Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Bolivar, TN has a connection to Tunica County that goes back to 1847.  Judge Austin Miller, who lived in Bolivar, gave the land for the new county seat in that year, and it was named Austin in his honor.  He was an attorney and Tennessee state legislator that owned land in Tunica County. The barn he built right before the Civil War still stands across the road from the house site of the old plantation headquarters, about a mile or so from Austin.
Bill Miller has written an historical novel centered around Magnolia Manor, Austin Miller’s’ home in Bolivar built in 1849 with slave labor.  Austin Miller was his great-great grandfather and his great-great grandmother was Sophia, a slave.  His book, "Seeds Of Magnolia", tells the story of the people that  lived in that house.  It also gives an account of the time during the Civil War when Magnolia Manor was occupied by the Union Army and used as a Headquarters; Generals Logan, McPherson, Sherman and Grant lodged there.
In 1868, Austin Miller visited his Tunica County plantation without notifying the caretaker, so no one met him when the steamboat docked at Austin.  It was winter, and he walked the mile and a half to his headquarters through a couple of inches of slush and snow. He caught cold, got pneumonia, and died at his Tunica County home.
Bill Miller says the family stories handed down to him seemed important enough to capture in writing, and that is just what he has done in “Seeds Of Magnolia”. He will be the guest of the Tunica Arts Council on October 6, 2017, to talk about his book.

Here is a link that tells about the Miller home in Bolivar - and a bit of history, too:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fiddlin' Joe Martin was recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax at the commissary at Clack, just North of Robinsonville, Mississippi; he played mandolin on the Son House recording of "Walkin' Blues". He also accompanied Willie Brown on several numbers from that era, including "Future Blues". In August, 1967, he played drums on the recording of "How Long" made at Robinsonville by Woodrow Adams. (info from the Internet)
Fiddlin Joe is documented on Son House's Blues Trail Marker at Clack, MS. Here is the link:
July 16, 2011
Tom Sanders grew up in Robinsonville, Mississippi; he told me, "I saved Fiddlin' Joe's life!" Here is Tom’s story:
Fiddlin Joe's wife Rosie was our cook. She and Fiddlin' Joe lived out back of our house probably 25 yards, in our garage which had been converted into a two room tenant house to accommodate them. I never knew of him playing the fiddle. I think his nickname was acquired by the many instruments he fooled around with. He was a great guitar player, but his left hand was burned, therefore, he played the guitar in open tunings so as not to have to make chords.
Willie Shaw was out of (the penetentiary at) Parchman and he was notorious for being there; he had been there and out a couple of times already and had come back to work for Mr. B. F. Harbert. Fiddlin' Joe, being a guitar picker, enjoyed a special status, and, as you can imagine, stood out from the rest - and just naturally liked women. Apparently, upon arriving home from Parchman Farm, Willie learned that Fiddlin' Joe had been messin’ with his woman.
The fight started in Rosie's and Fiddlin' Joe's house one morning about 8:00 in about June of 1959 when I was 15 years old. I was asleep but was awakened by the noise. Fiddlin' Joe had run to our house - he was on the back porch. Willie Shaw had a switch blade knife and Fiddlin' Joe didn't have anything.
At that time we did not have a clothes dryer and just hung everything on the back porch to dry. Willie and Fiddlin' Joe were slowed somewhat by the hanging clothes and I heard my grandmother screaming, so I got my shotgun and went to the back porch and stopped the fight. I told Willie Shaw to go home and wait for the law, and called the ambulance for Fiddlin' Joe.
I called my mother and father's store and told them what had happened and they called the sheriff. Sure enough, Willie Shaw was waiting at home when the sheriff got there. Joe required stitches in many places; I'd estimate he probably had 7 or 8 cuts on his upper body.
If I had not stopped the fight, Willie Shaw would have killed Fiddlin' Joe with that switchblade knife!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Old Austin As Seen By Colonel W.G. Jaquess

From the July 15, 1926 issue of The Tunica Times-Democrat.

