The conventional wisdom is that there is really only one Black fife-and-drum band left in America, that of Sharde Thomas in Panola County, so it was thrilling to see a second one at this year’s Juke Joint Festival, even if it shared a member with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. R. L. Boyce, a blues musician from Como has long held yard parties at his house, and some of these have featured fife-and-drum music. At the Cat Head stage at this year’s festival, Boyce brought out a fife-and-drum band which featured Otha Turner’s nephew, Andre Otha Evans on the flute, rather than the bass drum he customarily plays with the Rising Star. Perhaps it’s a sign that the tradition has some life remaining in it, at least in Mississippi.
Given the importance of Como, Mississippi in blues history, it is surprising and saddening that there is rarely any live blues to be heard in the little town, despite two popular restaurants and a recording studio. Nevertheless, there is abundant talent in the vicinity, as evidenced by the two records of Como-area singers released by the Daptone label. There is also R. L. Boyce, the senior statesman of Panola County blues musicians, whose career spans both the Hill Country guitar tradition of R. L. Burnside and also the endangered fife-and-drum traditions unique to the region of northern Panola County and southern Tate County in Mississippi. Boyce calls his band the Como Breakdown, and their spirited performance at Cat Head in Clarksdale Saturday was made even more exciting by the unexpected early appearance of Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside. Boyce established a rapport with the crowd early, and his band kept things jumping, even before the two songs he did with Burnside. He has recorded an album which is supposed to be coming out here in 2013.
After Easter morning services at my church, Easter Sunday proved to be dull indeed. I have no relatives in Memphis, my best friend had to work, and a lot of restaurants were closed. But I had seen on Facebook that Windy City Grille in Como, Mississippi would be open, and with evening church and choir practice canceled due to the holiday, I decided to drive down and have a leisurely lunch. Perhaps afterwards I could find a blues picnic, car show or something else to get into. I have to mention that Windy City Grille is an amazing restaurant with an incredible pizza recipe that is said to be similar to Uno’s in Chicago. Having never had Uno’s, I can’t say how Windy City compares, but it’s good enough that Memphis people used to occasionally make the drive to Como for it. More recently, a location has opened closer to Memphis in Hernando, and the food there is just as good, but I still prefer the Como location’s ambiance, and the town of Como itself. Next to the grille, I noticed a poster for a group called the Como Mamas, which I had never heard of until I was reading an article about Mississippi artists at South By Southwest. The three gospel singers are signed to Daptone Records, the same label that earlier had released the excellent Como Now compilation.
After lunch, I saw signs around the town of Como for a car show at a place called LP’s Ball Park, but try as I might, I could not find it. While trying to find it, I found something else, the beautiful Davis Chapel Church from 1851 on the Old Panola Road west of Sardis. When I finally stopped at the convenience store in Como and asked about the car show, I was told it had been postponed a week due to the weather. There was a Lightning Malcolm birthday party scheduled for 7 PM in Clarksdale, but that was still three hours away, and I couldn’t think of how I’d possibly kill three hours in Clarksdale on Easter Sunday. So I reluctantly drove on back to Memphis.
Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Sharde also plays the piano, and incorporates other styles of music into the band’s repertoire. North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, June 25, 2011
Few musical experiences can compare to the raw power of African-American fife and drum music. Unfortunately, this musical style once found throughout the south is now found only amongst the members of one extended family in Panola County, Mississippi. Sharde Thomas upholds the legacy of her grandfather Otha Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. They will be holding their annual picnic on the last weekend of August at Gravel Springs outside of Como, Mississippi.
Mississippi Fred McDowell, of course, is a legend. He was one of the first country bluesmen to be rediscovered and recorded by scholars, and toward the end of his life toured across the country and overseas. Although he would claim “I don’t play no rock-and-roll music”, songs he performed like “Get Right Church” were covered by the Rolling Stones, and he guest appeared on an album with Don Nix. So for the fan of Mississippi traditional blues, the first commercial issue of these field recordings made by the eminent blues scholar Bill Ferris is a welcome discovery. McDowell’s home community of Como is stuck just where the hill country meets the Delta, and likewise, McDowell’s blues style seems to cross-breed the hill country and Delta styles. There are familiar standards here, of course, like “John Henry” and “Little Red Rooster”, but also unusual original compositions like “Dream I Went to the U.N.” where the lyrics say he went to “set the nation right.” There are also gospel tunes, including “Get Right Church”, “I Got Religion”, “You Gonna Meet King Jesus” and McDowell’s take on “Where Could I Go?” a tune that springs from the white country gospel tradition. On various tunes, McDowell is joined by his wife Annie Mae, and his friend Napoleon Strickland on harmonica. On the final track is an excerpt of an interview with Bill Ferris regarding these recordings. Extensive liner notes and photos increase the value of this lovingly-conceived issue of recordings that resurrect a voice from the grave. To listen to “Come and Found You Gone” is almost like spending an afternoon with Mississippi Fred McDowell on his front porch.