Bradfordville Blues Club keeps the beat
Where the Nighttime is the Right TimeA Rural Community Keeps the Beat at the Bradfordville Blues Club
By Marina Brown
Along the backwoods portions of Leon County where North Florida and South Georgia seem to blend, where time steps in and out of the past and old family memories are never far away from everyday life, it seems possible, at times, to enter a bygone era.
Driving deep into the North Florida woods on a cold and starless night, pointed this way and that by the tangled crochet of live oak branches, a visitor can have the sensation of slipping away from the present. Tallahassee’s urban pulse is left behind. In these woods, it seems easy to reenter an older world – one with speakeasies and juke joints where old men sing the blues.
Slowly, the dirt road narrows and the illusion of time travel is heightened by the rhythmic pounding of drums and ahead, the sight of sparks rising from a bonfire in a large clearing in the forest. There is laughter coming from everywhere. Here and there, shadowy forms are dancing. There are no lights. Dark figures group in clusters, drinking, smoking; the feeling is joyful – and clandestine. And in fact, this gathering of nearly 300 revelers, many of them related, is virtually unknown to the outside world.
Not really a secret, the all-day, much-of-the-night party, which occurs every Dec. 26 on the grounds of the Bradfordville Blues Club, is a cross between a family reunion and neighborhood social that can be traced back more than a century. The land, around which upscale, suburban homes are steadily encroaching, still is owned by members of the Henry family. Here, nearly 200 acres of land once was the center of community life for the area’s black residents. The community housed a school, a baseball team and a general store.
Although the school and the baseball team are things of the past, the blues club, where the traditional Dec. 26 gathering swirls, is as vibrant as ever.
One white face moves easily among the black ones. He exchanges news of babies and old folks who have died since last year. He buys homemade red velvet cake, which he eats with his fingers, and tests a bite of fried fish. Old men in knit caps and overalls and young men with gold chains and low-slung pants all come up to exchange a handshake with Gary Anton, the current owner of the Bradfordville Blues Club, and to inquire about the next blues bash scheduled there.
Balding with lank, shoulder-length gray hair, Anton is a Tallahassee attorney who bought the club in 2002. At the time, the club’s last days appeared to be drawing near – but Anton’s love affair with the blues wouldn’t let him stand by and watch that happen.
“It’s not much on the outside,” he said of the club’s plain white, concrete block building, “but there’s a whole lotta history on the inside.”
Anton was willing to cut his law practice in half to commit to the preservation of what he considers a “priceless piece of Florida history.” He said an earlier health crisis that forced him to reevaluate his priorities also allowed him to imagine himself as a club owner.
“And sort of the same thing had happened to the guy who’d owned it before me,” Anton said.
Dave Clayton, who ran the facility as Dave’s CC Club from 1993 to 2002, had attended a Dec. 26 event when one of the elder Henry family members saw him standing and staring at the then-shuttered and derelict building. He’d asked the young white man, “What do you see, son?” When Clayton answered, “I see a blues club,” the old man knew he’d found the right person to resurrect the tradition that had drawn whole communities of black residents to this safe place in the woods.
On a recent evening, Nate Fleming, a relative of the Henry family who was visiting from Detroit, shared his thoughts on the club.
“Man, this is the first time I ever came here, but it won’t be the last!”
Fleming was seeking a break from the outside drumming, which had reached a piercing level, so he went inside. As he entered, Fleming and his wife, Dee, stopped to look around. They shook their heads in amazement.
“This is like some old juke joint out of a past I didn’t think still existed!” Nate Fleming said. “It was my grandmother who told me to come!”
Anton nodded. He’s heard it before.
“We get big blues artists here you’d never expect,” he said. “Tallahassee’s kind of on the route between Atlanta and Tampa or Miami. It makes a good stopover.” And many of those stopovers are recorded in life-size portraits on the walls and on the round, lacquered tabletops.
With diamond rings flashing, fancy hats and hipster shades, paintings of blues legends of the last 40 years peer down and smile up at the patrons who, most weekdays and every weekend, flock to hear a musical genre that had its roots in rural roadhouses much like this.
“Even big names like Bobby Blue Bland, (the late) Gatemouth Brown, Bobby Rush will come in, look around and say they feel like they’ve come back to their first roots,” Anton said. “Then they make sure their tabletops are there or are going to be up on the walls.”
