Memphis’ Inner City Drumming Traditions With The Baby Blues Drumline #MMHF13

Bands, Dance, entertainment, events, music, videos


Drums and drumming have played a tremendous role in the cultural life of Memphis’ inner-city Black communities, throughout most of the 20th and 21st century. The popularity of drumlines in urban Black neighborhoods is of uncertain origin, but probably derives from Blacks serving as drummers in the US Army during the Civil War and in state militia units afterwards, the use of drums by fraternal organizations such as the Independent Pole Bearers Society, and possibly even rural fife-and-drum bands associated with Labor Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. What is certain is that by 1969, Memphis had begun having events called majorette jamborees, at which a squad of female majorettes performed dance routines to beats provided by a squad of young male drummers. Originally sponsored by schools, drumlines were soon organized by community organizations and community centers as well, and the drumming and dancing traditions of inner city Memphis were immensely popular until the late 1980’s or so, but unfortunately there has been a decline in the popularity of drumlines in Memphis over the last 20 years, as majorette groups have learned that they can design their routines to compact discs. So it is entirely appropriate that drumlines like the Baby Blues are highlighted at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, since this is another Memphis cultural tradition that is endangered. The Baby Blues are one of the last remaining Memphis drumlines that is not affiliated with any school, and is one of the city’s best, easily rivaling drumlines whose members are much older. They frequently appear in unexpected places, like Church Park during Africa in April, or Clarksdale during the Juke Joint Fest, and they always draw a crowd.

Exploring Key West’s Bahamian Village

Photography, Travel

To the southwest of Duval Street is Key West’s Black community, known as the Bahamian Village, presumably because many of the city’s Black residents came from the Bahamas. The area is rich with architectural history, and worth a visit, despite being under attack from military base expansion at one end, and creeping gentrification at the other. Among the things worth seeing are the historic Key West Lighthouse, several old church buildings, the historic former Douglass High School, now used as a community center, and the Bahamian Market on Petronia Street, which sadly was closed in the evening when I walked past it. There are also several modern restaurants, a few boutiques, and a bed and breakfast called the Caribbean House. Although it’s a bit away from the usual tourist areas, the Bahamian Village is not to be missed.

Failed and Forgotten Dreams on Jackson’s Farish Street

History, music, Night Clubs, Photography, Restaurants

Every Southern city had at least one “pleasure street” in its Black community, where there were night clubs, restaurants and large arenas for public gatherings. Memphis’ Beale Street was the most famous, perhaps, but Shreveport had Fannin Street, New Orleans had Dryades Street (now Oretha Haley Boulevard), and Jackson, Mississippi had Farish Street.
There has been some sort of talk about redeveloping Farish Street since 1983, so it was absolutely disheartening to see the sorry state of the street here in 2013. “Redevelopment” seems to have consisted of fencing off the first block of the street and placing gates at either end. The one new business on the street, F. Jones’ Corner, is a booming and going concern, but it was opened by private initiative a few years ago. Aside from a few new historic markers, the rest of the street is rapidly collapsing, and soon there will be nothing left to redevelop.
One large building on the right-hand side of the street as I faced north had a faint painted sign still visible near its roof which read “Palace Auditorium.” The man sitting on the bench in front of it explained to me that it had once been “Caesar’s Palace Auditorium”, but that when city officials had discovered that the owner Caesar was Black, they made him remove his name from it. The man with whom I was speaking told me that he was the proprietor of Dennis Brothers Shoe Service across the street, one of only three Black-owned businesses which remain in the historic district. “The redevelopment is just an effort to get us out of here so that the white folks can take over,” he said. “They need to tear it all down. They’ve waited too late.” Indeed many of the buildings show signs of roof damage, or in some cases, total roof collapse.
Walking with him over to a large concrete marker that read “Brown’s Circle”, I asked him about it. He said that there had been a residential area on the next street over, known as Young’s Alley, and that Brown’s Circle was a street leading to it, and that it also had a residential area.
Aside from some Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity members who were having a function at the Alamo Theater, and the handful of people inside Peaches’ Restaurant, Farish Street was largely devoid of people on a Saturday afternoon. Up the street at a club called the Krystal Palace, people were setting up for a outdoor crawfish festival and music performance, but that area was outside the historic district. And even there, the street was more abandoned than occupied.
As for what has gone wrong, nobody is in agreement. The developer blames the recession and the difficulty of getting financing from banks. The first club that was to have opened, a B. B. King’s location, found that the building they intended to occupy had no foundation, adding millions of dollars to the cost of renovations. For my part, I am beginning to question the wisdom of city-driven initiatives to create entertainment districts. They either seem to lead to fake, touristy travesties like 4th Street Live in Louisville or Beale Street in Memphis, or they lead to costly, abandoned failures like Shreveport’s John Elkington-designed Texas Street. (Elkington was briefly the lead developer on Farish Street). One wonders what would happen if cities restricted their involvement to zoning, tax breaks and longer operating hours for restaurants and bars, and left the rest to private enterprise. Memphis’ most booming redevelopments such as Cooper-Young, Overton Square, South Main Arts District and Broad Avenue Arts District have largely been accomplished by local and private initiative. The city did not feel the need to acquire the buildings, choose a developer, etc. Perhaps it is time for Jackson to put the buildings on Farish Street up for sale (historic designation prevents the risk of demolition) and allow private interests to redevelop the street. The city could use appearance guidelines and ordinances to tweak the direction of redevelopment without the inevitable boondoggle of direct control. But as the photos I took indicate, time is rapidly running out.

Wanting Their Cake and Eating It Too

Politics

It’s absolutely amazing to watch a lot of suburban and out-of-town residents object to the renaming of Confederate-themed parks in a overwhelmingly Black city that many of them abandoned years ago and wouldn’t think of moving back into now. Why would you care about what a city where you used to live names its parks? Ultimately, if it is really that important to them that Memphis honor the founder of the Ku Klux Klan with a park name, they should move back into the city so that they will have a vote and a legitimate say-so. Otherwise, they should be quiet. The existing names of Jefferson Davis Park, Confederate Park and Forrest Park are offensive to probably as much as 85% of the current residents of Memphis, and they should not be forced to accept this because of the opinions of people who no longer live in Memphis or never did.