Sights and Sounds: For MSMS students, music’s past comes to life along the Mississippi Blues Trail

May 30, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


For years, Performing Arts Director Dawn Barham harbored the idea of hitting the road -- or, more specifically, the blues trail -- with her band and choral students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus. That vision became reality a few months ago when Barham, history instructor Julie Heintz and 50-plus excited teens struck out for the fertile Delta to tap into the rich roots of America''s indigenous music at selected sites along the Mississippi Blues Commission''s official Blues Trail.  


The "Sights and Sounds of Mississippi" tour and multimedia concert project was a culmination of the students'' study of the historical significance of the Delta''s role in the development of the blues. The exposure would lead to an invitation to perform for the legislature at the state capitol, a feature in DeSoto magazine and a performance in Como May 7 at the dedication of a trail marker honoring Mississippi Fred McDowell, a celebration attended by multi-Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. 


"I''d always wanted to do this," said Barham, an accomplished guitarist and vocalist herself. "As a musician, I''m obviously inspired by the contributions to music that Mississippians have made. I''m also moved by how the Delta blues music -- and most music, for that matter -- was a response to social and political issues. A great deal of history-making went on in the Delta, and I wanted to share it with my students." 




Prime partnership 


As Barham discussed her plan with Heintz, a fellow MSMS educator, who had organized the "City Blocks" history project enacted in downtown Columbus, seeds for a collaboration between the history and music departments sprouted. 


While Barham and her students went to work finalizing Blues Trail sites to visit and rehearsing a concert repertoire, pupils in Heintz'' "The ''60s: a Decade of Change" class began research on the selected sites and figures so they could act as guides and docents during the mid-November tour. The results yielded poignant visual backdrops used during concert performances at the B.B. King Museum and Cassie Pennington Middle School in Indianola and at the Hernando Performing Arts Center.  


"We prepared gospel, blues, jazz and rock and roll pieces; the history students prepared PowerPoint presentations depicting scenes and images about our state''s role in the civil rights movement and contributions to the world of music," Barham said.  


"The whole trip was really fun. I didn''t know a lot about the blues, so I learned a lot," said student Ann Marie Piccone, of Starkville.  


"I think going on the trip gave me a better understanding of where our modern music came from," added Aynsley Wright, of Columbus. Both students, seniors at the time of the tour, graduated from MSMS earlier this month.  




On the road  


Aboard a yellow school bus, the group of 55 followed sites along a route from Clarksdale to Memphis, Tenn. They came to "know" some of the authentic masters who channeled the Delta blues'' lifeblood -- Hubert Sumlin (still living and performing), Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Pinetop Perkins, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Son House and Memphis Minnie.  


They visited touchstone sites from the Magnolia State''s soulful past. One of the most inspirational was Dockery Farms, a cornerstone, once 10,000 acres, many cite as the birthplace of the Delta sound. Dockery was, for three decades, intermittently the home of Charley Patton (1891-1934), "the most important early Delta blues musician," as well as others who came through, some as sharecroppers or itinerant workers -- Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Howlin'' Wolf, Eddie "Son" House, Robert Johnson and David "Honeyboy" Edwards and "Pop" Staples.  


As a testament to its place in history, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Later members of the Dockery family have even established The Dockery Farms Foundation to conduct research into the Delta Blues. 




Where history happened 


The group also visited the weathered Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, where traveling musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Ike Turner lodged and blues singer Bessie Smith died in 1937 following a car accident on the way to Clarksdale to perform. 


The Emmitt Till Exhibit at Delta State University; Hopson Planting Co. and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale; B.B. King Museum in Indianola; and the Stax Museum, Sun Studios and Graceland in Memphis were other significant stops.  


"Going to the Elvis museum was pretty profound for me because I''d gone to his birth home in Tupelo," said Austin Clinton, of Petal, one of Heintz'' history students. "Seeing Graceland in person, that was pretty impressive -- that you could go from that little almost one-room house to Graceland, that has everything and then some." 


"The trip was definitely worthwhile," endorsed Clinton, who says he grew up listening to B.B. King and Son House. "I know that most of the people on the trip didn''t have much of a blues background, so it was definitely a learning experience. It was pretty interesting to move around the state and see places that were actually that important." 




Play it again 


The "Sights and Sounds of Mississippi" project was such a hit, Barham and Heintz are enthusiastic about an encore. 


Even as the yellow bus headed for home, Barham admits she was furiously jotting notes to herself that began, "Don''t forget about ... " and "Remember to stop at ... " 


"The response has been overwhelmingly positive," she affirmed. "It was a whirlwind, but it was such an exciting trip and so rewarding. ... The idea keeps growing on how we can expand on it. We want to make the trip longer, have listening nights, have more students involved ... " 


Heintz agrees. "It was fantastic. It was a wonderful opportunity to introduce an interdisciplinary project. By having the students take an active role, it really made the history come alive and provided them ownership in the tour." 


The objective was to bring the historical and cultural contributions of the Mississippi Delta to the world to life for the students and their audiences -- and to help the students become educated, impassioned and informed ambassadors for our state, Barham shared. 


The verdict? "Mission accomplished!" 




Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.