Visitors are traveling the blues highway to Mississippi

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: July 19,2004

Clarksdale — After opening in Seattle and stopping in The Windy City, “Sweet Home Chicago: Big City Blues 1946-1966,” is coming to where it all began: the birthplace of the blues.
The Delta Blues Museum, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is hosting the national exhibition until Oct. 15. Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle developed the project; Volkswagen is the primary corporate sponsor.

“I thought it was absolutely necessary to tell the larger story, in particular, the start of the blues in the Delta and the migration of blues musicians to the north,” said exhibition curator Jim Fricke. “To have the exhibit go both places — to Chicago and to Clarksdale — is about as perfect a situation as you could imagine.”

In less than a year, Fricke gathered more than 200 artifacts, including Howlin’ Wolf’s 1950 stage jacket and harmonica, and guitars used by Tampa Red, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton, to open the exhibition last fall to coincide with Year of the Blues festivities.

“It was difficult to find artifacts because this time period reflects an era when people didn’t make enough money to save a whole lot of things,” said Fricke. “Performers tended to wear the same clothes and use the same instruments until they wore out. To do an exhibit of this complexity usually takes two or three years anyway, but the blues community is a passionate and supportive one, and helped us tremendously.”
Sweet Home Chicago also features more than 50 audio clips and films of rare recordings and interviews with blues musicians, producers and others.
“We particularly wanted this exhibition to appeal to schoolchildren because we want them to understand the importance of blues music in the American culture,” said Fricke.

Approximately 500,000 people have toured the exhibition, with the majority visiting the Museum of Science and Industry Museum in Chicago, where it opened in February in conjunction with Black History Month and continued through the Chicago Blues Festival. About 10,000 visitors are expected to stop by the Delta Blues Museum during its run, which may extend past mid-October.

‘Fancy footwork’ required

“When Shelley (Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum) approached me about bringing it to Clarksdale, I loved the idea,” said Fricke. “She was very determined to see it happen, and it took a real herculean effort on her part.”

Landing Sweet Home Chicago, the museum’s most high-profile exhibition, required “some fancy footwork,” said Ritter.

Funds from a $200,000 Mississippi Arts Commission grant were used to bring the facility up to code as a host venue, and the museum raised money to finance the exhibition rental fee and other expenses, amounts that contractually could not be disclosed, said Ritter.

“We’ve had our nose to the grindstone racing the clock,” she said. “If we have about 7,000 people come through, we’ll break even.”

The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau is marketing the event for the museum, as is Clarkdale’s sister city, Notedden, Norway, host of the Notedden Blues Festival Aug. 5-8. A billboard in Helena, Ark., home of the ninth-annual King Biscuit Blues Festival Oct. 7-9, also touts the touring exhibition.

“The challenges of developing the blues and cultural tourism in Clarksdale include educating local residents about the rich history and culture that is ‘in their face’ everyday,” said Ritter. “We need to make people more aware of our great resources.”

Mississippi Development Authority tourism director Craig Ray said the state “will definitely help support this important exhibition through our marketing arm and will also consider financial support as well. We’re waiting for them to get back to us with their exact needs.”

The Delta Blues Museum celebrates the roots of soul music — including blues, gospel, country and other musical influences — that emerged from the Mississippi Delta and Clarksdale region. “It’s a music that represents an expression of the black experience that speaks to universal emotions,” said Ritter.

Sweet Home Chicago explores three major themes: the collision of rural and urban cultures, where musical traditions of recent migrants from Mississippi and other parts of the South mixed with the “citified” sounds developed by earlier transplants; the illustration of how young musicians who came of age in the city learned from their elders and took blues music in new directions; and the exploration of how white players in Chicago and England absorbed the music, mixing it with folk and rock traditions, to revitalize rock ‘n’ roll, said Ritter.

“There is no better way to tell the story of our nation than through the history of its music,” she said, “and the blues represents a truly American creation.”

Special musical events coinciding with the exhibit’s run ranges from live music by Jacquelyn Gooch, a 12-year-old local rock ‘n’ blues guitarist, and graduate of the museum-sponsored Blues in Schools program, who performed during opening events, to live entertainment in upcoming festivals: the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival Aug. 13-14 in Clarksdale; Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival Sept. 3 in West Point; and the Mississippi Heritage Delta Blues Festival Sept. 18 in Greenwood.

The Delta Blues Museum, located at 1 Blues Alley in Clarksdale, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults; an audio guide costs $3. Special rates are available for groups of 20 or more. Discounts apply to seniors and college students. For more information, call (662) 627-6820.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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