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It's the blues, man: West Point festival, blues bash to celebrate 'Year of the Wolf'

 

West Point’s Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society vice president and program director Richard Ramsey, right, volunteer Amber Ramsey, left, and Ritz Theater and Conference Center theater manager and event coordinator Elizabeth Dichiara, center, got together Wednesday to promote the Sept. 3 15th annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival at The Civic, and the Sept. 4 Blues Bash at The Ritz. Rare footage of Clay County native Howlin’ Wolf plays on the Ritz Theater’s screen in the background.

West Point’s Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society vice president and program director Richard Ramsey, right, volunteer Amber Ramsey, left, and Ritz Theater and Conference Center theater manager and event coordinator Elizabeth Dichiara, center, got together Wednesday to promote the Sept. 3 15th annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival at The Civic, and the Sept. 4 Blues Bash at The Ritz. Rare footage of Clay County native Howlin’ Wolf plays on the Ritz Theater’s screen in the background. Photo by: Kelly Tippett

 

Jan Swoope

 

The late critic/musician Cub Koda once said of Howlin'' Wolf, "No one could match (him) for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits." 

 

That bigger-than-life embodiment of the blues and roots of rock are what the 15th annual Howlin'' Wolf Memorial Blues Festival in West Point Sept. 3, and the Ritz Blues Bash Sept. 4, are all about.  

 

In the year marking what would have been the Clay County native''s 100th birthday, fans from home and abroad will converge to happily wallow in the powerful vibe belted out by contemporary disciples like the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Blind Mississippi Morris, Cedric Burnside, Lightnin'' Malcolm and plenty more. 

 

"We''re selling tickets from Norway to London, from Connecticut to New York," said Richard Ramsey, vice president program director of the Howlin'' Wolf Blues Society of West Point, of the upcoming festival at The Civic at 130 Sixth St. Sept. 3. It''s one of the few blues festivals held indoors, in air conditioned comfort. Gates open at 4 p.m.; music starts at 5 p.m. 

 

Kenny Dill of West Point is president of the Blues Society.  

 

"This is a big day for us, especially since this year is Howlin'' Wolf''s 100th birthday," he said.  

 

"We''ve got a good line-up and everything''s on schedule to have a big time." Dill went on to point out Mississippi State''s Bulldogs play the Memphis Tigers the following day. "That should help with a lot of visitors in the area. We hope a lot of them will come on in Friday night." 

 

 

 

Festival lineup 

 

Ramsey outlined, "We start off at 5 p.m. with the Boondocks Blues Band, featuring Bobby ''Reverend Robert'' Reynolds, who was the national slide guitar champion in 2004. At 6 p.m., Cherry Lee Mewis from Colwyn Bay, North Wales, will deliver some old-time, jazzy blues." 

 

Next on the agenda will be Blind Mississippi Morris and the Black Prairie Blues Kings. "Morris has been named one of the top ten blues harp players in the world by Bluzharp magazine," said Ramsey. "He''ll be joined by Willie James Williams, Caleb Childs and Barry Bays." 

 

Clarksdale-born Mark "Muleman" Massey, with Billy Earheart, go on near 8 p.m., specializing in down-home country blues. Earheart is a Grammy-winning artist with the Amazing Rhythm Aces and The Bama Band.  

 

James "Super Chikan" Johnson of Clarksdale and the Fighting Cocks, at 9 p.m., and the Homemade Jamz Blues Band of Tupelo, at 10:30 p.m., will co-headline the festival. Johnson was nominated for the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, Song of the Year and Traditional Blues Male Artist awards at the 2010 Blues Music Awards.  

 

Homemade Jamz -- with brothers Ryan and Kyle Perry, 18 and 16 years old, and sister Taya Perry, 11 -- have been on fire. They''re the youngest (total age) blues band to ever enter the International Blues Challenge, where they took second in the band category in 2007. They''ve captured numerous other awards in their short and ever-expanding career.  

 

 

 

Added Blues Bash 

 

In honor of "Year of the Wolf," the blues celebration will expand into Saturday, Sept. 4, when the Ritz Theater and Conference Center downtown will host a Blues Bash beginning at 1 p.m. The Prairie Arts Festival will also be underway that day.  

 

Rare footage of Howlin'' Wolf will run on the theater screen between acts including the All Night Long Blues Band from Clarksdale, one-man-band Ben Prestage of Florida (with his handmade cigar box guitars) and the "two-man wrecking crew" of Cedric Burnside and Lightnin'' Malcolm. Food and cash bar will be available. 

 

 

 

How to go 

 

Tickets for the Sept. 3 festival at The Civic are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Purchase them in Columbus at Dill and Norris Co., in West Point at Bits N Pieces, and in Starkville at Jack Forbus Insurance. Or buy online at www.wpnet.org/Howlin_Festival.htm.  

 

Tickets to the Sept. 4 Blues Bash at the Ritz are $15 in advance at the theater at 125 Commerce St. in West Point. Tickets at the door are $20.  

 

For more information, contact Ramsey at rramsey@wpms.net, or 662-605-0770. 

 

 

 

Did you know? 

 

As a child growing up in Mississippi, Wolf -- Chester Arthur Burnett (his mother, Lilly, named him after the 21st president of the U.S.) -- at times was reportedly called Big Foot or Bull Cow. But the ultimate handle, the one that would help define him, came from his grandfather, John Jones. The patriarch used to tell the boy about roaming wolves that might "get him" if he didn''t behave.  

 

Credit, too, the "father of country music," Jimmie Rodgers. The Meridian-born legend was one of Wolf''s idols. The story goes that, when Burnett tried to imitate Rodger''s "blue yodel," it ended up sounding more like a growl or a howl.  

 

"I couldn''t do no yodelin'', so I turned to howlin'' and it''s done me just fine," he once stated. 

 

Howlin'' Wolf would eventually top 6-feet-6-inches, and weigh close to 300 pounds -- as imposing physically as he was vocally. That power propelled him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the former Clay Countian as No. 51 on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." 

 

 

 

Keeping the faith 

 

To ensure the legacy, the Howlin'' Wolf Blues Society was established with three primary goals, Dill said -- to pay tribute to the bluesman; hold the annual festival "to enjoy his music and bring to the public the impact he had, not only on the blues, but also on rock and roll"; and to help educate younger generations about the blues genre and its influence. 

 

The nonprofit organization''s efforts have led to a commemorative statue of Wolf in downtown West Point, the creation of the Howlin'' Wolf Blues Museum and a Blues in the Schools program. The society was honored in 2007 with a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from The Blues Foundation. 

 

Not bad for a movement whose seed was quietly planted many years ago, when a caller from California rang up then Mayor Dill at his office to ask what West Point was doing to commemorate its famous son''s birthday.  

 

"When this all started about 17 years ago, several of us got together and just wanted to pay tribute to Howlin'' Wolf. It''s worked out good ... and we have a good time." 

 

 

 

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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