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Museum carves a niche for Delta in global music

A hallway leads to exhibits space at the Grammy Museum Mississippi.

A hallway leads to exhibits at the Grammy Museum
Mississippi. Photo by Jack Weatherly/MBJ

By JACK WEATHERLY 

CLEVELAND – The $20 million Grammy Museum Mississippi has begun carving a niche for itself in the global music industry.

Several hundred well-wishers joined government and recording industry officials beneath flawless blue Delta skies Saturday to celebrate the opening, or just being alive.

The 28,000-square-foot museum had been alive the day before with last-minute tweaks to the heavily digitalized facility that might be expected in Los Angeles, where heretofore the only Grammy Museum existed.

“The birthplace of American music is certainly the perfect place for the first Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles,”  Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, told the crowd.

But now the first — Portnow says there may well be others in the future — museum outside L.A. is a reality after years of planning and strategizing, including a four-month delay of  its debut for good measure, after the sheer complexity of the undertaking dawned on organizers.

“I certainly don’t think it will be the last,” Portnow said in an interview.

Bob Santelli, executive director of the Los Angeles museum, recounted how the research he did on legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in 1998 planted the seed of building the museum.

At the time, Santelli was an executive at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in another Cleveland, the one in Ohio.

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While in the Bolivar County town, he met Lucy Janoush and others, “and in our minds we thought that this relationship has to continue.”

Janoush became president of the museum’s board of director and rode herd on a couple of hundred contractors and subcontractors and held forth as the emcee of the Saturday event.

Santelli said that then-Gov. Haley Barbour was an enthusiastic backer of the idea, which had started to germinate when Santelli returned six or seven years later.

“Without him, this project wouldn’t have happened,” Santelli said.

More than 220 private donors bought into the idea, providing $12 million, while government, local, regional and state, provided the balance.

Yet there were skeptics. “All along the road, I was asked,  ‘Why did you choose Mississippi, particularly the Mississippi Delta?’”

The competition narrowed to Memphis and New Orleans, then it moved to Mississippi where Jackson and Cleveland fought it out, according to Emily Haven, executive director of the new museum, in an earlier interview.

Finally, the Recording Academy picked the Delta town.

“The Mississippi Delta is the most musical place in America,” said Santelli, citing his credentials as a blues historian.

“The Grammy Museum is meant to be an educational institution . . .a resource for your teachers and, most importantly, for your students. It’s a place of education and inspiration.”

Delta State University students will participate in an intern exchange program between Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Portnow, told the attendees: “The mysteries of the recording industry will be revealed right before your eyes.”

There is a decided hands-on aspect of the museum – touch-screen opportunities to connect artists and music from one era to another.

In the Mississippi Room, a long interactive table allows visitors to put on headphones and click from one artist to another – tracing influences to and from musicians and genres — some long before the Recording Academy was founded in the late 1950s.

On a wall, a map of the state shows Mississippi’s disproportionate share of Grammy achievers — 90 winners, 32 Hall of Fame members — down through the years.

Janoush said the museum is in the geographical center of the Delta — halfway between the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and Catfish Row in Vicksburg, paraphrasing historian David Cohn’s famous description.

Yet there other American currents that do not run through the Mississippi River and its eons of overflows that created the Delta.

Jimmy Rogers, a country music pioneer, hailed from Meridian on the land-locked other side of the state.

And, of course, there is Elvis, the boy from Tupelo in northeast Mississippi, who moved to Memphis with his mother and father and fell under the spell of the blues, which had found a home on Beale Street, a haunt of the musicians who migrated from the Delta.

That influence and country and western music along with gospel melded into what became known as rock ‘n’ roll as shaped by Presley and others.

One of those blues musicians, of course, was B.B. King, who became a disc jockey on the black-operated WDIA radio in Memphis, which beamed the native sound well beyond the Delta.

King, who served on the advisory board for the Grammy Museum until his death last year, inspired the museum bearing his name in his hometown of Indianola, a 30-minute drive from Cleveland.

An invitation-only, black-tie affair opened the weekend celebration Friday night.

After the ribbon-cutting Saturday morning, the doors to the museum were thrown open to the public for the first time.

Music continued on the sound stage on the grounds in front of the building, featuring the Southern Komfort Brass Band, Greenville pianist and singer Eden Brent and others.

The weekend continued Saturday night at the Bologna Performing Arts Center on the Delta State campus, with The Williams Brothers gospel quartet, the Muddy Magnolias and headlined by Mississippian and singer/songwriter Mac McAnally, winner of eight straight Grammy musician of the year awards.

The name of the program was “Back Where I Come From,” the title of a song by McAnally, who closed with that tune.

That home is Belmont in Tishomingo County, the very northeast corner of the state next to the Tennessee and Alabama lines —  the tail end of the Appalachian chain, which produced its own music and combined with the lowlands sound of the Delta and another tradition to produce American music.

That other tradition, gospel singing, provided a Sunday benediction on the museum grounds.

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