Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mississippi Music

The Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, founded by Jackson Jim Brewer to single out legendary musicians not honored previously, recently named Jimmy Reed,the Rev. Cleophus Robinson, Blind Roosevelt Graves and the Mississippi Jook Band, Freddy Waits, Charlie Feathers and Tommy Johnson. They represented the fields of gospel, rock, R&B,jazz, country and blues, in that order.

Now retiring Brewer is handing the reins over to another Jacksonian who has plans for continuing the tradition set by the founder. Despite Brewer's consistency with his Hall of Fame (1998 til now), I've only noticed his work. Perhaps that's because I now have more time to reminisce, remember...

On a visit to Yazoo City last spring with my sister who was gathering information about the town for a magazine article, we were reminded in the chamber's museum located in an refurbished school building, that the city claimed a few blues musicians who originated there. John Lee Hooker and Arnold "Gate Mouth" Moore were the only two we recognized by name.

However, other towns around the state, notably the Delta area, keep these musicians alive through various venues.

Clarksdale, in the Delta, honor musicians with their Blues Museum. The Delta Blues and Heritage Fest held annually is one not to be missed. Despite the heat that sits with you in September, the music is deep-down great. While there you can eat at any of the three restaurants in Clarksdale owned by actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in a nearby town.

My first teaching year was spent in the Delta. Despite my college education, I hadn't ever visited the Delta, a treeless plain that used to get refreshed with the overflow of the Mississippi River. My fellow teachers and I would travel from the little town of Drew on Saturdays to Clarksdale to shop and see a movie. There was no Blues Museum, nor a Ground Zero restaurant where my husband and I ate in 2000, nothing of particular interest. Just a good movie theatre without rats running across our feet.

Quoting from the chamber website is a sketch of Delta Blues:

"Mississippi Delta Blues is globally recognized as one of the most America's important musical forms. A major catalyst for American popular culture, it exists in both a folk context and as a product of the commercial music industry. In the face of a historically brutal social experience, black folk in America affirmed their humanity by remembering and creating a rich expressive culture of poetry, tales, crafts, ritual, dance and music. This system embodied techniques of cultural transmission, transformation, adaptation and survival. Early Blues developed out of this rich fabric and cross-fertilized the work-songs, love-songs, slow drags, rags and spirituals. Delta Blues soon became the emotional and literary voice of black singers across the south."

Growing up and living in the city I was only accustomed to popular music. Once when visiting my relatives in the South Mississippi countryside, I was invited to go with cousins to a party. The music was name-denying. Three grown men with their fiddles and violins played in the small living room in the tiny house, windows open wide so guests could mill around outside, talking and dancing and singing along. As a thirteen year old I was in a strange environment. The singing made me laugh. Laugh at the plain-ness, the countryside patois that unknowingly entered my soul to remain there for a half century. Nowadays I am reminded of the music of the early century that snapped in and out of my life as a child. How wonderful now to have this music slre-recorded and available.

Thanks to Mr. Brewer for singling out these musicians and making us more aware of the rhythms that have emanated throughout this landscape for over 100 years.

Blues Music in Recent Movie

Recent articles have made me aware of the significance of music in our state. Most people know that rhythm and blues has been predominant in Mississippi for decades. Two recent articles from our local paper interested me.

Oxford-based writer Scott Baretta reported that he put together the music for The Great Debaters movie starring Denzel Washington, which is now showing nationwide. As he tells it he was called by the music supervisor G. Marq Roswell to help put together "a band that could perform music that one might have heard in the Marshall, TX area juke joints in 1935."

Baretta contacted Alvin Youngbood Hart, a Memphis-based acoustic blues master and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a NC-based threesome now reviving early African-American string band traditions. He states that this combination was intended to "recreate the sounds of the Mississippi Sheiks, the most popular African-American string band of the pre-WWII era." There is a re-recorded album "Honey, Let the Deal Go Down: The Best of the Mississippi Sheiks" that has something for everyone.

(NOTE: In case you've not heard string bands, go to for string bands and listen to "String Bands, 1926-1920" In the list find and listen to the music of the Mississippi Sheiks and you'll understand the sound Baretta was reaching for.)

As in most movies large portions of filmed material are edited to fit the time frame, and the scenes with this music is no exception. However, the soundtrack features some great work by Hart, Chocolate Drops and singer Sharon Jones of the retro soul group Dap-Kings. Later guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges also of Memphis, lent his guitar of soul sounds to the final songs. Be sure and buy the CD after you've seen the great movie. You can bet this addition was enouraged by Washington, upon hearing the music and wanting more. Tofurther realism, the musicians can be seen in the scenes inside the juke joint.

