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Today is September 27, 2020

Mississippi Seen

Natchez Renaissance man

By Walt Grayson

Natchez Renaissance man

I actually looked up the definition for “Renaissance man.” Google said it is, “A person with many talents or areas of knowledge.” So, my friend Burnely Cook in Natchez fits the bill. He wouldn’t say so. And would probably argue against the idea. But what does he know?

The first time I met Burnely, he was restoring the old pipe organ from the long-gone Baker Grand Theatre in Natchez. The organ had been crammed into storage for 40 years. A notice popped up on Facebook one day that if anybody wanted it, come get it. Otherwise, it was going to the dump.

Although Burnley is an accomplished pianist, he had never played the organ. However, he couldn’t possibly let something of such significance hit the trash heap. So, he gathered the thing into his garage and spent the next five years reading and tinkering and finding other people who knew about pipe organs and put all of its hundreds and hundreds of pieces back together. He even modernized it with a MIDI control system. So now it plays even better than it did when it was new.

Not to mention Burnley is a musical living jukebox. Ask him if he can play any song and he can! Plop a piece of sheet music in front of him and he can rip through that, too.

So Burnley’s musical talent coupled with the restoration of the Baker Grand Organ had already given me enough admiration for him to last the rest of my life. Then, I clicked on his Facebook page the other day and found Burnley painting! Painting really good pictures! Is there no end to this man’s talent? 

Burnley said he has always painted. Even when he was just a kid, he played around with colors and paints. Well, so did I. But my pictures never got past the “what’s that supposed to be?” stage. So, I gave up on it. I assumed to paint a recognizable painting someone must possess great talent from birth. But Burnley said I just stopped too short of the goal line. I quit too early.

According to Burnley, anybody can draw. People aren’t born with a Rembrandt gene. It’s just like so many other things — playing the piano or cooking — anything. It’s the desire. How badly do you want it?

In reality, a lot of Burnley’s artistic “talent” comes from reading and watching videos. And then applying what he has learned. Want it and then practice it. 

My third-grade teacher told us, she couldn’t take the tops of our heads off and pour the knowledge in. We had to study to put it there.

We will never just wake up one morning with all of those abilities we’d like to have dripping from our fingertips. But we can wake up and practice or take a class. Want it and work for it and become a Renaissance person — like my friend Burnley Cook in Natchez.


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.” He lives in Brandon and is a Central Electric member. Contact him at

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