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Interview with Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry: A lost and found file from The Delta Center for Culture and Learning

A couple of months ago, while searching for materials for our summer 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshops, Lee Aylward, The Delta Center’s resident maven of marvelous storytelling, happened upon a mysterious white box tucked away in the corner of our storage room in Ewing Hall. 

“Though I did not recall seeing it there before, it looked oddly familiar to me,” said Lee, in her signature honeyed Southern drawl. “Something told me to pick it up and bring it downstairs to the office.” 

 The inside of Po’ Monkeys Lounge as seen at night clearly illustrates the transformation that occurs inside a jook joint. The Lounge is plastered with bright lights, tinsel, picture, letters, foil, and any other bright, colorful, or shiny decoration. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

 The inside of Po’ Monkeys Lounge as seen at night clearly illustrates the transformation that occurs inside a jook joint. The Lounge is plastered with bright lights, tinsel, picture, letters, foil, and any other bright, colorful, or shiny decoration. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

Lee and I soon discovered why the box looked so familiar to her: inside was a treasure trove of compact discs (you know, those shiny silver round plastic things that were once considered cutting-edge audio and data storage devices) from the early 2000’s, around the time that Lee started volunteering with The Delta Center as an oral history transcriber. The discs contain a plethora of Mississippi Delta voices waiting to be uploaded and shared with a brave new online world. Among those voices is a particularly iconic one: the late Willie Seaberry, better known as Po’ Monkey, proud proprietor of the legendary jook joint Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

Willie Seaberry passed away in July 2016 on a Thursday night, known as “Family Night,” a special time when locals and tourists from around the country and the world would gather at the storied establishment. As is tradition, that particular Thursday, we were taking a group of NEH “Most Southern” workshop participants and Robertson Scholars from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill to experience the heart and soul of America’s last known rural jook house. The Delta Blues scene has not been quite the same since his unexpected passing.

Below is a transcript of a January 2003 interview with Willie Seaberry conducted by Dr. Luther Brown, the retired Founding Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, and his colleague, the late Dr. Henry Outlaw who passed away in February 2015. Lee, who has been with The Delta Center nearly as long as it has been in existence, often tells visiting groups that The Delta Center was started in the year 2000 to “give the people of the Delta back their heritage.” 

Mr. Seaberry standing in front of some of his collection of pictures, post cars, and other decorative items. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

Mr. Seaberry standing in front of some of his collection of pictures, post cars, and other decorative items. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

In keeping with that fundamental value, it made perfect sense to assign the task of transcribing the interview to Keith Johnson, a Mississippi Delta native who is the grand-nephew of Muddy Waters and also is a rising young Blues musician in his own right, being a recent winner of the Vicksburg Blues Challenge. Keith is a graduate assistant with the International Delta Blues Project which is housed in The Delta Center. Will Jacks, a visionary Mississippi Delta native photographer and Delta State University faculty member, also advised on the transcription process, as Keith wanted to create a video synopsis of the interview that could appeal to fellow Millennials. Will’s book on Po’ Monkey’s is being published by University of Mississippi Press soon – be sure to check out his photo essay published in Mississippi Arts Commission’s Mississippi Folklife about it. 

As the old saying goes, no one works alone. That was the case with The Delta Center then as it is now. Dr. Brown worked with Willie Seaberry and Dr. Outlaw on this interview. He also engaged photographer Kathleen Robbins, a faculty member in Delta State’s art department at the time, and Suli Yi, a journalist at Voice for America, to capture images and video before the interview was conducted. Kathleen and Suli’s artful contributions are featured in Dr. Brown’s essay “Inside Poor Monkey’s” published by the journal Southern Spaces in 2006.   

I shared the interview transcript with Dr. Brown before it was posted here. This was his response: 

I had forgotten that Monkey was so talkative this time.  We tried interviewing him a couple of other times and he just wouldn’t talk to the tape recorder.  Several things did come out of this interview, but we never completed the multi-author article. I believe Kathleen left DSU [Delta State University] and took another job shortly after the interview, and we just never got back to the project. I wrote an article for Southern Spaces – better check the date though because I don’t remember if it was before or after the interview.  We did produce the posters featuring Kathleen’s photos. Those photos are talked about in the interview, and it sounds like they were taken just prior.  
 
We also succeeded in getting a Blues Trail historic marker for [Po’] Monkey’s, and the planning for that would have begun around the interview time, although installation might have been later.  In any case, that marker was one of the first set of markers, so it was installed not too long after this interview.  We also got 2003 declared the Year of the Blues in Mississippi, by Governor Musgrove, who is also mentioned in the interview.  I think we took him to Monkey’s after he came over to our house for dinner, when we discussed him proclaiming the Year of the Blues. 
 
Another consequence of this interview is that the Bolivar County Supervisors did change the name of the road to “Po’ Monkey’s Road.”  They also then paved a bit of the road on the west side of Monkey’s so that tour buses could come (many bus companies refused to drive on unpaved roads).  There were once road signs, but so many of them were stolen that the County stopped putting them up.  The [Delta] Center produced metal road signs and sold them to visitors at one time. 

Dr. Brown also shared with me that this recording was not meant to be treated as an oral history. He said it is “more like a fact finding interview that we were using in preparation for writing and talking about Monkey and his Lounge.” 

It is in this spirit that The Delta Center makes this rare recording available to the general public, particularly for researchers, writers, Blues enthusiasts, students, music and cultural critics, fans of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and anyone else who may be searching for something that might have seemed lost but was there all along, waiting to be discovered and shared. 

Yes, this is for you – for all of you: the found voice of Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. 

  • Dr. Rolando Herts, Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning
    Monday, May 22, 2017

River kings visit campus

The Office of Student Life, Quality Enhancement Plan, the International Delta Blues Project, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, and the Delta Music Institute partnered on April 11 to host Southern hip-hop artists and social activists Marco Pavé and Alfred Banks for two events open to the Delta State community and public.

These events were part of the sustainability mission of Delta State’s annual Winning the Race Conference.

Scott Barretta from the International Delta Blues Project moderated a lunch panel featuring Pavé and Alfred Banks. The discussion centered on the intersections of music, social justice and activism, as well as music entrepreneurship, the creative economy and regional musical influences. Later that afternoon Pavé and Banks performed a casual, lounge-style concert in the Union. 

Pavé, a Memphis native, and Banks, from New Orleans, have built solid followings in and around their respective cities and beyond. Pavé has been featured on Apple music, MTV, The Root and has delivered a Ted Talk on arts entrepreneurship. Banks has been featured on RevoltTv, BBC Russia, on several national tours, and has a song featured in a Volkswagen commercial. On their own, they both have viable careers, but in the summer of 2016 they decided to join forces and tour together through the River Kings Tour. Their 2016 efforts were so successful that round two will be an 18-city tour.

Take Me to the River - a deeper insight

One of the foremost challenges for the blues today concerns how to make the music relevant for young people. This is of particular concern in the Mississippi Delta, where the blues is both our cultural heritage and a driver of the economy. Pursuing awareness of these issues and developing effective strategies is a central goal of the International Delta Blues Project’s Blues Leadership Incubator program, which is housed in The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. This series of free public workshops, lectures, and events inspire Mississippi Delta residents, particularly youth, to consider how Blues tourism, arts, culture, and creativity can lead to economic opportunity.

A major impediment is simply that blues is, to a large degree, a historical music. The blues is thought to have emerged around 1900, and achieved commercial popularity soon thereafter. It remained a dominant form of African American popular music until the early 1960s, when it was largely surpassed by soul music. 