See The Great Debaters and what Baretta achieved to enhance the story.

See online:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Those Christmases Long Ago

In the worst of times during World War II with rationing of gas and food, my family joined others in the United States by inviting a serviceman to lunch on December 25. For each of three Christmases we gave a soldier a few hours of attention and a home-cooked meal.

In preparation for the lunch in December, we saved a teaspoon of sugar in a special jar throughout the year. This was for two desserts. Each month Mother bought one food item. The menu never changed: turkey(sometimes a chicken), dressing, cranberry sauce, English peas, candied sweet potatoes, and pickled peaches. Dessert was Mother’s coconut cake and a chocolate pie -— made from scratch, of course.

Beginning in 1943 my grade-school sister and I, a gangly 13-year-old, planned and executed the room and table decorations: old Christmas cards dangling off a string hung above the doorways, a fresh cedar wreath on the front door, a small pine tree covered with silver balls and ringlets of construction paper (tinsel was needed for the war effort). Mother’s only white tablecloth, starched for the occasion, displayed her best dishes.

Thirty minutes before noon Dad left for the train depot, a mere 15-minute walk.Trains passed through our city to and from Memphis and New Orleans and crowds of service personnel choked the one-story building standing at the west end of downtown.

Dad’s responsibility was to select our guest. After entering the stuffy waiting room filled with cigarette smoke and the din of voices, he’d lean against a large column where he had full view. His eyes scanned each GI. He told us later how difficult it was to pick one serviceman from the hundreds milling around.

“They looked so vulnerable, so young,” he said later. “I hated that we couldn’t offer food to all of them.” He told us he searched for the young man who looked the most scared and lonely.

“You in town for awhile?” he’d ask the stranger. “There’s a hot meal waiting at my house. Want to join me and the family?” He and the hungry GI walked slowly back to our house chatting. This was Dad’s son for the day.

At the doorway we sisters rushed to embrace the soldier like he was a returning brother, pressing a small gift into his hands. At the table he could hardly swallow a bite of food, as we peppered him with questions about his life,his family, his state. After dessert and coffee we said our goodbyes reluctantly and Dad returned to the depot with a contented soldier, his duffle bag slung over one shoulder and a package of food for his supper in his hand.

Whether these young men completed their tours of duty, or died on some lonely spot of foreign soil, we never knew. However, they're a part of our memories of that time.

We sisters 10 years later

Saturday, December 08, 2007

December Surprises

The large pot of geraniums are flowering again. Multitudes of Bradford Pears, which dot downtown Madison and homes in the subdivisions, are showing their fall color of luscious crimson, other trees still have golden leaves waving in the slight breezes we occasionally have.

It's December and typical of most winters this time of the year. The temperature has risen from 50 degrees of last week to a promise of 80 degrees for today. Gives us plenty of reason to get out and see the seasonal decorations.

Not having a reason for decorating our home for children, we have to visit nearby Canton, setting for many of John Grisham's novels, for their "Sip 'N' Cider" contest as we visit stores to view their wares. Seems you visit the store, taste their favorite cider recipe, judge which store produces the best tastin' cider, listen to the music and watch the glitter of the lights.

Our local drama group will present "A Wonderful Life" for those who never get enough of that traditional story.

I just would like a cold, cold day for the 25th. Traditional songs and customs seem to disappear when the weather is warm. Yes, I like tradition and customs, but I know that I'm really celebrating a special birth. And that doesn't need good weather.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mississippi Has Redeeming Qualities

The local paper has the usual bad news on their front page. In recent weeks we Mississippians have found out that we are FIRST in obesity and in hunger. Figure that, please.

However, this Sunday on the page entitled "Viewpoint" appeared an article written by Dr. Gary Scott, who serves as Senior Research Fellow in Civic Literacy at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.(See

The headline screamed:


Whoa! I don't know many folks in the Northeast who'd have that opinion. But the article stated that in an "academic competition,2006, Mississippi's major state universities had defeated Yale."

Researchers tested some 14,000 students at random, half being seniors, the other half freshmen. In its second survey held, Miss State seniors ranked in their knowledge of civics 6th among surveyed schools, Ole Miss 10th. Although the seniors had taken few civic courses than the schools surveyed, these courses were of higher quality in the relevant subjects than Yale provided their students.

The article further stated that Yale, "despite its poor performance in teaching students about America and ranking 49th, imposes great costs on American taxpayers... The Mississippi schools, by contrast, impose relatively modest costs."

So to those folks who make fun of Southerners as not educated well enough to vote, never having read a decent newspaper, only view soap operas on television, I say, DO YOUR HOMEWORK before assuming that we're a bunch of rednecks.