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To draw tourists, the Mississippi Delta plays on its musical heritage
BY Richard Grant | PHOTOS William Widmer | PUBLICATION Al Jazeera America
When tourists started showing up here, I couldn’t figure out what they saw in the place,” says Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a 67-year-old blues musician and owner of the Blue Front Café. It’s a scruffy little drinking spot and informal music venue — a juke joint. The floor is weathered concrete. The barstools are hammered together from raw lumber and painted blue. Heat comes from a piece of oil-field pipe converted into a wood-burning stove.
“My parents started the Blue Front in 1948, and it ain’t been nothing but a juke joint ever since,” says Holmes, a slow-moving medium-built man with a rich, grainy speaking voice. He is sipping a late morning beer and smoking a long menthol cigarette. “It ain’t nothing fancy, but it’s authentic and original, and that’s what the tourists like, I’ve come to understand. They don’t have anything authentic in their regular lives, so they feel drawn to it. They want a taste of it. For a lot of blues fans, that’s what it’s all about.”
In the last eight or nine years, he says, a slow trickle of tourists has increased to a steady flow and sometimes an unwelcome deluge. On summer weekends, tour buses have become a regular sight in Bentonia, a tiny, half-derelict farming town just outside the Mississippi Delta. “Australia, Great Britain, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Israel, France, Argentina — you name it,” he says. “We had 200 from Belgium and they like to ran me ragged. New York, California, Montana — all over America. See, this is where American music comes from. It all started with the blues.”
The influx of outsiders at the Blue Front Café reflects a widespread effort in Mississippi to promote cultural tourism based on the blues. Long known for poverty and racial injustice, the state has rebranded itself as the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” Elvis Presley was a Mississippian, and so was Jimmie Rodgers, a founding father of country music. But the slogan refers mainly to Mississippi’s deep blues heritage. Most of the early, influential bluesmen were born here, and the state dominates the Blues Hall of Fame, with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, B.B. King and many more.
2010 MISSISSIPPI CODE
TITLE 39 – LIBRARIES, ARTS, ARCHIVES AND HISTORY CHAPTER 27 – Legislative Code 39-27-1
Excerpt – (1) There is created the Mississippi Blues Commission, hereinafter referred to as the “commission”. The commission may accept and expend grants and private donations from any source, including federal, state, public and private entities, to assist it to carry out its functions. (2) For purposes of this chapter, the term “blues” shall mean African-American roots music and the culture that created it.
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The Mississippi Blues Commission, working with national grant money and funding from local communities, has nearly completed the Blues Trail. It consists of 215 signs marking significant locations in blues history, with a website and phone app to guide tourists. Several new blues museums have opened in the last decade, including the $15 million B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, and the number of blues festivals has increased from a handful to more than 50.
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