While the blues remains popular today among certain discrete audiences—notably, a largely white one for traditional blues, and a largely African American one for “soul blues” or “southern soul”—it’s generally not a music with which young people are actively engaged, either negatively or positively.  

This “problem” isn’t particular to the blues, as older people often lament the tastes of youth. But if we hope to get young people to engage with the music for purposes of economic growth and in developing a deeper sense of place, what strategies might we employ?

Take Me to the River

An interesting case of attempting to bridge the musical gap between generations is depicted in the documentary “Take Me to the River,” which pairs hip-hop artists together with soul and blues veterans for unique takes on soul classics. It was filmed in Memphis’ historic Royal Studios, where Al Green cut his biggest records for the late producer Willie Mitchell. The intergenerational theme is heightened by the fact that Mitchell’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, now runs the studio, and was awarded the 2016 GRAMMY Record of the Year for his production of the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk.”

An educational program associated with the film is currently touring the country, and on October 12 stopped in Cleveland at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. The evening began with presentations by students from the Rosedale Freedom Project and Delta Hands for Hope of Shaw who are engaged with oral history and photography projects funded by grants from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. 

Following an abbreviated screening of the film was a live performance featuring Stax Records soul veteran William Bell, 77 and still in full possession of his powers, and Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy; all three are featured in the film. The backing band likewise reflected a cross-generational theme, with the young members of the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band paired with soul veterans Leroy and Charles Hodges of the Hi Rhythm Section, the studio group behind Al Green’s hits

Reclaiming soul heritage

The intent of the film and its associated educational program is to introduce young people to the legacy—and continuing relevancy—of Memphis’ grand soul heritage of the ‘60s and early ‘70s on the Hi and Stax labels (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and many more).  The film evokes the heyday of Stax and Hi via performances by label veterans including Mavis Staples and Otis Clay (soul stars Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland, who recorded for other labels, also appear).

The film also emphasizes the idea that Stax was a relative oasis of racial tolerance during the Civil Rights Movement—most notably, house band Booker T and the MGs was integrated. This latter idea was popularized in Peter Guralnick’s influential 1986 book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, which addressed the potential for music to transcend racial boundaries. 

In his recent book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, historian Charles Hughes takes a more cautious view, arguing, for instance, that while soul music can be seen as illustrating the potential for biracial cooperation it was simultaneously serving as a political symbol of Black Pride and a sign of “blackness.” Nonetheless, a lesson from the era is that music can serve as an avenue for bridging social gaps.

Hip-Hop and Soul

Memphis has been a hotbed for rap since the 1990s, when new Southern hip-hop sounds challenged the predominance of music from both coasts. The regional style received its greatest attention via the 2005 Craig Brewer-directed film “Hustle and Flow.” The soundtrack featured multiple songs by Kapone, and the track “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia (including Frayser Boy) received an Academy Award, a cultural milestone for the genre.

During the filmed collaborations the younger artists—including Kapone, Frayser Boy, Snoop Dog and Lil’ P-Nut (b. 2002)—reveal their great respect for their elders, who in turn sometimes seem somewhat bemused with the collaborations. The most striking scene in the film, though, is of Bland, seemingly oblivious to the camera, giving voice lessons to Lil’ P-Nut.

In these collaborations the connections between the musics are made clear, something that is likewise well known to hip-hop artists who regularly sample vintage soul sounds. It’s usually not the case, though, that fans of contemporary hip-hop are aware of the origin of the samples that they are hearing. In addition to samples often being buried in the mix, contemporary recording artists usually don’t recognize their presence except in the credits of CDs, a delivery platform that most young people don’t use. 

There are also historical reasons why the connections between soul and rap typically aren’t made. A subtext of the film is that the potential personal ties that might have existed in the Memphis music scene over the last half century were severed with the collapse of Stax Records in the mid-‘70s. With its departure, and a change of ownership at Hi, Memphis ceased to be a major center for hit recordings, and it has yet to reclaim its earlier glory.

Stax’s rise and fall and revival

Both Hi and Stax were founded in the 1950s, and helped define the emergent “Memphis sound” in the 1960s. A veteran of the rich West Memphis R&B scene, Willie Mitchell recorded many instrumental hits on Hi in the 1960s, and at the end of the decade took the helm of Royal Studios, where he produced hits for Hi by Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and others.

Stax’s history goes back to 1959, when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded Satellite Records in an old movie theater in south Memphis. The Stax label was introduced in 1961, and produced dozens of hits over the next decade and half. During the early to mid ‘60s it was best known for artists including Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave—their hits, along with those of their peers at Motown, remain as the most popular signifiers for ‘60s soul.

The tragic death in 1967 of Redding, the label’s star, the assassination in 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the discovery around the same time that the label’s longtime partner Atlantic Records owned Stax’s back catalog—the wealth of any established label—contributed to a dramatic reorientation under the leadership of co-owner, and later owner, Al Bell.

A commitment to Civil Rights and black pride was expressed through events such as the 1972 Wattstax festival and uplifting anthems such as the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself.” The label also expanded dramatically through moving into other genres, and broke ground in the production of thematic album-length projects (instead of just singles), most dramatically through the work of Isaac Hayes.

The label achieved many successes in the 1970s via artists such as Hayes, the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor, but in 1975 the label was forced to go into bankruptcy, and multiple fraud charges were also brought against Bell, who was later acquitted of all of them. In the film commentators explain the label’s demise in terms of discriminatory behavior by the Union Planters bank, suggesting that the city’s establishment didn’t act to shore up a black-owned business. 

A more nuanced take of the situation is found in Robert Gordon’s book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. While Gordon acknowledges that race likely affected the tone of the bankruptcy proceedings, he also argues that the downfall of Stax can be seen in terms of its business practices—growth that was too fast, a bloated staff with a payroll it couldn’t maintain, cash inflow strangulated by distribution problems, and a collapse of Union Planters, whose biggest loan client was Stax.

In any case, the departure of Stax was both an economic and cultural disaster, and no other label stepped in to take its place.  In the late ‘80s the iconic Stax headquarters at 926 East McLemore was demolished. Willie Mitchell continued to run Royal Studios around the corner, but was often overlooked in discussions about Memphis’ economic potential.

A decade later Memphis was at the beginning of a wave of cultural tourism that built upon its musical legacy—Beale Street, the blues, Elvis and soul—and grand plans were laid out for a revival of Stax. Many people were reasonably skeptical, but in May of 2003 the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was established in the same location as the label, replete with facsimiles of the original sign and marquee as well as a reproduction of the studio’s signature sloped floor, a legacy of the building’s past as a theater. 

Adjacent to the museum today is the Stax Music Academy, which provides music education, and the associated Soulsville Charter School, which has a heavy dose of music history—American history!—in its curriculum. Today, music instruction is sadly lacking in many schools, and the Academy and its associated programs demonstrate a way that music can be taught not just as technique but as a way of teaching the hip-hop generation about their history. 

Lessons for us?

The tale of Stax —its early glory, its decline in contentious times, and its current role as a both centerpiece for cultural revival—provides both inspiration and a note of caution about the potential difficulties in drawing upon older music to inspire contemporary young people. How do we frame blues in a way that makes it relevant or not relegated to “old people’s music”? How do we explain the story of its historical rise and fall and its contemporary renewal in the form of cultural tourism? How do we insure that transparency and authenticity is the development of this tourism?

