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Today is May 22, 2019

Mississippi Seen

Mississippi’s music legacy

By Walt Grayson

Mississippi’s music legacy

Our car tags that are retiring this year proclaim Mississippi to be the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” That line is more than an advertising catchphrase` or an idle boast. As a matter of fact baseball legend and adopted Mississippian, Dizzy Dean said, “It ain’t braggin' if you can do it.” So Mississippi being the Birthplace of America’s Music “ain’t braggin'.” It’s just a statement of fact.

Think of it like this. Blues was born in the Delta. Now, to be honest there were blues players all the way from San Antonio to Savanna. But for every single bluesman elsewhere, there were ten of them here. And the ones we had here were the forerunners of the art form. Charlie Patton influenced Robert Johnson who influenced everybody else in blues and even rock music, for example. Then the blues went to the city and became jazz.

But blues isn’t the only kind of music from Mississippi. Jimmie Rodgers of Meridian took blues themes and played them to string band rhythms and invented country music. He was the first inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. They said he was, “The man who started it all.” By the way, Jimmie Rodgers was also the first person inducted into the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience Hall of Fame in Meridian. That’s another museum you need to go see. Soon.

Then folks like Elvis Presley from Tupelo added another layer of country to blues or blues to country and when they did the result was rock and roll. And the rest of America’s music (as well as most of the music of Western Culture) is based on derivatives of one, or a combination, of those art forms – blues, country or rock.

But Mississippi has produced way more than Elvis and Faith Hill and Charlie Pride. Dr. James Brewer has compiled over a thousand entries in his book, “Legendary Musicians Whose Art Changed the World,” about Mississippi music and musicians. Along with editing the book, he also curates the Mississippi Music Museum in Hazlehurst where the lesser-known names in Mississippi music are given recognition.

The Hazlehurst Museum isn’t polished like the Grammy Museum in Cleveland but is sort of like a busy man cave with posters and records and instruments and pieces of art in display cases or hanging on the walls or stored in cardboard boxes to make it easy to shuffle through. People you’ve never heard of have a place here like the person who got James Brewer (let me call him Jim, that’s what I know him by) interested in researching Mississippi music to begin with.

Jim was at a concert and heard a song composed by Dee Barton from Starkville. Not a household name. But come to find out, Barton played with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson and composed music for five Clint Eastwood movies. Not bad for an “unknown.”

Jim told me about Winfred Palmer from McComb who composed over 600 piano pieces as well as inventing a bombsite in World War II. (He also invented turn signals for cars. Too bad many drivers are unaware of them.)

If you are at all interested in Mississippi’s music legacy, find a copy of Jim’s book and then actually visit the museum in Hazlehurst. It’s in the old railroad depot downtown. Hopefully, you will come away with a better understanding of how Mississippians have made significant contributions to not only rock, country and blues but classical music and jazz and opera and pretty much all the other types of music I can’t even think of off the top of my head.

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

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