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I rolled into Leland around 10 am on the morning of June 10, 2000, with the idea of parking the Bluesmobile in front of Boss Hall's juke joint and walking across the tracks to the First Annual Highway 61 Blues Festival. (Looking at the above map, the festival was located in the triangular area where the railroad tracks intersect slightly west of Boss Hall's.) To my surprise there on the sidewalk stood Boss Hall.|
Notice Boss's t-shirt. It's a photo of Boss I took in 1995 and that is posted on Boss's main page on this site. (Click here for a look at it.) Around the photo, the words read, Boss Hall's juke joint, Leland, Mississippi.
The woman with him in the photo is a dynamite lady named Barbara Brooks, Leland City Alderwoman. I call her "dynamite" not because she's in a small package but because she's been a force for change in Leland, including helping to organize the Highway 61 Blues Festival. I think she should run for governor or for the U.S. Senate.
I shot the bull with Boss and Barbara for a few minutes, then headed down the street for the festival. Here's a mural painted on the side of a building a couple of blocks west of Boss Hall's. It's overlapping portraits of Leland area blues musicians. If you look closely you'll find Little Milton, Eddie Cusic, John Horton, Sam Chatmon, Son Thomas and others. Thanks to people like Boss Hall and Barbara Brooks the City of Leland now shows pride in its blues tradition. When I visited Leland in 1995, you could cut the racial tension with a knife. In 2000, I saw and felt only racial harmony and municipal progress. It is amazing what five years and equal representation can do.
Here's Boogaloo Ames onstage and pounding the ivories. Boogaloo must be 80 years old, and he looks like he doesn't have the strength to get out of bed in the morning. The first time I saw him was back in 1995 when I attended the Memphis/Delta Music Heritage Conference in Greenville. Part of the program included dinner one late afternoon in the C & G Depot Restaurant. Part of the dinner program included entertainment by two folks I had never heard ofsomebody named Eden Brent and Boogaloo Ames.
Well, I'm much more comfortable around turnip greens and cornbread eating cotton field folks than I am around escargot eating high falutin' restaurant folks, so after hors de oars and a watered-down drink or two, I'm standing around outside trying to clear the high society air from my nose. In the parking lot about 20 yards or so in front of me, up pulled a car. Out stepped a drop-dead gorgeous blonde. She wore a skin-tight jet-black dress and high heels. I watched closely, needless to say. Her high heels clicking in time to the beat of my heart, she walked around the car to the passenger side and opened the door. Then she ever-so-carefully helped an ancient and tiny black man from the car. Free from the confines of the car, he ever-so-carefully stood. He wore a black felt hat, and a black suit at least four sizes too large hung in folds from his elfin frame.
He wobbled back and forth as she removed her helping hand from his arm and closed the door. I almost walked over to them and asked if I could help. Her holding tightly to his arm again, they started toward the restaurant's front door. He walked like Charlie Chaplin, only much slower. He even looked like Charlie Chaplin, but with black skin. By then, my brain realized that there before me walked the most unusual-looking couple my eyes had ever gazed uponEden Brent and Boogaloo Ames.
I followed them inside the restaurant where they soon took seats at twin electronic pianos. Then came one of the most entertaining acts I ever witnessed. In perfect harmony, they played everything from classical to blues to rock ‘n' roll to boogie woogie. For a man with barely the strength to walk, Boogaloo Ames's hands flew across the keyboard like the hands of Jerry Lee Lewis.
The Highway 61 Blues Festival organizers astutely decided to let local food vendors on the grounds for free. Thus lots of inexpensive good food. There's more food vendors out of sight to the left and to the right of the picture.
Here's closeups of the pits in the above photo.
During the afternoon heat, most of the crowd gathered under a huge tent out in front of the bandstand. In the photo on the right the camera looks west toward the bandstand in the far background. The barbeque pits shown above sit to the left, and to the far right you see more food vendors and cars on the railroad tracks. The smiling policeman is Leland City Narcotics Officer Elvin Wheatley, age 33. Officer Wheatley is a good example of the kind of cops you meet in the Deltaa smiling black man. A blues tourist has no better friend.
The June heat finally got to me, and, around 6 pm, I had to leave the festival and head to Boss Hall's air conditioner. People milled up and down North Main Street, and a crowd outside Boss Hall's stood on the sidewalk socializing and watching everyone else. It reminded me of Nelson Street in Greenville during Delta Blues Festival Weeklike a black Bourbon Street.
A stocky fellow I shall call Turkey Man and wearing a Boss Hall's t-shirt was busily turning over turkey legs on Boss's outside barbeque pit$2 each and cooked to perfection according to Turkey Man. A Chevy van had backed into the parking space beside the Bluesmobile. The van's rear doors were open to the sidewalk, and the owner sat in a lawn chair facing the open doors. Just inside the rear of the van and in reach of the owner sat a two-burner Coleman camping stove. On each burner sat a #10 can filled with hot tamales$3 for six and $5.50 for a dozen. In the center of the van sat a rusty, chest-type deepfreeze. On the top and on the side of the freezer facing the van's open side doors was spray painted
Here's another North Main Street vendor of hot tamales and one with an unusual shop. (I took the photo a few days after the festival, thus the empty street.) He's Terrance Ford, 35. He said he'd been making and selling hot tamales out of his buggy for 20 years. When I asked him why he mounted that model ship to the front of the buggy, he answered, "‘Cause people think it's pretty."