Blues Leadership Incubator events such as "Take Me to the River" invites us to engage the beauty of creative brilliance while gaining a richer understanding of the social and cultural forces that fostered such creativity in the past and how it all relates to opportunity today. 

International Delta Blues Project, GRAMMY partner for free public film and music event

William Bell acknowledges the audience for their standing ovation following his performance.

William Bell acknowledges the audience for their standing ovation following his performance.

The Delta Center's International Delta Blues Project at Delta State University recently partnered with GRAMMY Museum Mississippi to present a free, public event of educational film and live music.

The "Take Me to the River" community film screening is one of several Blues Leadership Incubator events that have been offered by the International Delta Blues Project. Blues Leadership Incubator events focus on economic opportunity related to Blues education and tourism in the Mississippi Delta. These events are free and open to the public through a generous grant from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation.

Nearly 150 guests from throughout the Mississippi Delta gathered at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi to see a 45-minute version of the critically-acclaimed documentary “Take Me to the River,” produced by Martin Shore and created at historic Royal Studios in Memphis. The film brings multiple generations of award-winning Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians together, following them through the creative process of recording an historic new album.  “Take Me To The River” features Terrence Howard, William Bell, Snoop Dog, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Lil P-Nut, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, The North Mississippi Allstars and many more.

Martin Shore introduces his film Take Me to the River

After viewing “Take Me to the River," the crowd enjoyed live performances from The Hi Rhythm section (featuring Charles and Leroy Hodges), Stax Music Academy Alumni Band, William Bell, Frayser Boy, Al Kapone, and GRAMMY winner Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, owner of Royal Studios. Boo Mitchell recently served as keynote speaker for Delta State's International Conference on the Blues during a Blues Brunch held at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi.

According to Frayser Boy, an Academy Award winner for Best Original Song, these performances are as much about education as they are entertainment.

“I come from a hip-hop background. I never really used live music in performances before I was invited to be a part of this project, “ he said. “But these guys have taught me more in a couple of years than the fifteen or so previous years I was working in this business. All these old guys - these guys that have spent their lives making music - they taught me to better understand where music comes from, and how important it is to our communities. Just as importantly, they are teaching me how to make a career out of this, not just a single record. To do that, I need to know where my music comes from and why it was made the way it was made.”

Attendees linger in the lobby of the museum and visit with the musicians following the performance.

To underscore the educational emphasis of the event, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area was invited to open the program with oral history documentaries created by students from Delta Hands for Hope of Shaw, MS, and the Rosedale Freedom Project of Rosedale, MS. The students attended after-school workshops learning film and oral history skills through a grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. The students interviewed and photographed Mississippi Delta residents to learn how music has influenced their lives.

“The Take Me To The River program was one of the best nights of music we’ve had at the Museum,” said Jane Marie Dawkins, Education and Public Programs Manager for the museum. “The artists, film and student projects all provided a very entertaining and educational experience. It meant a lot to us to showcase this music from our region, and it was an unforgettable night at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi.”

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place On Earth” workshops. For more information, visit http://deltacenterdsu.com/.

Dr. David Evans and the Study of the Blues

One of the featured speakers at this year’s International Conference on the Blues is Dr. David Evans, an ethnomusicologist who is widely regarded as one of the top experts on the blues. He’s now retired from his longtime position at the University of Memphis.

Evans is best known for his book “Big Road Blues,” an exploration of the nature of traditional blues styles in Mississippi that’s based on the fieldwork he did largely in Mississippi in the 1960s while working on his PhD at UCLA. 

Evans became interested in blues while studying at Harvard University in the early ‘60s. He initially encountered the music through the folk music scene and the recordings of Lead Belly and others, but he was also influenced by performances of older artists whose careers were revived in the ‘60s, including the Tennessee duo of Sleepy John Estes & Yank Rachell, and the Delta bluesman Son House.  

Like many young fans interested in blues, Evans took up the music—he continues to record and perform today—and eventually decided to study it seriously through making extensive field trips to the South. 

His fieldwork is collected in “Big Road Blues,” which investigated the nature of blues traditions in Drew, Mississippi, a town just to the northeast of Dockery Farms, the home in the early 1900s for artists including Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  He does so largely by focusing on the “folk processes” through which songs are learned, passed on, and reshaped.

In particular, he studies how the song “Big Road Blues,” originally by Tommy Johnson, was adopted by other artists. Johnson (1896-1956) grew up near Crystal Springs, south of Jackson, and ran away to the Delta in his early teens. In his early ‘20s he settled in Drew, and through the influence of artists including Patton and Willie Brown, developed a distinctive style that others would pick up.

Let’s take a listen to the original as well as versions by artists who were influenced by Johnson.

Tommy Johnson, “Big Road Blues,” 1928

 

The Mississippi Sheiks were a string band from the area west of Jackson, though multiple members moved to the Delta in the 1920s. Listen here how the group uses the same melody, but different words and instrumentation.

Mississippi Sheiks, “Stop and Listen,” 1930

 

Houston Stackhouse was from Wesson, Mississippi, about 45 miles south of Jackson, and later moved to Crystal Springs, not too far to the north, where Tommy Johnson lived for most of his last years. Some 14 years younger than Johnson, Stackhouse readily adapted to electric instruments after WWII, as evidenced in this version

Houston Stackhouse, “Big Road Blues,” 1967

As you can hear from these three examples, much can be learned about how music changes from artist to artist and across time by listening to different versions of the same song.  While we unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to study the pioneering blues artists directly, as Dr. Evans was able to do in the 1960s, this comparative technique is still very useful in understanding the roots and routes of contemporary music.

"Boo" Mitchell, Cedric Burnside to headline third annual blues conference

The third annual International Conference on the Blues promises to bring legendary entertainment and academics to Delta State University from Sunday, Oct. 2 through Tuesday, Oct. 4, including GRAMMY award-winner and Royal Studios owner Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell and GRAMMY nominee and four-time Blues Music Award winner Cedric Burnside.

The conference, which is still open for registration, brings together Blues scholars, historians and fans from all over the United States in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a place known as the epicenter of Blues music and history.

Among the highlights of this year’s International Conference on the Blues:

  • ‘Blues on the Grounds’ at Historic Dockery Farms featuring music by Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers;
  • a keynote address by Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell;
  • a conversation and an outdoor concert in downtown Cleveland with Cedric Burnside;
  • a presentation by GRAMMY winner Dr. David Evans, leading specialist in Blues, American folk music, and popular music
  • events highlighting Blues music songwriters and performers including ‘Blues in the Round’ sponsored by Visit Mississippi;
  • and brunch on the front porch of GRAMMY Museum Mississippi

Visit here for a complete schedule of events, or here for a complete list of presenters.

“Once again, the International Conference on the Blues is advancing partnerships and engaging diverse populations toward enhancing the educational and cultural climate at Delta State and in the broader community,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, “We appreciate the involvement and support of various local, statewide, and national organizations including the Robert M. Hearin Foundation, the Dockery Farms Foundation, Entergy, Visit Mississippi, Nehi Bottling Company, GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, Bridging the Blues, Levitt AMP Series, and others that are making this great conference possible for a third year.”

The third annual conference is part of the International Delta Blues Project, which is funded by the Robert M. Hearin Foundation and is based at The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. The conference is being managed by a team of campus and community collaborators including the Delta Music Institute, the Department of Music, the Division of Languages & Literature, the Office of Institutional Grants, and Cleveland Tourism.

