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.