (does he intend VickSburg?) Herald 1860, while that newspaper did not begin publishing until 1897. Was this item a reprint 37 years later? Anyway, the point is that among the endless slayings of grand creatures of the wild, this instance of the slaughter of the 'treed varmint' may not have even been reported - as I suspect most were not - had the hunter not been a so-called "gentleman" who removed the paw of the animal and had taken it to a doctor's office for the public to view as the veracity of his claimed exploit. Does this newspaper item account for anything more than panthers were killed in the area?

This paragraph by Nick Nicholas, PhD in Linguistics from Melbourne University appears relevant to the topic:

"The English equivalent of “burn” in Scots/Scottish-English isn’t “burn” in the sense of “be consumed/damaged by fire”, it is “bourne” which has pretty much the same meaning of “stream” and is found in lots of place names like “Bournemouth” or “Holborn” in London. Both come from Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor language of both Scots and English, so it’s not that there has been a change in meaning, more that the term has survived in Scots and Scottish English, but fallen out of use in England, except where it has been fossilized in names."

So, we could surmise that in the Scottish dialect supposedly spoken around the Panther Burn area, the term 'burn' may - by a stretch - have described "swampy" conditions as alluded to in the note the Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger published in 1987. Swampy because many 'streams' in Mississippi are not flowing streams at all, rather they are swamps of brackish water.

If one happens to read my book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma, and Death, there it is written how Tav Falco learned of the Panther Burn legend. A Memphis musician, the late Sid Selvidge, had been reared - so to speak - in the planter society of Greenville 34 miles distant from the community of Panther Burn. It was he who had related the legend to Falco to satisfy his curiosity. Mr. Moore is right in that 'it is not clear at all where this supposed lore came from.' Yet we have a reality that is irrefutable. We have the reality of a legend. As legend where concrete historical dates, names, and charters can only be implied, inferred or imagined. A reality that will forever remain a mystery and as such a legacy for which we can be grateful. Are we too eager to assault our minds and lives with purported historical facts, figures, and statistics in our quest to gleefully proclaim fiction over fact?

What is passed on by word of mouth and escapes the scrutiny of microscopic, analytical, methodical, deconstructive interrogation, might be that ineffable, elusive "rara materia" from which poetry, music, and art are created. When spoken stories do become legend, they become larger than life. One might howl: superstition! shadowy Romanticism! Well, yes. There are particles of these in all tales and legends. Yet legends loom larger than textbooks. We must approach legends on their own terms for they are larger than we are. We can perversely try to pick them apart and to deflate them, but they will always return. They will return because, in the end, you find that legends are drawn from fact however obscure; otherwise they would not exist. Nor would their supra-reality be one that lives and breathes across time, fashion, class, and culture.

The choice is ours. We can disregard legend, allow ourselves to be oppressed by it, or to be imaginatively stimulated, or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, or to charge off in all directions trying to live out legends. One thing is for sure. Legends loom larger than FATE itself.

As a final aside, the Memphis (b. Earle, Arkansas) artist, Carroll Cloar, entitled his painting on the legend as "Panther Bourne."