“I always marvel at the variety of scholars that our conference attracts,” said Shelley Collins, a professor in the Department of Music and co-chair of the International Conference on the Blues. “Either our presenters are alums of these schools, graduate students at these universities, or teach at the following institutions: The University of Pittsburgh, University of Washington, Alcorn State University, BYU, Vanderbilt University, University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, Marist College, the University of Memphis, the University of London, the University of Oregon, Stanford University, The University of Idaho, Washington State University, The Ohio State University, and Loyola University of New Orleans. We will even have a participant coming in from Singapore, which gives you an idea of how globally influential the Blues is.”

Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell began working with his father, producer and Royal Studios founder Willie Mitchell, at a young age, accumulating rare credits and abilities. His own career began at age 17 when he played keyboard on one of Al Green's gospel albums which later won a Grammy Award. In the early 90’s he began a role as a producer and engineer with credits on albums by artists such as John Mayer, Rod Stewart, Anthony Hamilton, Solomon Burke, William Bell and Cody Chestnutt, among others. After Willie’s death in 2010, Boo and his brother Archie continued their father’s legacy as owners of Royal Studios while maintaining their roles as producers and engineers. In 2016 his work as engineer / mixer on Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ hit “Uptown Funk” was recognized with a GRAMMY award for Record of the Year.

“Personally, Mr. Boo Mitchell defines cool for me,” said Don Allan Mitchell, co-chair of the conference. “I’ve met him on a couple of occasions, and he is so modest about his work. It still blows my mind when I see the clips of him on the GRAMMY stage with Bruno Mars. His keynote speech may well be his first formal academic address on the importance of the Blues in the American tradition, but I know he’ll perform like the consummate professional he is, with a quiet-spoken confidence and a wry sense of humor. It’s great to have him back in Cleveland.”

Grammy-nominee Cedric Burnside was born and raised around Holly Springs, Mississippi. He is the grandson of legendary R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson. This four-time winner of the prestigious Blues Music Award’s Drummer of the Year (2010-2014) is widely regarded as one of the best drummers in the world and has begun to make a name for himself as a traditional blues guitarist as well. In addition to his grandfather R.L, Cedric has also played and recorded with countless musicians, including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, North Mississippi Allstars, Burnside Exploration, Widespread Panic, Jimmy Buffett, T Model Ford, Bobby Rush, Honey Boy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Galactic, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among many others. In 2006, he was featured in Craig Brewer’s critically acclaimed feature film Black Snake Moan, playing drums alongside Samuel L. Jackson. (The film is a loose tribute to R.L. Burnside, and gives many nods to the late bluesman.) The Cedric Burnside Project’s latest album, Descendants of Hill Country, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Blues Album of the Year.

Burnside will perform an outdoor concert Monday night, and Monday morning will be interviewed by Don Allan Mitchell.

“Because of the GRAMMY-nomination, Mr. Burnside is in high demand as a performer this year, and I look forward to talking to him about his life on the road, and how the GRAMMY-nomination has influenced his career trajectory,” said Mitchell. “Hill Country Blues is a cousin of Mississippi Delta Blues, so it will be interesting to discuss the cross-influence with him. The International Conference on the Blues-sponsored Levitt Amp Performance on Monday night will be a great opportunity for our students and fellow Clevelanders to get their ‘full tilt boogie’ on. ”

This year’s conference promises to build on the vision established for the event when it began two years ago, and is a key component to Delta State’s pursuit of building a premiere curriculum around the art, culture, history and heritage of the Mississippi Delta.

“I am looking forward to the renewal of this fall signature conference on the blues, because it reinforces Delta State’s claim as the academic center of the blues,” said Delta State University President William N. LaForge. "It’s always exciting to hear the presentations and performances that highlight our conference. I know this October’s schedule, like those in the past that have been so successful, will not disappoint. I look forward to participating with all the visiting blues scholars and our faculty, staff and students during what will certainly be a wonderful program.

For more information, please contact Mitchell and Collins at blues@deltastate.edu.

Delta Center presents at Jus’ Blues conference for second year

Dr. Rolando Herts (right) presented at the Jus' Blues Music Foundation's conference with CEO and founder Charles Mitchell (center) and GRAMMY-nominated blues legend Bobby Rush.

Dr. Rolando Herts (right) presented at the Jus' Blues Music Foundation's conference with CEO and founder Charles Mitchell (center) and GRAMMY-nominated blues legend Bobby Rush.

Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State, recently presented at the “Blues Got A Soul” Technology Conference sponsored by the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation.

This is the tenth year the conference has been held, and this is the second year that Herts has represented The Delta Center at the conference.

The event brought industry professionals and aficionados together to discuss cultural heritage preservation and legal issues pertaining to blues music. The conference was held at Horseshoe Casino’s Bluesville event venue in Tunica, Mississippi.

Herts’ presentation focused on blues heritage partnerships in the Mississippi Delta led by The Delta Center. He spoke about the International Delta Blues Project, including the upcoming International Conference on the Blues, a public screening of the film “Take Me To The River” at GRAMMY Museum® Mississippi, and Delta State’s new International Blues Scholars Program, an online blues studies certificate.

The conference also featured GRAMMY-nominated blues legend Bobby Rush and Atlanta based entertainment attorney Jonathan Mason. The event was moderated by Charles Mitchell, CEO and founder of the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation.

Bobby Rush speaks to conference attendees before performing.

Bobby Rush speaks to conference attendees before performing.

“For a second year, I invited Dr. Herts to present at the conference,” said Mitchell. “The Delta Center and Delta State University are continuing to provide great leadership in blues education and awareness of the importance of blues culture. We were excited to learn more about the good work that these organizations are doing here in the Mississippi Delta to preserve blues traditions.”

The conference was held in conjunction with the 16th annual Jus’ Blues Music Awards. The awards honored various music professionals who have contributed much of their lives to advancing and promoting blues music and culture.

This year’s honorees included Sly Johnson, Ruby Andrews, Zac Harmon, Queen Ann Hines, King Edward, Chick Rodgers, Billy Branch, Big Bill Morganfield, Mud Morganfield, Eddie Cotton, Jr., and Clarksdale native L.C. Cooke, brother of soul legend, Sam Cooke. In addition, a special presentation was made to R&B legend Millie Jackson, the inaugural Millie Jackson Award.

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and is the home of the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop and the International Delta Blues Project. For more information, visit http://www.deltacenterdsu.com.

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CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE WITH THE BLUES

I want to tell you a story from 'way back:

Truck on down and gig me, jack,

In eighteen hundred and sixty-five, 

A hep cat started some jive, 

He said, "Come on, gates, and jump with me

At the Juneteenth Jamboree."

 

The rhythm was swinging at the picnic ground,

Fried chicken floating all around;

Everybody there was full of glee,

Trumpets blaring in the air,

Mellow barbecue everywhere,

Clarinets moaning in the hall;

All the gates was having a ball,

They didn't know how to cut no rug,

But all the cats had a gal and jug,

Everybody happy as they could be,

At the Juneteenth Jamboree!

The 4th of July holidays are upon us, which provides a good occasion to think about blues and celebration of political holidays. Blues artists are often booked at municipal events celebrating the 4th, but the topic of Independence Day doesn’t seem to figure too much in blues lyrics. This may have something to do with the fact that most blues are ostensibly about romantic relationships.  But it’s also the case that celebrating the Declaration of Independence from United Kingdom rule in 1776 might not resonate too much with people whose descendants were enslaved at the time. 

