Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blues Traveling' Another Helpful Guide to Tri-State Delta Sites


(Originally published: August 8, 2004)

B.B. King's eight-piece band warmed up the crowd for about 10 minutes while the star was still backstage at the auditorium at Ole Miss in Oxford.

When the band stopped playing, a tall middle-aged man in a dark suit walked out from stage left, but he obviously wasn't B.B. King, whom everyone was expecting when the music stopped. It took a moment for the audience to realize that actor Morgan Freeman was making a surprise appearance, and the sellout crowd gave him a standing ovation

B.B. King, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Mississippi last month, signs an autograph for a fan after a show.

Freeman had come out to introduce B.B. and to congratulate him for having earlier received an honorary doctorate from Ole Miss. King walked out from stage right with an aide alongside him (B.B., who is 78, has diabetes and doesn't get around as well as he used to), and the audience gave this sharecropper's son a standing ovation, too.

The mostly white audience was showing its affection for two black artists who have done well for themselves far beyond Mississippi - Freeman is a major movie star and King is the world's top bluesman while many in the audience must have remembered that 40 years ago white Mississippians had rioted to keep James Meredith, a black man, from enrolling at the school.

And now they had honored B. B. King and Freeman, too. Freeman gave King an Ole Miss sweatshirt, and they hugged, and then B.B. and the band got down to business, belting out many of his hits for the next 90 minutes.

King sat in a chair in front of his band with his guitar Lucille in his lap. Three other guitar players stood behind him, while his other musicians included two on tenor saxophones, one on piano and organ, another on trumpet and one on drums.

That's a lot of punch for the price of an admission ticket, and they did not disappoint. King played his hits -"The Thrill Is Gone," "How Blue Can You Get," "Key to the Highway," as well as standards such as "Summertime" - all mixed in with some downhome humor. King sat in his chair for the entire performance, his voice less powerful than it once was, but his guitar playing was as strong as ever.

When the show ended, he stood up and showered the audience with trinkets and guitar picks, then signed autographs for a couple of hours at a reception in a nearby room. King was the star attraction at the Living Blues symposium, but several other great blues musicians were at Oxford for the weekend, playing in the small clubs on the square.

Club hopping, we caught Corey Harris and Sam Carr playing as a duo. They had recently made a wonderful CD together, called "Mississippi to Mali," which we reviewed here Feb. 21. Harris, who had a major role in Martin Scorcese's blues series on PBS, is an anthropologist-singer-guitar player who keeps exploring the African roots of the blues.

He attended a symposium on the subject at Ole Miss after playing with drummer Carr until closing time the night before. Blues scholars David Evans from the University of Memphis, Paul Oliver from Oxford University in England and others discussed the instruments found in West Africa that are related to those used by blues musicians here.

Evans has done several important field recordings and written a biography of Tommy Johnson, while Oliver, who has also made important field recordings, has written such reference works as "Conversation with the Blues" and "The Story of the Blues," which we'll review in a future issue. About the closest you can get to African music in this country is hearing the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which put on a show outside a juke joint in Abbeville, north of Oxford.

Taking the place of Othar Turner, the nonagenarian fife player who passed away more than a year ago, is his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who is not yet in her teens.

Turner and his family played in Little Rock a few years ago, and the music is as ancient as the slave ships that brought their captives to the new continent. Jack Johnson, a great bluesman from Clarksdale, Miss., played inside the juke joint as record executives, journalists, scholars and fans from all over the world packed the metal building from the back of the bar right up to the bandstand.

This historic weekend would not have taken place without the support of the University of Mississippi, which has published Living Blues magazine for more than 20 years and is now edited by Mark Camarigg, who is committed to making the publication as vital as ever. (Watch for the magazine's special Mississippi issue next month.)

Before Ole Miss acquired it, Living Blues was published in Chicago for more than a decade, and the magazine's founders, Jim O'Neal, Amy Van Single and Bruce Iglauer, were at the symposium and enjoying the great music.

They not only founded one of the most important cultural magazines in the world, but they've helped popularize the blues in this country and around the world. O'Neal and Van Single, who were once married, have edited a terrific book of interviews called "The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews from Living Blues Magazine." It has interviews with Muddy Waters, Houston Stack-house, Jimmy Reed, Esther Phillips, Eddie Boyd and others. O'Neal and Iglauer also started two important labels, Rooster and Alligator Records.

Rooster has recorded little-known but gifted musicians from Mississippi and Arkansas, while Alligator started out with Chicago artists and has branched out all over the place. Iglauer is sending some of his musicians to Little Rock. The Holmes Brothers will be at Sticky Fingerz next Friday, while Arkan-sas native Michael Burks appears there on Thursday, April 8.


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