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Today is August 14, 2018

Mississippi Seen

When it comes to American music, Mississippi has bragging rights

When it comes to American music, Mississippi has bragging rights

Robert Johnson was another of the initial inductees into the MAX Hall of Fame. His music influenced many of the top rock and blues and derivative genre musicians for decades. If there was a family tree of American music, Robert Johnson would be a strong branch if not a trunk. This grave marker is located at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, near Greenwood. The MAX Museum opens in Meridian in April. Photo: Walt Grayson

The logo on our current Mississippi car tag reminds us that Mississippi is the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” I had a chance to have that slogan proved to me recently. ‘Course, I have always wholeheartedly agreed with it.

I was invited to emcee the inaugural induction into the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience (MAX) Hall of Fame one Saturday night last December in Meridian. There were 18 past and present writers, actors and musicians in that first round of inductees.

I thought it significant that the first person inducted into the MAX Hall of Fame was also the first person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame years ago. Jimmie Rodgers. Country music lore says Jimmie Rodgers was the “man who started it all.” And Jimmie Rodgers is from Meridian.

What Rodgers did was to marry blues themes to string band music. When you take the stuff of life expressed in blues—your sugar left you for someone else, times are hard and the baby is hungry, heartbreak and lonesomeness, the comedy and euphoria of pulling something over on someone, especially an enemy—and rock it with a guitar and a banjo, you create another art form. A new canvas on which to paint the infinite emotions of the human heart attempting to navigate through life.

Elvis was obviously inducted in that first round. I was about 6 years old when Elvis hit. His first influence on me was to grow out the crew cut I had sported since my first haircut. Couldn’t grow the sideburns then. They still don’t look worth a flip when I try. But I have had long hair to one degree or another ever since (a longer degree for a while when the Beatles came along). I can’t play and I can’t sing that well. So I leave my hair needing a cut as my contribution to Mississippi music.

B.B. King was an inductee. I had the chance to interview B.B. at his annual Homecoming in Indianola back in the 90s. I asked him what made him decide to go into full-time blues and away from gospel early on.

He told me he really liked gospel. But when he would bring his guitar to the streets of Indianola on a Saturday night and play a gospel song, people would compliment him highly and slap him on the back and tell him how great he was going to be some day. But they didn’t tip.

Then, when he played a blues song he said they would always tip, maybe buy him a hamburger or a beer.

And he stopped dead cold and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Any other questions?” And then let out a belly laugh that everybody standing around listening to the interview joined in on. Including me.

But here’s the marvelous thing about Mississippi. We all know we have high marks on blues, rock-and-roll and country. But also inducted into the MAX Hall of Fame last month were other Mississippi artists who are the best examples of their fields. Leontyne Price, the opera diva from Laurel, for example, whose name is recognized even by people who don’t know Vivaldi from a Volkswagen.

Muddy Waters was inducted. He pioneered electric blues after he moved to Chicago and started playing Delta music on an electric guitar. The Rolling Stones took their name from one of his songs.

And these first writers and actors and musicians are just the beginning. We have lots more “first” and “most famous” and “most influential” right here in Mississippi.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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