For many African Americans “independence day” is known as Juneteenth, and more precisely June 19th, 1865, when Union soldiers announced to African Americans in Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over, and that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, had theoretically been in effect since January 1, 1863, but that was little comfort to those still under bondage. 

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article - http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article - http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

Early celebrations of Juneteenth were multi-faceted, including education, encouragement of self-improvement, fun and games, barbecuing, and, quite simply, a celebration of the ability to freely gather, a basic right deprived during the slavery era. Churches were often the site of Juneteenth celebrations, but eventually many sites were purchased or acquired that were dedicated to the holiday. 

Recognition from local officials varied—in many areas the holiday was ignored, while in others it was a part of broader celebrations. For instance, between 1936 and 1951 the Texas State Fair included a Juneteenth celebration, with the initial one drawing between 150,000 and 200,000 celebrants for events including a “cabaret show” featuring top entertainers.

The Civil Rights movement, with its emphasis on independence and self-pride, rejuvenated Juneteenth Celebrations, and today they’re regularly celebrated by local municipalities around the country, sometimes officially, as in Texas, where it became a state holiday in 1980. 

Which takes us back to the blues. It’s certainly not the case that blues is essential to Juneteenth—the celebration predates the emergence of the music—but for many decades blues has been central to Juneteenth Celebrations, which nowadays often take place on the Saturday nearest to the 19th.  The 1940 song above by Arkansas native Louis Jordan, the most popular blues performer during that decade, is one of the few blues songs that address Juneteenth, but its celebration of downhome pleasures suggest that blues was long welcome at the get-togethers.

 

Unsurprisingly, Juneteenth events are particularly popular in Texas, with blues-themed gatherings held in many smaller locales as well as in Dallas, Austin, and Houston, where the Juneteenth Festival, established in 1977 by jazz activist Lanny Steele’s SumArts Organization, was for many years one of the largest free outdoor blues events in the country. The Houston celebrationserved as a public forum for honoring the city’s rich, if under recognized blues history, with different artists or individuals celebrated each year.

Here in Mississippi the most long-lasting blues-themed event is the Juneteenth Festival in Columbus’ historic 7th Avenue District, which has been held for more than twenty years, A Google search reveals many Juneteenth Celebrations across that country that are advertised as blues, R&B and jazz. And just like July 4, Juneteenth is likewise associated with downhome food, as hinted at in the the “Juneteenth Rhythm and Ribs” festival in Round Rock, Texas, and, in Pompano Beach, Florida, “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Emancipation and Freedom at the Blues and Sweet Potato Pie Festival.”

The pleasures celebrated in Louis Jordan's "Juneteenth Jamboree" still resonate today, as expressed in this 2014 take of the song by jazz singer Catherine Russell. 

For more information on Juneteenth visithttp://www.juneteenth.com

And on Juneteenth in Texas, visit - https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lkj01

Call for Proposals: 2016 International Conference on the Blues

Proposal Deadline: July 1, 2016

Delta State University is now accepting proposals for papers, presentations, workshops, and clinics for the Third Annual International Conference on the Blues, which will be held October 2 - 4, 2016. 

Topics of general interest to scholars and enthusiasts are welcome: African American musical tradition and its influence on American music and culture; the Blues; folklore; history; ethnicity; and the Delta. Topics of interdisciplinary nature are also encouraged. 

Papers are invited from all blues scholars, with a particular emphasis on young and emerging scholars (graduate students, recent masters and doctoral graduates, and junior faculty), as well as established scholars, authors, performers, blues enthusiasts, and independent researchers. 

A prize will be awarded to the outstanding young scholar paper.  

You are invited to submit proposals for paper presentations, lecture-performances, panels, performances, and workshops. Offers to serve as moderators are also welcome. Papers will be 20 minutes in length, with an additional ten minutes for discussion, and should address a general audience. 

Proposals must be submitted online via www.deltastate.edu/blues.

Please include a description of the presentation, audio/visual equipment needs, and biographical information for all presenters. Please note that not all A/V requests will be granted. Presenters agree to appear at the conference at their own expense, which will include registration fees.

For more information, please contact Shelley Collins and Don Allan Mitchell at

blues@deltastate.edu or visit www.deltastate.edu/blues

The International Conference on the Blues consists of three days of intense academic and scholarly activity and music. This annual conference falls in between the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival in Greenville, Mississippi and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas.

Academic presentations, Blues performances, a "Blues in the Round" jam session, and excursions to local historical attractions add appeal for all audiences.

Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana

On June 10 the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum in Angola will host the symposium “Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana,” which addresses the history of music at the infamous prison, which is bordered by the Mississippi River. In addition to talks by scholars, there will be performances by current prison bands and an appearance by Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, who spent time in Angola as a resident.

The musical heritage of Angola Penitentiary is best known due to work of father and son folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax, who discovered the musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter there during a 1933 visit. Following his release, Ledbetter traveled with the Lomaxes, and became an influential performer in folk music circles.

But why were the Lomaxes at Angola to begin with?  Folklorists are often interested in older cultural expressions that are fading out due to the passage of time and people’s adoption of newer cultural trends, and the Lomaxes—as well as other folklorists—sought out prisons because of their relative isolation from modern media and pop culture. 

For many decades Angola, like the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, was run as a working plantation, and inmates toiled at farm work and tasks including clearing ground and chopping timber using simple technology. Likewise, they were largely shut off from popular culture in the form of radio and records, and had to entertain themselves, sometimes via songs that stemmed back to the 1800s.

 

Ledbetter, with his enormous repertoire of blues, ballads and children’s songs, was a relative exception, and the more common recordings made by the Lomaxes and others were of the songs prisoners sang to accompany work. The following film, made by Pete and Toshi Seeger at a Texas penitentiary in the 1960s, demonstrated how workers used song to coordinate tasks as well as to pass the time.

 

In 1933 John A. and Alan Lomax also visited Parchman, John Lomax recorded blues pioneer Booker White there in 194,  and Alan would return there in the late 1940s and in 1959. The Lomaxes captured powerful recordings of prisoners performing blues, group work songs and “field hollers” – unaccompanied work songs – such as this “levee camp holler” by Johnny Lee Moore

Dust-to-Digital's box set of Alan Lomax recordings from Parchman can be found here.

To find out more about this history of music at Parchman, you can visit the webpage [ http://msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/parchman-farm ] for the Mississippi Blues Trail marker that’s placed on Highway 49 across the main gate from Parchman, which is about 25 miles away from Delta State. 

Last year the Dust-to-Digital label also issued a beautifully packaged boxed set of Lomax’ late ‘40s and 1959 recordings at Parchman, featuring essays and many photos from inside the infamous penitentiary.

Facebook link to symposium - To find out more about the conference, visit their Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1299718390056944/  

BB King Homecoming

Welcome to the “Blues Notes” where we’ll be highlighting events, activities and people that illuminate the richness of culture in the Delta region.  We’ll touch on both general topics as well as specific events, such as the annual B.B. King Homecoming celebration in Indianola, which takes place this Saturday.

King died last May at 89 years old, but the event is continuing as a celebration of his life, singular career and commitment to his home state. The free event takes place on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Cultural Center, which opened in 1998 and is now also the site of King’s final resting place. 