When I asked about the taste of his hot tamales, he answered, "They the best in town."
"How about that?" I asked an innocent bystander. "His hot tamales that good?"
"They good! They good!" the man said and ducked inside the nearest doorway.
On the right, there's Boss standing just inside the front door and munching on a rib and wearing a cowboy hat. "What'd you say on that web page about that picture?" he said to me. "Put a cowboy hat on Boss's head and the picture'd look like it was took in 1860? Well here's the cowboy hat!"
I took this picture and then said, "John Wayne ain't got nothin' on Boss Hall!"
Ernestine was born and raised in a shotgun house on Long Switch Plantation near the little community of Long, Mississippi, which is near Holly Springs, final resting place of bluesman Charley Patton. For a map to Long and Holly Springs and Charley, click here. To see the same map and to read about my adventures in Holly Springs, click here.
Segar Dude went outside to check out the action, so I took his seat at the bar. Ernestine came from around the bar and sat beside me. Whoa! Speaking of action!
Boss Hall soon joined us at the bar and in our conversation. I'm half deaf, so he quickly got tired of me saying "Huh?" and turned down the volume on the DJ system. Boss is one of my favorite conversationalists. We again solved all the problems of the Delta. If the price is right, the State Department could send us to Bosnia. After a while in came Turkey Man. "Hey," he said. "What happened to the music?"
"We're talkin'," Boss said.
"Talkin'?!" exclaimed Turkey Man. Then he pointed down to the word juke on his Boss Hall's juke joint, Leland, Mississippi t-shirt and said, "What does that word say? This ain't no talk joint! It's a juke joint!" With that, he turned up the volume on the DJ system even louder than before. End of conversation.
Ernestine had to take care of bartending duties, and Boss drifted off somewhere on some kind of Boss business. I started outside. I took this photo, the last one, near the front door because I liked the contrast of yellow and blue. It's Boss Hall's juke joint's front window as you can see by the sign. The blue plastic material on the wall once covered a cotton module in the edge of a cotton field.
Outside, the sun had set and the milling crowd had increased. From the blackness on the other side of the tracks and from over the railroad cars parked there, I could see the glow of festival lights, and I could hear a band. I strained my ears and heard Willie Foster's harmonica. The thought crossed my mind to return to the festival, but I knew I was much too tired. So I stood there and talked to whomever wanted to talk. I discussed hot tamales and watermelons with the old man in the Chevy van. A middle aged man who taught math in a local school walked up, and we talked about the Internet and a great guy named W.C. "Boss" Hall.
It's mostly curiosity on their part, but if I'm standing outside a juke joint or sitting at the bar inside a juke joint, black people, especially guys, will walk up to me and start a conversation. The conversation will soon get around to who I am and what I am and why I'm there. When they find out what they want to know about me, they tell me some of the damnest things.
Soon after the math teacher walked away, up stepped a 30ish and neatly dressed fellow. In a couple of minutes he knew the who, what, and why of me. In the same couple of minutes, I knew that he was as intelligent as Boss Hall. We started talking about basically what Boss and I talk aboutthe Delta and why white and black people can't get along. After a while I voiced my opinion that, in Leland, things looked much better between the races than they did on my visit five years ago.
"That's because we've got an agreement with the white people here," he said.
"We agree to get along."
He started telling me the who, what, and why of himself. "I work at the ag research center here in Leland," he said. "We got some of the smartest people in the world working there. We got about 20 Ph.D.'s. We got Ph.D.'s in cotton. We got Ph.D.'s in plain ole plants. We got Ph.D.'s in insecticides. We got Ph.D.'s in weeds. We got Ph.D.'s in weed killers. If it grows in a field or if you need to kill it, we got somebody with a Ph.D. in it.
"I've been out there for 15 years," he continued. "Makin' that $19 an hour. Hell, they couldn't run me off."
"What do you do at the ag center?" I asked.
"Mostly I'm out there in a field at one o'clock in the morning with a light trying to catch bugs a-f_____g."
"Hell, I don't care what they tell me to do long as I'm makin' that $19 an hour."
"Ah . . . you did say ‘bugs a-f_____g,' didn't you?"
"Yeah. If I catch two a-f_____g, I yell, Wouuuuueeeeeee! and them Ph.D.'s come a-runnin'."
"Ah . . . why do they want to catch bugs a-f_____g?"
"Pheromones. Sex hormones."
"Oh!" I said, beginning to see the light.
"If we can catch ‘em a-f_____g, them Ph.D.'s can make artificial bug pussy."
"You got to be kiddin' me."
"Nope, I ain't kiddin'. There ain't no better way to catch a bug than in a trap baited with artificial pussy."
Later that night, my belly full of hot tamales and barbequed turkey legs and ice cold beer, I crawled inside my airconditioned tent. Over the soft hum of the compressor motor I could hear the chirping cacophony of forest insects as they. . . . Well, you know what they were probably doing. . . .