Tonight from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the Black Prairie Blues Museum in downtown West Point, there will be a musical event not only to hear but to experience. The museum, which is under construction, will be open from 6.30 am to 7.15 am with the exhibition âJuke Joint Photographsâ by Birney Imes. Then at 7:30 a.m., the Mississippi State University Opera Department will sing the blues on Commerce Street, which will be closed in front of the museum. To set the mood for what will be a great MSU Opera Department blues performance, Deborah Mansfield, a member of the museum’s board, announced that “the quintessential Wagnerian stereotype: horned helmets pseudo-vikings “will be sold at the museum. It will be fun, the music will be delicious, and it will be free and open to the public.
As enjoyable as it may be, there is an educational component. You’ll get a taste of the opera, a taste of the blues, and a taste of history. You see, the blues is the music of Mississippi and although of African American descent it transcends race and culture. When most people think of the blues, they think of the Delta blues, the Memphis blues, the St. Louis blues, or the Hill Country blues. There is also the Black Prairie blues. The old Black Prairie of Mississippi and Alabama has blues roots as deep if not deeper than anywhere else.
The black prairie was named after its fertile black soil. It stretches in a narrow crescent shape from northeast Mississippi to south-central Alabama. It was colonized by Euro-Americans between 1816 and 1835 after the capture of the homeland of the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The slaves who were brought to cultivate the rich and dark land took with them their musical heritage from Africa.
Blues is music based on the chants of work and hard times experienced by plantation and steamboat workers, and the Black Prairie was the original cotton and corn belt of the south. In the middle flowed the rivers Alabama, Warrior and Tombigbee. Just as the workers in the cotton fields of the Prairies sang work songs, so did the deckhands on the steamboats that plied the rivers. It was hard work and a hard life, but the music helped.
After emancipation, the former slaves mostly became sharecroppers and their hard lives and music continued. Their field songs, their steamboat songs and their dismal ballads merged into the blues.
It is a musical tradition predating that of the Delta, although it is often referred to as Delta Blues. It’s even sometimes called the hill blues, although the mountainous northeastern Mississippi region lacks the large farms and African American prairie population.
Among the notable musicians of the prairie is Blind Ben Covington who first recorded in 1929 and was not blind. Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) is considered to have, along with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, one of the greatest female blues voices of all time. Howlin ‘Wolf (1910-1976), although a bluesman, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Big Joe Williams (1903-1982) was born in Crawford and has been nicknamed the “King of the Nine String Guitar”. The music of Bukka White (1906 / 09-1977) influenced both Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. Willie King (1943-2009) was also an internationally renowned bluesman, who won numerous national awards and was even the subject of a Dutch documentary. Black Prairie’s musical heritage is the Blues.
In 2014, the Prairie Belt Blues Foundation, which manages the museum, was founded as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit foundation to take on the mission and projects of the Howlin ‘Wolf Blues Society.
The new foundation was established with Milton Sundbeck as its first president and through his leadership, commitment and generosity, the foundation secured and restored the more than one hundred year old historic Bank of West Point building in the center of town of West Point, Mississippi, known as Black Prairie. Blue Museum. The foundation broadened its focus from primarily promoting the legacy of Howlin ‘Wolf and a few local blues musicians to a celebration of the legacy of the many blues musicians of the former Black Prairie area of ââMississippi and the ‘Alabama.
In pursuit of its mission to celebrate and promote the legacy of the blues, the foundation has used the museum as a venue for blues music performances and for blues-related educational activities for young people. The museum’s exhibits are in the formative stage as curator Jeremy Klutts organizes his collections and the board of trustees works with Museum Arts of Dallas Texas on the design and layout of the exhibits. However, the creative leadership of Deborah Mansfield has enabled the interior of the museum to be used for community events promoting blues heritage for young and old as design plans progress. Although permanent exhibits are not yet in place, the Black Prairie Blues Museum often hosts exhibits and is a living museum promoting the legacy of the blues musicians of ancient Black Prairie. It is with this in mind that the museum has joined forces with the opera department of the MSU in this fusion of blues and opera. I already have my Wagnerian horned viking helmet and can’t wait to be tonight.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a native of Columbus a local historian. Email your questions about local history to Rufus at [emailÂ protected]