The festival starts at 10:00 a.m., and there’s music on two stages through about 8:00 p.m. This year’s headliner is Keb Mo’, and also featured are Teeny Tucker, the B.B. King Museum Allstars, the Big Time Rhythm and Blues Band, Steve Azar & the King’s Men, and Jake & the Pearl Street Jumpers.

After the festival King traditionally played a private show at the historic Club Ebony, and this year the show, which begins at 8:00 p.m.,, will feature guitarist/vocalist Lil Ray Neal with former King band members Reggie Richards (bass), Herman Jackson (drums) and Walter King (sax), with a special appearance by Steve Azar. Tickets are $50/$100.

King’s death was heartbreaking for his many fans around the world, and it hit particularly hard in Indianola, his proclaimed “hometown.”  King was born in 1925 in tiny Berclair, about twenty miles to the east, but he moved to Indianola in his teens, and it was there that he played in a gospel group, found a job driving a tractor, got married, and, most importantly, took up the blues. 

He left Indianola for Memphis in the late ‘40s, and by the early ‘50s King was a national star. He would return home to Indianola to perform on occasion – his second wife, Sue Evans, was the daughter of the owner of the Club Ebony! – but his annual “homecomings” wouldn't become regular until the 1980s.

King first began returning to Mississippi on a regular basis in 1973 with the creation of the Medgar Evers Homecoming celebration, which paid tribute to the life of the Civil Rights martyr, and King would remain the celebration’s main attraction into the 2000s. He was more ambivalent about returning to Indianola, though, because of his perceived notion that his mostly African American band wasn’t getting a full welcome by the community.

Local fans organized the first homecoming event in the late ‘70s, and it took on a regular structure in 1986, when the Chamber of Commerce took over the event and King’s return was celebrated in tandem with Indianola’s centennial. Held on a Friday in early June, the daytime event concluded with a performance by King, whose lighthearted approach to the show was epitomized by a dance contest featuring local kids. 

King would spend the early part of the evening having dinner with old friends, and often would hit the stage at Club Ebony at midnight or later. After the show King would generously give his time to admirers. By the early morning he was on his bus southbound to participate in several days of events associated with the Medgar Evers celebration. 

In his last years King cut back on the time he committed to his annual return, and in 2014 the Indianola Homecoming was billed as his “last time.” It was a bittersweet performance, and while his advanced age was evident there were moments where he demonstrated clearly why he was dubbed the king of the blues. 

 During the 2015 International Conference on the Blues, in partnership with The Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the International Delta Blues Project, the Mississippi Blues Commission proclaimed B.B. King as “Mississippi’s Secretary of the State of the Blues.” The Commission gave a framed proclamation signed by all of the living governors of the state of Mississippi to representatives from the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. For more info, see http://www.internationaldeltabluesproject.com/news1/2016/5/5/mississippi-blues-commission-names-bb-king-secretary-of-state-of-the-blues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Blues Scholars Registration Opens

Delta State University is proud to announce the creation of the International Blues Scholars Program, a global online certificate program that is part of the International Delta Blues Project housed in the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. This multi-disciplinary approach to the study of the Blues includes not only in-depth examination of the musical form, but also a scholarly lens on its influence in art, literature, history, and economic development.

Registration for the program is currently open and will last until May 15. Tuition assistance is available for qualifying students.

The International Blues Scholars Program is an online academic certificate program available to students all over the world. Students may register for up to 12 hours of graduate or undergraduate level courses. Those completing all 12 hours will receive a Certificate of Completion from Delta State University.

Courses offered this summer include Sociology of the Blues, taught by acclaimed Blues scholar Scott Barretta who was recently awarded the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for Mississippi Heritage, and Psychology of Hip Hop and the Blues, lead by Delta State professor Temika Simmons, a recent recipient of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning's Award for Excellence in Diversity. Additional courses are History of Rock n Roll, Blues Literature, and Modern American History: History of the 20th Century South.

Delta Center to present First Tuesday Blues session

Scott Barretta discusses the early years of Muddy Waters' career. To view the entire presentation, click here.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University will present a First Tuesday session focused on the International Delta Blues Project on March 15 at 12:10 p.m. in the Fielding Wright Art Center.

The session will have a special focus on the Blues Studies program that has launched at Delta State.

First Tuesday guests will be treated to a lecture from renowned Blues historian Scott Barretta, host of Highway 61 Radio and recipient of the 2016 Mississippi’s Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for Mississippi heritage. Barretta will teach the Sociology of the Blues course for the International Blues Scholars Program, a new online undergraduate and graduate certificate in Blues Studies that is being offered during the 2016 summer session. The online program will be available to Blues students and aficionados around the world.

The Delta Center is the home of the International Delta Blues Project, an initiative aimed at advancing Delta State University as the academic home of the Blues. The project is funded by the Robert M. Hearin Foundation in Jackson and consists of the following components:

The interdisciplinary Blues Studies program that includes courses offered through various academic units at Delta State including music, languages and literature, social sciences and history, and the Delta Music Institute.

The International Conference on the Blues, an educational and cultural conference that has featured renowned and emerging Blues scholars, as well as award-winning Blues musicians.

The Blues Leadership Incubator, a series of lectures and workshops for the public and business community aimed at providing a deeper understanding of economic opportunity related to Blues tourism and the creative economy.

First Tuesday is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and is a program by the Art Department and the First Tuesday Committee. The events are normally scheduled for the first Tuesday of each month during the fall and spring semesters. First Tuesday features lectures, readings and presentations representing diverse perspectives in the arts and humanities. All events are free and open to the public.

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the MDNHA and is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshops. For more information, visit www.deltacenterdsu.com.

The Senator's Place hosts GRAMMY discussion

In order to help the community better understand economic opportunities related to the opening of GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, a gathering was held on Monday, February 22 at The Senator's Place in Cleveland. Representatives of the museum were present along with regional elected officials, Delta State administration and department heads, and members of the Mississippi Development Authority. The discussion addressed a broad variety topics on entrepreneurship opportunities, local ordinances and laws, and educational visions involving the museum. Attendees were treated to a meal provided by the restaurant. 

Attendees surveyed after the gathering responded overwhelmingly that this was a worthwhile event.

Comments from attendees:

Good info, good food, really good experience
This is a great economic development opportunity for Cleveland. The presenters were very knowledgeable.
Enjoyed everything, very informative

Bobby Rush and Super Chikan thrill BPAC crowd

Blues legends Bobby Rush and James “Super Chikan” Johnson teamed for a free concert at Delta State’s Bologna Performing Arts Center Tuesday night as the closing act of the university’s second annual International Conference on the Blues. The event, “The Storytellers featuring Bobby Rush and Super Chikan: Up Close and Personal,” was a stripped-down concert format that invited the crowd to experience the two renowned blues artists singing and telling stories about their lives, careers, the blues and the Mississippi Delta in distinctly personal ways. (Photo by Rory Doyle/Delta State University)

Bill Ferris and Dom Flemons present at Blues Conference

Dr. William Ferris, a widely recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music, and folklore, delivers the keynote address at the second annual International Conference on the Blues Monday at Delta State University. Ferris the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the senior associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. He is also adjunct professor in the curriculum on folklore. The conference continues Tuesday, ending with a free concert featuring Bobby Rush and James “Super Chikan” Johnson. For more information, visit www.deltastate.edu/blues. 


