Monday, June 28, 2004

Mississippi reclaiming the blues

Jacqueline Gooch, a 12-year old Delta resident with a Janis-Joplin voice, is positioned to sign a record contract later this summer. She has received extensive attention, playing in festivals across the Delta and in several other states. She began playing the guitar at age 7 and credits lessons at the Delta Blues Museum as the beginning of her interest in the blues.


State and local officials are using education programs like the one Gooch attended to extend the state's musical tradition, and they are encouraging all residents to see the benefit of working together to reclaim the state's blues heritage.


"Memphis and Chicago regularly advertise that they are the birthplace of the blues. It is important for Mississippi to reclaim that status," said Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University and member of the state Blues Commission.


The challenge is that unlike those major cities, Mississippi is a vast area filled with blues history and music in nearly every nook and cranny.


However, many of those communities have been competing against one another instead of working as a whole, said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues, an Oxford-based publication that has covered the national blues scene for 35 years.


The buzz of activity surrounding the blues was the focus of a recent Living Blues issues that revolved around blues sites in Mississippi.


The Blues Highway organization, an ad hoc group of people interested in state blues heritage, meet six times a year to discuss the state of the blues.


The group grew out of research the state conducted four years ago and includes business owners, organizations and professors.


What's being done?


The organization joins a number of state and local groups that recognize the need for local involvement as they attempt to attract more tourists.


In January, Gov. Haley Barbour approved a state Blues Commission to develop a marketing plan for blues sites across the state.


The commission, made up of blues experts and business owners, has not officially met but has talked of improving infrastructure and markers for historic sites as some possible goals.


The goal of all of these movements is to ensure that the blues culture and music is carried on, and education programs, such as the one run by the Howlin' Wolf Blues Society in West Point, play a major role.


Charles Regan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said the education programs offer children the unique opportunity of experience and art firsthand.


"We have programs in the schools and mentoring programs at community centers in the state that are having older performers teach the blues to younger ones, passing on the tradition, just as we have school programs that teach students to approach Faulkner and Welty and help them understand that being from Mississippi means we have a great cultural tradition that needs to be extended," he said.


The hope is that, by increasing education about the blues and the evolution of blues music, Mississippi children will carry on the keep the music alive.


About a dozen of the 35 children involved in the Delta Blues Museum education program recently traveled to Mount Vernon, Ill., to play in the Blues and Barbecue Festival, said Shelley Ritter, museum director.


Past students have visited the White House to perform, and local blues musicians drop in frequently to give expert tips.


"A lot of the local musicians even drop in to cherry pick, trying to recruit some of the better musicians," she said. "So, it is not unusual for the students to sit in on performances at Sarah's Kitchen and Ground Zero."


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