R. L. Burnside was one of the most famous musicians in the blues tradition of the North Mississippi Hill Country, and many of his children and grandchildren have carried on that great tradition, including Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R.L. who is accomplished on both the guitar and the drums. After coming to prominence as part of a duo with another Mississippi bluesman, Lightning Malcolm, he more recently has formed a band called the Cedric Burnside Project, which is really just him on drums and Trenton Ayers on guitar (I suspect that Trenton Ayers is kin to the older Marshall County bluesman Little Joe Ayers). On Saturday June 21, Cedric brought his music to the Levitt Shell in Memphis’ Overton Park, and an overflow crowd despite hit and run showers early in the evening. Beginning on acoustic guitar, Burnside soon switched to drums, and performed most of the Hill Country standards, including “Coal Black Mattie”, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride”, and even the late Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In The City.” It was a great evening of great Mississippi blues.
There is a Black marching band tradition which is distinct from its white equivalent, despite points of similarity, and, not surprisingly, that tradition is deeply loved in Memphis. In fact, the city has had some legendary band directors, including Jimmie Lunceford, the internationally-known big band star who was Manassas High School’s first band director, or Emerson Able, also at Manassas, or W. T. McDaniel at Booker T. Washington or Tuff Green at Melrose High School. Memphis musicians routinely enrich the Black college marching bands at Pine Bluff or Jackson State or Tennessee State. But the band culture doesn’t end during the summer, either, as there are alumni bands like the Memphis Mass Band, comprised of former HBCU band members, as well as current musicians home from college for the break, and perhaps a few high school students as well, and these summer aggregations battle each other during the summer months. This past weekend, the Memphis Mass Band battled its Birmingham equivalent, the Magic City All-Stars Band at Oakhaven Stadium during what was billed as the HBCU Alumni Weekend. About a hundred or more people turned out to see these two all-star bands battle, and I was impressed with the quality of both bands. The Memphis Mass Band was the larger of the two, but both groups had great arrangements, and a tightness and togetherness that I don’t always hear in established college bands. And the arrangements were largely unfamiliar to me and fresh. The Memphis band’s unexpected reading of Johnnie Taylor’s “Running Out of Lies” was definitely the high point in my opinion. I might add that despite a lot of trash talk between the bands, there was not one untoward incident. Just good fun and great music.
Our whole goal for the afternoon had been to make it to Indianola for lunch, but we were in for a disappointment, because when we got there, we found that the Blue Biscuit, where we had intended to eat, was not open for lunch on Wednesdays. So we went across the street to the Gin Mill Grill instead, and then over to Church Street, which was the traditional street for juke joints in Indianola. We found that the walls of the Blues Corner Cafe (or Cozy Corner Cafe) were painted with interesting murals full of wit, wisdom and portraits of Delta life and blues legends. The murals were also found on the adjacent White Rose Cafe, which is now the Motor Mouse Motorcycle Club, and even included a 2Pac portrait with the words “Thug Life” and “Only God Can Judge Me.” A banner in a nearby vacant lot promoted the Church Street Festival, which is being held on Saturday June 28th, as a way of celebrating the historic Black neighborhood’s legacy. The event is being organized by Charles McLaurin, a former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and COFO leader, and perhaps not coincidentally will take place during the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project.
Often in Mississippi, the coming of railroads led to the formation of new towns that led to the death of the older original communities in counties, but that was not always the case. In Carroll County, the old historic county seat in the western half of the county was Carrollton (the eastern county seat was at Vaiden), but the coming of the railroad in the late 19th century led to creation of a new town called North Carrollton along the railroad tracks. But unlike the usual scenario, perhaps because the new townsite and the old townsite were separated only by a creek, there was no wholesale relocation of the old town to the new town, but rather both continued to co-exist, as they still do today. North Carrollton has the look of a railroad town of its era, but the real charm is in Carrollton, which is remarkably well-preserved. Its historic court square has been lovingly restored, and while there is not a lot of business (most commercial firms and restaurants seem to be in North Carrollton), tourists will enjoy the museum and historic churches and buildings.
Holcomb, Mississippi is a little unincorporated town in western Grenada County, Mississippi at the junction of two railroads and three highways. It is a rather sprawling town of streets, and with its strategic location, it seems rather strange that the town never incorporated formally as a city, and even stranger that it apparently never really grew into what it could have been. Today its old Main Street along the railroad right of way is largely abandoned.
My homeboy Travis McFetridge, the owner of Great South Bay Music publishing firm, was down from New York City for an event sponsored by the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy in Jackson, Mississippi, so we decided to drive down through the Delta on Wednesday June 11, and I decided to go backroads so that he would see a different Mississippi than that offered by I-55. Once we left the interstate, the first town we came to was Charleston, Mississippi, a town that I had been to only once before, and which is one of Tallahatchie County’s two county seats (the other is Sumner). Charleston has the traditional courthouse square that is typical of so many Mississippi towns, but what was more interesting was the painted mural honoring three legends from Tallahatchie County, actor Morgan Freeman, jazz musician Mose Allison and blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson. The town also has some interesting-looking clubs and jukes, which suggests it might be worthy of a deeper investigation on a future trip.
Memphis’ young new C3 Blues Band was formed toward the end of last year, and has been gigging mostly in Jackson, Tennessee, with an occasional Memphis appearance here and there, so I was thrilled when I heard that they would be playing on a Tuesday night at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street. The Rum Boogie is one of the oldest clubs on Beale Street, and one of the most popular, and this was the band’s first opportunity to perform on the legendary street in Memphis. C3 was originally a sort of blues power trio, but in recent weeks has added a second guitarist. For the Rum Boogie gig, they also added a saxophonist, and some new songs as well, particularly an amazing reading of the blues standard “As The Years Go Passing By”, which was the most impressive song from their first set. By the middle of their second set, the dance floor was filled.
I don’t ever recall any June in Memphis being this wet, but one of the upsides to the extensive rain (besides the cooler temperatures) has been the frequency of rainbows in and around Memphis. This one appeared over the Booker T. Washington High School area of South Memphis as I was heading down to Beale Street to see my homeboys in the C3 Band perform at the Rum Boogie Cafe.
Cameron Bethany is one of Memphis’ best soul singers, and the Hard Hitters, led by drummer Mike Mosby, is one of Memphis’ best soul bands, so they were a natural choice to kick off the weekly Unplugged Fridays at K-2 Ultra Lounge on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis. Each Friday, beginning at 9 PM, the band plays two sets of excellent contemporary jazz and neo-soul.
Each year Memphis rap artist Lionheart sponsors a block party on Tate Avenue in South Memphis, featuring live rap performances and free barbecue. The purpose of the Tate Street Block Party is both to encourage youth against violence and also to promote and showcase local music talent. This year, the high points included a young rapper named Tve Bandz (pronounced “Tae Bandz”) who performed along with his even younger sister Breeze, as well as an appearance from the group AirBorn Academy from South Memphis. But there were also a number of newer artists, including one young man called This Some Major. The afternoon was full of music, food and fun, with no incidents whatsoever.