Note: W.G. Jaquess was the son of Colonel James F. Jaquess, who commanded an Illinois regiment during the Civil War and came to Tunica County as a "carpetbagger" in 1866, and was appointed Probate Clerk by the Union occupation general. Too young to be a soldier, he served as a drummer boy in his father's Illinois regiment in the Union Army. The title, "Colonel", given to him in Tunica County, reveals that he was a respected citizen, even though from "up North" (1.)
Tunica County organized in 1837. County site located at Commerce. Remained there a few years and moved to Kerr's Landing on the Mississippi River, known then as Peyton, now known as O.K.Landing. The Court House was a two story log house, and was standing a few years ago. Later moved to Austin, where it remained until 1889, when it was moved to Tunica. This article is intended more a history of Austin than of the County. It might, however, be interesting to mention a few of the settlers of the county before the Civil War. Not having written records to which to refer, I will have to rely upon my personal recollections of persons and events.

Among the residents of the county before the Civil War, I recall the following with whom, with one or two exceptions, I was personally acquainted.
At and near Commerce, Ransom Burns, Richard Abbay, Ed Dale, Polk Tatum, and De Be Voise.
Along and near Kinney Bayou, McPeaks, Fletchers, Kinneys, Judge Archibald, Wright, (Father of Gen'l Luke Wright, Secretary of War).
Near where Tunica now located, Phillips, White's, Col. Hunt, J.M. Owens (grand father of the present Owens'), Don Dockery living in Hernando, a fine old ex-Confederate, Tom Saunders (father of Eva a noted actress recently died).
On Coldwater River where Savage is located, Andy Hudson, who operated the ferry, Savages', Evans', Dollahiden, Askews', and Mottley's.
In and near Austin, J.D.Ussery, Dr. Bostick, E.G. Mitchell, Bump Wormeley, Houck, Turner, Dr. J.F.Sample, Dr. J.M.Phillips, Dr. J.C.Nelson, Judge A.M. Clayton, John McCann, J.H.Anderson, F.T.Neblett (father of little sister, John Neblett), Gatewood's, Kelly's, and Austin Miller for whom the town named.
From Austin South, J. B. Carnes, Rivers', Perkins', Dr. C.E.Nash, Ferguson's, Smith's, Trotter's, Rand's, Alexander's, Bradley's, Avant's, Wendle's, Dr. Dunlop, Barkesdale's, Berriam Weathers, Col. John Powell, Lt.I.N.brown of the Confederate navy, and Jacob Thompson, just across the line in Coahoma county, Treasurer of the Confederate States, and for whom a large reward offered after the war. J.K. Jeffries, father of Maud a noted actress, still living.

Quite a number of the above named lived on, and operated their own property, but some lived away but visited quite often. They were pioneers and aided largely in clearing the lands. The country was very wild, not a church in the county for whites when I came 60 years ago(1866), not a school house, but one bridge built of lumber by a carpenter, all bridges were made of logs rolled into the bayou's and dirt thrown on them to prevent floating during high water, these bridges served very well during low water, but when the river was high, we swam the bayou's.

When buying a saddle horse, about the first question was, is he a good swimmer, and frequently a sale could not be made until tested as to his swimming qualities. Some animals would swim so low in the water as to wet one to the arm pits, and again, one could stand in the saddle and not get their feet wet, you can readily see the importance of a good swimming animal. Sixty years ago(1866), there was not a buggy in the county, all travel by horseback or wagon.

The first church built for whites was erected by a Mrs. Wilson, who lived on the place now known as the Crews place, just east of Trotters Landing, this was a very small building, about 18 X 20 feet, but easily accommodated the congregation. In 1874 a Methodist church was erected in Austin, and is still being used now by the colored people. In 1871 school houses were being erected.

In the early 50's a levee was built, it was a very small levee. During the war this levee was washed away practically. In 1871 another levee was begun, much larger than the old one. This protected us until the very high water of 1882 when it was almost entirely washed away. In 1885 the present system of levees began, as to its ability to protect the country is too well known to comment upon.

It might be of interest to mention the sheriffs since the Civil War. I give them in the order in which they served: J.F. Sample, Isaac Boatman, F.S. Belcher, M.J. Manning, W.G. Jaquess, I.L.McKee, J.H. Owen, J.B. Harris, J. H. Johnson (served 10 years), T.O. King, Dr. F.L. Hope, A. S. Ivey, I.G. Owens, J.L. Savage, E.G. Woolfolk, E.T. Woolfolk, J. Mack Cox, and the present incumbent William Nichols.