GRAMMY winner Dom Flemons (right) and Don Allan Mitchell, co-chair of the International Conference on the Blues, during one of the conference sessions on Monday. Flemons is the “American Songster,” pulling from traditions of old-time folk music to create new sounds. Having performed music professionally since 2005, he has played live for over one million people within the past three years. As part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, he has played at a variety of festivals, spanning from the Newport Folk Festival to Bonnaroo, in addition to renowned venues such as the Grand Ole Opry. The International Conference on the Blues continues Tuesday. For more information, visit www.deltastate.edu/blues. ( Photos by Rory Doyle. )

Blues Brunch Panel Discussion

As part of the Blues Incubator programming, a Panel Discussion with the Mississippi Blues Commission occurred during the International Conference on the Blues. Introductions were made by Dr. Rolando Herts, Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the panel was moderated by Dr. William Ferris, former Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities and current Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina as well as the senior associate director of UNC's Center for the Study of the American South.

Panel members were musicians James "Super Chikan" Johnson and Bobby Rush, as well as Mississippi Blues Commission representatives Bob Arentson, Wanda Clark, Mary Margaret Miller, J. Kempf Poole, and Edgar E. Smith.

Bobby Rush and Super Chikan launch “Storytellers” tour at Delta State

GRAMMY Award nominee Bobby Rush (left) and James “Super Chikan” Johnson will be featured in a free concert at the Bologna Performing Arts Center on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

GRAMMY Award nominee Bobby Rush (left) and James “Super Chikan” Johnson will be featured in a free concert at the Bologna Performing Arts Center on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

Blues legends Bobby Rush and James “Super Chikan” Johnson have teamed up to perform a free concert at Delta State University’s Bologna Performing Arts Center on Oct.6. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m, and the concert will begin at 7 p.m.

The event, “The Storytellers featuring Bobby Rush and Super Chikan: Up Close and Personal,” will be the closing activity for Delta State’s second annual International Conference on the Blues, which is part of the institution’s International Delta Blues Project.

The concert is free and open to the public through sponsorship from the IDBP and the BPAC.

“We are always pleased to present free programming for our community,” said Laura Howell, executive director of the BPAC. “This partnership with the International Delta Blues Project provides a great opportunity for access to these incredible blues musicians and the stories they have to tell.”

“Storytellers” is a stripped-down concert format that invites music lovers of all ages and backgrounds to experience two renowned blues artists singing and telling stories about their lives, careers, the blues and the Mississippi Delta in distinctly personal ways.

“This concert is about telling where I come from and where my people come from — the Mississippi Delta,” said Rush. “It is about sharing my life and the lives of people who came before me. It’s about impacting the lives of those who are coming after me.

“I am 81-years-old. Now that B.B. King has passed, I am the oldest blues singer in the world. I want to tell the story of where the blues came from, what it is about and where it should go. These are stories that need to be told. I want to educate people about this, and Delta State’s International Conference on the Blues is the place to start.”

Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, is thrilled to bring the talented musicians to campus.

“We are excited that Bobby Rush and Super Chikan chose Delta State, the home of the International Delta Blues Project, as the place to launch their tour,” said Herts. “This concert is part of a broader effort to promote Delta State, Cleveland, and the Mississippi Delta as leading destinations for Blues music and culture. We also are pleased that generous support from the Hearin Foundation and our partnership with the BPAC allow us to make this live concert event free for Delta residents and visitors.”

The “Storytellers” concert is featured on the live music performance schedule for the Bridging the Blues Festival, an annual series of September and October events across Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee celebrating the rich music and culture of the region.

A GRAMMY Award nominee, Bobby Rush is the winner of multiple Blues Music Awards including Soul Blues Album of the Year, Acoustic Album of the Year and Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year. Rolling Stone magazine named him “The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit,” a distinguished African American cultural heritage designation that pays homage to the Southern network of clubs, theaters, halls and juke joints that catered to black audiences during the racially segregated Jim Crow Era. Rush has recorded over 100 albums in his more than 60-year career. He continues to perform over 200 shows a year from Mississippi to Japan and headlines major festivals and concerts for upwards of 20,000 people a night.

James “Super Chikan” Johnson is the recipient of the Mississippi’s Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts and the recipient of the prestigious Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. He is a native of Darling, Miss., a rural Mississippi Delta community located in Quitman County. As a boy growing up in the country, he was fascinated by his family’s chickens, thus earning him the nickname “Chicken.” His critically acclaimed debut album, “Blues Come Home to Roost,” featured songs about humorous and serious aspects of life in the Mississippi Delta. The album earned him awards for Best Blues Album and Best Debut Album from the 1998 Living Blues Magazine Awards.

For more information about the “Storytellers” concert, visit http://bolognapac.com/events/the-storytellers-featuring-bobby-rush-and-super-chikan-up-close-and-personal/.

For over 21 years, the Bologna Performing Arts Center at Delta State University has been bringing together artists and audiences to celebrate the arts and enrich the cultural life of the Delta community. For more information on upcoming performances, visit www.bolognapac.com.

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. For more information, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/academics/delta-center-for-culture-and-learning/.

Mississippi Blues Commission names B.B. King Secretary of State of the Blues

Blues legend B.B. King, Mississippi's Secretary of State of the Blues, surrounded by friends and admirers at the dedication of the "Kilmichael: B.B. King's Roots" Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Aug. 21, 2012 in Kilmichael, Miss. (Photo credit: Mississippi Blues Commission)

Blues legend B.B. King, Mississippi's Secretary of State of the Blues, surrounded by friends and admirers at the dedication of the "Kilmichael: B.B. King's Roots" Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Aug. 21, 2012 in Kilmichael, Miss. (Photo credit: Mississippi Blues Commission)

The Mississippi Blues Commission has designated music legend B.B. King as Mississippi’s Secretary of State of the Blues. One of the most renowned musicians in the world, King passed away in May of 2015.

Mississippi is the first and only state to recognize the contributions of a musician in this manner. The commission will be presenting the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center with a resolution for this recognition signed by Gov. Phil Bryant and the four living previous governors of Mississippi: Gov. William F. Winter, 1984-1988; Gov. Ray Mabus, 1988-1992; Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, 2000-2004; and Gov. Haley Barbour, 2004-2012. The resolution will be part of the permanent collection at the B.B. King Museum & Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss.

The resolution will be presented at the International Conference on the Blues at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. The conference, presented by the International Delta Blues Project and a diverse array of regional partners, includes a Blues Brunch featuring a panel discussion moderated by noted blues scholar Dr. William Ferris and comprised of members of the Mississippi Blues Commission. Blues legends Bobby Rush and James “Super Chikan” Johnson will also be in attendance. The presentation of the resolution will take place during the conference’s brunch event on Oct. 6 at 9:30 a.m. in the Delta Music Institute on Delta State’s campus.

“On behalf of the entire Mississippi Blues Commission, it is a privilege to honor B.B. King as our Mississippi Secretary of State of the Blues,” said J. Kempf Poole, chairman of the Mississippi Blues Commission. “Mr. King is one of Mississippi’s most influential sons, and with this designation I am proud to say that B.B. King has taken his rightful place at the head of the blues table.”

Known worldwide as “The King of the Blues,” King was considered one of the most influential musicians of all time. His artistic contributions and accolades are numerous and span decades. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the R&B Music Hall of Fame, King received more than a dozen GRAMMY Awards between 1970-2010, including the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and a GRAMMY Hall of Fame Award for his historically significant recording “The Thrill is Gone.”