Outside, three tall men stand on a riser, shoulders pushed against each other, each of them with a kind of primitive snare drum. As they sway in a tight nucleus, beating the same note in mesmerizing repetition, the crowd too pulses, moving from foot to foot, heads down, as if sensing an ancient heartbeat. An old man comes up, his eyes bleary and his smile broad. He offers Anton some “good buck.” Anton declines the outstretched glass; later, he comments that buck, the sweet, golden moonshine made from corn in many rural woods, is “surprisingly good” – although you had better trust the “guy who’s got the still!”
Beside Anton stands another man, Freddie McGee, 70 years old, grizzled in his farm clothes and hooded against the cold. When the club is in full swing, McGee always is on the dance floor, undulating his hips to funky blues. He is filled with stories.
“Listen at me good now,” is how he starts off most of them. McGee tells how he threw that “white apple” – the baseball – as he pitched for the “old Negro school in Frenchtown,” formerly the segregated part of Tallahassee, and for the CC Saints, who were unbeatable among the segregated black recreational teams. The Saints’ home field was on the blues-club property.
Suddenly, a man known to everyone appears out of the darkness. It is Alan Henry, one of the elderly owners of the property. He wants to know if there is any “rabbit pilau” or if “all we’ve got is fish.” It’s fish, says one of the hefty women nearby, but she’ll make him some pilau next time he comes up. Henry passes on the fish and settles down to reminisce about the land that developers recently have begun to inquire about.
Eighty-five years old, Henry, who now lives in Inverness, and two of his siblings inherited the property from their mother. His grandmother had passed it down before that. He said it wasn’t unusual for a black person from that era to actually own property, citing several other old families in the area that still are “holding out on” acres that were once used to grow corn and cotton.
Staring into the dark fields, Henry says that “my grandmother’s family probably bought it from a white family. It was 196 acres of the old Bradley tract.” He guesses that his grandmother, born in the mid-1840s, might have been born a slave.
The old man takes off his cap and rubs his bald head. Henry remembers, he says, his father, a “specialist” in buck and in “skubnine,” a fermented blackberry wine whose raw ingredients Henry helped his father pick in these woods. And shaking his head, Henry remembers the Ku Klux Klan sweeping in and hauling off “two boys” the men thought had been “overstepping their boundaries” – and never seeing those boys again.
Henry grows quiet. Somebody leans in to say good night. And Henry pulls his jacket closer around him.
As Henry stiffly stands up to walk into the night, Anton swings his arm around the old man and seeks to break his reverie. He wants to tell Henry about some of the acclaimed artists lined up for the coming year.
“Hey Alan, did you hear we’re getting Sonny Rhodes (a famous lap-slide guitar player), James Cotton (a renowned harmonica virtuoso) and old Pine-Top Perkins (a 97-year-old piano player)?” Anton asks him.
Henry’s face lights up.
“Is that right? Who else is comin’?” he said, sitting down. And then Anton and Henry do what all blues-loving followers do – they tell stories about their favorite musicians, the stories almost as important as the music itself.
“Well, Eddie Kirkland might show up,” laughed Anton. Kirkland is an 88-year-old guitar player who packs himself into a jalopy called “Bo-Jangles” and sets off for whatever venue the revived chitlin’ circuit might have for him.
“You know how he is,” Anton said. “He’ll start playing in the middle of the day to the ghosts and the cleaning crew, take a break, tell some lies, then keep on playin’ some more.
“And have you heard some of the homegrown talent lately?” Anton asks. He praises two local guitar prodigies, Jamie Eubanks and Ricky Dollar. Eubanks began playing at the blues club when he was 12, Dollar when he was 14. Now, with mentoring from guitar legend Kenny Neal, Eubanks will have a CD coming out called “Am I Too Young To Play the Blues.” Meanwhile, Dollar already has opened for blues great BB King.
“Yeah, the blues is safe around here,” Anton said.
The night turns chilly. The fish is sold out and, reluctantly, it is time to go home. Cars hidden in the shadows have their lights on and the shiny, late-model sedans’ radios drown out the old sounds of drums and stomping feet. Henry says he is thinking about trying to will this land to the state as a heritage site, since he isn’t sure what his own offspring might do when developers’ dollars start twinkling. He says he’s praying to God to guide him as to what to do. He loves the blues club where he listened as a boy to the “old-timers,” and he thinks Anton is the right one to run it now. But he fears that the times are changing. For now, Henry plans on staying “in touch” with God.
As for Anton, “I wouldn’t be doing anything else,” he said. “Professors come here; bikers come here. Intellectuals, business types, young people and grandmothers. Everybody’s welcome and everybody leaves loving the blues – and hopefully, respecting the traditions where it grew.”