The town of Austin was settled when the county was formed. It is a beautiful site for a town, high dry and sandy, no mud. During the war the entire town was burned except the residence of Mrs. Parmer. After the war a court house was built, and in its day, was considered a fine structure, its cost being around 69,000 dollars. In drawing the plans to the building, a stair way to the second story was overlooked, and no place provided for one. To remedy this, they had two stair ways built of iron, and placed them on the front porch, not having any too much room, they were made winding, on the order of a corkscrew (now out of existence). These stair ways were quite eunique and caused many favorable comments.

The court room was large, well ventilated and lighted, and the young folks found it a splendid place for dancing, for which it was frequently used. And usually once a month for preaching purposes.

The town of Austin never exceeded five or six hundred persons. More like one large family than any town to be found. Its location at that time on the channel of the Mississippi river, it was visited by all kinds of people, many very rough characters, this is the principal reason why it achieved the name of being the worst town on the river between Cairo and New Orleans. However, it did not deserve this name. The citizens were quiet and peaceable, but at all times and under all circumstances perfectly able to take care of themselves, if any one came into the town with a chip on his shoulder looking for trouble, they were sure to find it and that quickly.

I lived in the town for twenty years and during that time about ten men were killed and two wounded who recovered, usually the first shot did its work. In nearly every instance, except possibly one, the party was justifiable it being a question as to who could draw more quickly.

No one ever lived in Austin in its palmy days who did not dearly love the town. And now, to meet an old Austin-ite, he or she will speak of it in the most tender terms, and recall fond recollections.
In 1883, the railroad having reached a point east of Austin, and the river having changed its course so that it was necessary to go about two miles to a landing, we realized that it would not be long before the county site would be moved. But loving our town as we did, we fought the question of removal as so long as we could. But finally in 1888, the people demanded a vote upon the question of removal, and if removed where, and election was held in the summer of that year to decide the question. Robinsonville, Hollywood, Tunica, and Evansville became contenders for the location

In this election, all persons over the age of 21 duly registered were allowed to vote irrespective of race or color. You can imagine the "hot" time especially when votes were on the market for a sum as low as a dollar each. Robinsonville and Hollywood being too far from the center of the county, it became apparent that the contest would be between Tunica and Evansville. When the vote was counted, it was found that Tunica had won by the small margin of 37 votes, and the question of the county was settled. The Board of Supervisors at once had plans prepared for a Court House and Jail, and the contract let for the sum of 23,000 dollars. It was estimated that the court house cost 19,000 dollars and the jail 4,000 dollars (not the present jail, the original one burned) and were paid for in cash without a bond issue or notes being issued.

In April 1889 the records were moved from Austin to Tunica, and the doom of old Austin settled. But notwithstanding, I make the assertion that whenever or wherever an old Austin-ite may be met, he or she, would in the language of Elizabeth Ayres in her "Rock me to sleep" say: "Backward turn backward oh time in your flight, make me an Austin-ite again for to-night."

(1.) Tunica County - Scraps of History, Library of Congress Number: 2005909553, Xlibris Corporation, Copyright 2006, John W, Dulaney, Jr., p.25

Friday, January 30, 2009

Son House

One of the most powerful of the Mississippi Delta bluesman was Eddie James "Son" House (1902-1988). One source notes that Son House "pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music." House was also an important influence on MS Delta bluesmen Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. And as previously noted on this blog, although he was born in Coahoma County just outside of Clarksdale, his most creative years were spent in Robinsonville in north Tunica County.

You can read more about Son House here and here.

In the meantime, check out Son House playing "Death Letter Blues":

Here he performs "Forever On My Mind":

Check him out doing "Downhearted Blues":

Here he performs "Levee Camp Blues":

In this video he does "Preachin' Blues":

And don't miss his powerful a cappella performance of "John the Revelator":

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tunica County is Also Home of the Blues

By Sterling Owen IV

The Tunica Times June 13, 1996

Given the recent upsurge in the popularity of blues music, it's not surprising that some of Tunica’s more populous neighbors have been making strong public claims about being the “birthplace of the blues" or "home of the blues”. For the most part, their claims are justified, and the efforts for which they seek support are very worthy. Clarksdale has been the birthplace of an unbelievable number of blues greats and their Delta Blues Museum is one of our region’s genuine treasures. Memphis was the first great urban center of the blues, and they are working hard to make Beale Street the bustling center of blues performance and history that it should be. Helena's King Biscuit Blues Festival has become a national and international event, and their Delta Cultural Center provides a moving experience of our region’s history.