During the 1990s, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honors. During the 2000s, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music awarded him the Polar Music Prize, and President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A recipient of honorary doctorate degrees from Tougaloo College, Yale University and Brown University, King was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as No. 6 on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

“Mississippi is known the world over as the birthplace of America’s music, and B.B. King is one of its founding legends and one of our state’s most treasured gifts to the music world,” said Gov. Phil Bryant. “For decades, our souls have been stirred by his talents. From juke joints to concert halls, there is no place his influence hasn’t reached. Deborah and I are saddened by B.B.’s passing. Mississippi has lost a legend. He is the king. The thrill is gone.”

Former Gov. Haley Barbour echoed Bryant’s sentiments.

An emotional King is surrounded by Mississippi legislators in Jackson, Miss. as he is presented with a concurrent resolution naming Feb. 15, 2005, as B.B. King Day. (Photo credit: Mississippi Blues Commission)

An emotional King is surrounded by Mississippi legislators in Jackson, Miss. as he is presented with a concurrent resolution naming Feb. 15, 2005, as B.B. King Day.

(Photo credit: Mississippi Blues Commission)

“B.B. King was a wonderful ambassador for Mississippi,” said Barbour. “The King of the Blues never forgot Mississippi was home, and he graced us often with his presence. He will be missed. Marsha and I had him for lunch at the Governor’s Mansion on a day he was honored by the legislature. He was warm and delightful, but I will never forget how he gave credit to the people that had helped him throughout his career. He had a big heart as well as big talent.”

The Mississippi Blues Commission is a body of 18 appointed commissioners representing major organizations and geographic/political regions supporting blues initiatives throughout the state. One of the commission’s major projects is ongoing governance of the Mississippi Blues Trail, which began unofficially with two preliminary markers placed in Indianola, which King adopted as his hometown. Highlighting the importance of his contributions, the first marker was placed at a corner where King played as a young man. The other was placed at historic Club Ebony, which is now part of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.

Continuous expansion of the Mississippi Blues Trail throughout the state, country and the world is a testament to the global influence of blues music and culture. The Mississippi Blues Trail consists of more than 170 markers throughout the state. There also are 14 out-of-state Blues Trail markers, two of which are located outside of the U.S. — one in Norway, commemorating the Notodden Blues Festival, and the other in France, commemorating the Cahors Blues Festival.

“Local and global tourism and cultural heritage influences of the Mississippi Blues Trail will be discussed during the Blues Brunch at the International Conference on the Blues,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, a member of the Blues Commission, and director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. “Members of the commission will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Mississippi Delta native and blues and southern studies expert Dr. Bill Ferris from UNC Chapel Hill. This is an appropriate venue for the Mississippi Blues Commission to pay homage to B.B. King, a local hero whose musicianship and life achievements have helped to put the Mississippi Delta on the international map as a blues heritage destination.”

The Mississippi Blues Trail has been made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Mississippi Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, AT&T, and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. The program is housed within and managed by the Mississippi Development Authority’s Visit Mississippi.

For more information, contact Mary Margaret Miller, bureau manager for Creative Economy & Culture at Visit Mississippi, at mmmiller@mississippi.org or 601-213-7300.

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. For more information, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/academics/delta-center-for-culture-and-learning/.

International Conference on the Blues brings musicians, music scholars to campus

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The Second Annual International Conference on the Blues promises to bring legendary entertainment and academics to Delta State University on Monday, Oct. 5 and Tuesday, Oct. 6, including GRAMMY award-winning Blues artist Dom Flemons, former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Dr. William Ferris, an historic statewide proclamation honoring B.B. King and a free performance from GRAMMY-nominated Blues musician Bobby Rush and Mississippi Governor’s Award-winning Blues musician James “Super Chikan” Johnson.

The conference, which is still open for registration, brings together Blues scholars, historians and fans from all over the United States in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a place known as the epicenter of Blues music and history.

Among the highlights of this year’s Blues conference:

* the bestowing of a statewide proclamation signed by all five living Mississippi governors designating B.B. King as the “Mississippi’s Secretary of State of the Blues”;

* a keynote address by Blues scholar and Southern culture historian Dr. William Ferris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;

* a master class and performance from GRAMMY winner Dom Flemons, known as the “American Songster”;

* events highlighting Blues music songwriters and performers including ‘Blues in the Round’ sponsored by Visit Mississippi;

* and “The Storytellers featuring Bobby Rush and Super Chikan: Up Close and Personal”, a free public concert sponsored by the International Delta Blues Project and the Bologna Performing Arts Center.

Visit here for a complete schedule of events, or here for a complete list of presenters.

“This year’s International Conference on the Blues represents the power of the Blues to strengthen partnerships and to engage diverse communities on local, regional, national, and global scales,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. “We appreciate the generous support of the Robert M. Hearin Foundation and other organizations that are making this conference possible, including Visit Mississippi, Entergy, Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, Bridging the Blues, Mississippi Blues Commission, BPAC, Mississippi Grounds, GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, the Dockery Farms Foundation and several other sponsors and partners. Through these relationships, Delta State University is empowered to offer an unparalleled educational and cultural experience to its students, faculty, and staff, as well as Delta residents and visitors.”

The second annual conference is part of the International Delta Blues Project, which is funded by the Robert M. Hearin Foundation and is based at The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. The conference is being managed by a team of campus and community collaborators including the Delta Music Institute, the Department of Music, the Division of Languages & Literature, the Office of Institutional Grants, and Cleveland Tourism.

“I always marvel at the variety of scholars that our conference attracts,” said Dr. Shelley Collins, a professor in the Department of Music and co-chair of the International Conference on the Blues. “Either our presenters are alums of these schools, graduate students at these universities, or teach at the following institutions: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, George Washington University, The University of North Texas, the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho, the University of Oregon, Indiana University, Loyola University of New Orleans, Columbus State University, the New York City Public Schools, and Perm State University in Russia.”

Flemons who is known the “American Songster,” has performed music professionally since 2005 and has played live for over one million people just within the past three years. As part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, he has played at a variety of festivals spanning from the Newport Folk Festival to Bonnaroo, in addition to renowned venues such as the Grand Ole Opry.

Ferris, a widely recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music, and folklore, is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the senior associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. He is also adjunct professor in the curriculum on folklore.

The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ferris has conducted thousands of interviews with musicians ranging from the famous (B.B. King) to the unrecognized (Parchman Penitentiary inmates working in the fields). He has written or edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films.

“Bill Ferris is a personal hero of mine,” said Don Allan Mitchell, interim chair of the Division of Languages & Literature and co-chair of the International Conference on the Blues. “Every Blues class I teach, I have my students read his groundbreaking Blues from the Delta book, which is an essential text for any Blues scholar or fan.”

Mitchell said the appearance by Flemons expected to be an exciting part of the conference.

“Dom Flemons is known for his work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but he is also a walking American songbook, and his knowledge and expertise in playing the country Blues and classic Blues is phenomenal,” Mitchell said.

This year’s conference promises to build on the vision established for the event when it began last year, Mitchell added.

“We hope to establish a long-term and sustainable Blues musicology conference, and we especially want to foster the next generation of emerging scholars of the African American Blues tradition,” he said. “Yes, the Mississippi Delta has a legacy tied to the Delta Blues, but the Blues has become a world-wide music, and we want to examine all genres of the Blues and its ever-present global influence. We know that Cleveland & Delta State prides itself on hospitality, so we think we are a perfect place to host such scholarly dialogues.”

For more information, please contact Mitchell and Collins at blues@deltastate.edu.

The mission of The Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. For more information, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/academics/delta-center-for-culture-and-learning/.