However, it is possible that these highly visible centers of development have left residents of rural Delta areas feeling that they don’t share as fully in the heritage of the blues. Nothing could be further from the truth. In particular, the contributions of our own North Delta county have literally affected the course of popular music worldwide. The following is just a partial list of some of the figures who have made Tunica County one of the homes of the blues.

Son House - A colorful but tragic figure, House struggled all his life with his conflicting desires to be both a Baptist preacher and a hard-drinking bluesman. He eventually recorded both secular and spiritual songs with equal, awe-inspiring, fervor.

Born in Coahoma County at the turn of the century, House spent his most creative years in Robinsonville. During the 30's House made his first recordings, traveled with Charlie Patton, and served as a mentor to Robert Johnson. In '42, folklorist Alan Lomax made historic Library of Congress field recordings of House in the commissary at Clack. Also during the '40s, Howlin' Wolf, not yet the blues great he was to become, played the area juke joints with House.

When the folk revival of the mid-60's brought a new audience to the blues, Son House and his music were discovered. Although no longer in his prime, he was able to make a number of festival appearances and fine recordings. Also, House's interviews from this period provide one of the most lucid records of the classic era of the Delta blues.

Willie Brown - Among legendary blues musicians, Brown is an odd case. He's held in very high esteem by blues lovers, but almost entirely on the basis of his work with other musicians. Born near Cleveland in 1900, Brown began playing the blues during his teens, and from about that time on he lived on the Kirby plantation on the northern edge of Tunica County.

Both on record and in live performance, he was a regular sideman to Charlie Patton, the Delta blues' first great "superstar." Memphis Minnie, one of the greatest female blues players, was a close associate during the early '20s. Later Brown and Son House became close friends and musical partners. Brown appears alongside House in the 1942 Library of Congress recordings mentioned above. Besides these and his Patton accompaniments, however, there exist only two recorded examples of Brown's work, "Future Blues" and "M & O Blues".

Despite the sparseness of his recorded output, Brown’s contribution to the blues should not be underestimated. To have become the closest associate of Patton, one of the greatest Mississippi bluesmen, was no small accomplishment. Also, his collaborations with House served more than once as a major inspiration to up-and-coming blues giants; both Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf studied the House/Brown team closely. Quite a few people recognize Brown's name as that of the “friend” Robert Johnson mentions in his famous "Crossroad Blues," which has been performed extensively by blues and rock bands alike.

Robert Johnson - possibly the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, was born in Hazlehurst, MS in 1911. When Johnson was a small child, his family moved to Robinsonville, where he was inspired to become a bluesman by the examples of Son House and Willie Brown.
Johnson's earliest attempts to play guitar weren't very impressive, though. In fact, they brought him open ridicule from House and Brown. But after disappearing from the Robinsonville area for a while, Johnson returned with musical abilities that astonished his old heroes.

Of course, Johnson probably became a great musician the same way many others have: through a combination of determined effort and natural talent. But the transformation he made from fumbling beginner to brilliant virtuoso was so startling that a legend grew up around it. According to this legend, Johnson's musical gifts were such that he could only have acquired them by selling his soul to the devil.

Robert Johnson's music has often been cited as a strong formative influence on rock and roll. Songs about him have been record by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Lynard Skynard, and many others. Also, Muddy Waters and other Mississippi natives who pioneered the Chicago blues were deeply influenced by Johnson’s style. He was truly a musical giant whose legacy transcends genre.

In 1938 Johnson died as a result of poisoning. Over fifty years later, in 1990 when Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings was released, it sold over 500,000 copies and was awarded a Grammy.

Dr. Ross - Though he's not as well known to American fans as the other Tunica bluesmen, Isaiah ''Dr." Ross made many great recordings and had a strong European audience from the 1960s until his death in the early '90s. He also holds an interesting place in blues history as one of the best examples of a one-man band, accompanying his songs with harmonica, guitar, and percussion played simultaneously. In Ross's hands this format was no mere novelty. Although harmonica was his strongest instrument, he became very proficient at the others. Also, since all of the instruments were under the control of a single musician, his guitar and harmonica were able to interact in ways that would have been almost impossible for multiple musicians.

Born in Tunica in 1925, Ross began appearing on live radio for KFFA, WROX, and WDIA during the '40s. The broadest exposure for Ross's music probably came when Eric Clapton's band Cream recorded his "Cat Squirrel" for their first album.

James Cotton - Cotton usually lists his 1935 birthplace as Tunica, but if you're from the area he'll tell you that the real site was a few miles south at Clayton. As a youngster, Cotton heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the "King Biscuit Time" radio show from Helena, and he knew that he wanted to be like that great singer/harmonica player. At nine years old, Cotton ran away from home and was taken in by Williamson, who taught him to play the blues. Just a few years later, in 1948, Cotton made his first recording as a harmonica sideman for another blues great Howlin’ Wolf. He was also soon to make records of his own for Memphis’ legendary Sun label. For a teenage boy, Cotton’s career was doing quite well.

Cotton really hit the road to fame, though, when Muddy Waters came to Memphis. Waters had just lost his harmonica player, and he gave Cotton a chance to fill in. As it turned out, Cotton was part of that seminal artist's band for twelve years.

During the sixties Cotton went solo and began blending elements of R & B and soul music into his blues playing. Later he was equally eager to do the same with funk techniques. Today his career is going as strong as ever, making him one of the greatest living blues harmonica players, as well as one of the most popular. Cotton is in great demand for performances in both the U. S. and Europe, and his recordings have been honored with several recent Grammy nominations.

Altogether, this legacy gives Tunica blues a disproportionately large niche in blues history. Through Robert Johnson, our area has given the world some of its greatest songs and recordings. Through Son House we gave it some of its deepest insights into the time and place that created the music. But Tunica's blues legacy is no mere museum piece. As anyone who saw him last year at the King Biscuit Blues Festival can tell you, James Cotton can still jump, shake, blow, and shout with the best of them. Tunica blues are still around to hear and feel.

This is not to suggest that Tunicans should take a competitive attitude toward their neighbors' claims to historical greatness. Clarksdale is the home of the blues, all right. So are Memphis and Helena. But so is Tunica County.

Main Sources:
Calt, Stephan and Wardlow, Gale. King of the Delta Blues, The Life and Music of Charlie Patton. Rock Chapel Press, 1988.
Various liner notes by Steve Lavere, Bob Eagle, Pete Welding, Isaiah Ross and Don Kent

Dr. Isaiah Ross

One man blues band Dr. Isaiah Ross was born in Tunica County, Mississippi on October 21, 1925. Here's what one source says about him:

Ross played various forms of the blues that have seen him compared to John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson I, and is perhaps best known for the recordings he made for Sun Records in the 1950s, notably "The Boogie Disease" and "Chicago Breakdown".

In 1951 he began to be heard on Mississippi and Arkansas radio stations, now nicknamed Doctor because of his habit of carrying his harmonicas in a black bag that resembled a doctor's bag, and over the next three years recorded in Memphis, Tennessee for both Chess Records and Sun Records, creating exhilarating harmonica or guitar boogies made distinctive by his sidemen playing washboard (with a spoon and fork) and broom .

In 1954 he took a job with General Motors in Flint, Michigan, and played less. Some singles , among them his first true one-man band effort, "Industrial Boogie", filtered into blues circles, leading to a Testament Records album and a 1965 AFBF booking. While in London he recorded what would be the first LP on Blue Horizon Records. Europe loved Ross and gave him work and recording opportunities; he was never as popular at home, and in the 1980s his performing profile was barely visible.

He died in 1993, at the age of 67, and was buried in Flint, Michigan.

Another source says this about Dr. Ross:

Bluesman Ross recorded for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, as well as innumerable other labels throughout his career. He sings in a wildly rough, soulful voice while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. His playing is raw and intense: a thumping, rolling, modal boogie not unlike that of John Lee Hooker. Ross was unique in his own way for acting as a proto one-man band in the 1950s, after he had already recorded with a full band. His style lives on in the work of artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

You can still purchase his albums "Boogie Disease" and "Call the Doctor."

Here's a video from 1965 of Dr. Ross performing "I Feel So Good":

This video shows a guy playing an extremely rare 1954 SUN Records 78rpm of Dr. Ross playing "Boogie Disease":

And here's another video of Dr. Ross taken just three months before his death on May 28, 1993:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What is "Tunica Blues" about?

We're still getting up and running with this new blog.

There's lots of good stuff on the way.

Thank you for your patience!