The Blues and higher education — Delta State launches the International Delta Blues Project

guitar_rgbWhile the debate continues over the location of “The Crossroads” where legend has it that Robert Johnson made a pact with devil to become the greatest bluesman ever, Delta State University is looking to solidify the city of Cleveland as the place where the blues and academia intersect.

DSU recently announced the establishment of the International Delta Blues Project, funded by a three-year, $598,000 grant from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation. The public university is attempting to leverage its existing blues-related offerings to bring blues-related opportunities to not only its students, but also to Delta residents.

“Delta State’s vision of becoming the academic center for the blues is gaining traction,” said DSU President William N. LaForge. He added that the International Delta Blues Project aims at impacting the Mississippi Delta including “an increase in tourism to the Delta, a revival in the interest of the blues, increased opportunities for study and employment in the creative economy and growth in the number of economic partnerships created.”

The initiative encompasses three tiers — an International Conference on the Blues, development of blues-focused curriculum at DSU and a Blues Leadership Incubator aligned with the GRAMMY Museum that is under construction at DSU.

The International Conference on the Blues has been set for Oct. 6-7. The annual event will include workshops, presentations and performances focused on African American musical tradition, influence on American music and culture, folklore and more as well as a “sampler concert/jam session” called Juke Joint on the Stage.

The keynote speaker will be Bob Santelli, executive director of the GRAMMY Museum, author and blues/rock historian. The keynote speaker with be Scott Barretta, an instructor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, where his courses include Anthropology of Blues Culture, and host of Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s “Highway 61 Radio Show.” The guest artist will be bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart, an influence on such musicians as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.

Bill Laforge

Bill LaForge

“When President LaForge arrived on campus in April 2013, he expressed his desire to host a blues conference at Delta State. That vision expanded when Dr. McAdams arrived on campus as provost the following December. We’re hoping for an overall total attendance of 500, for all of the conference sessions,” said Don Allan Mitchell, associate professor of English at DSU and conference co-chair.

For more on the International Conference on the Blues, visit www.deltastate.edu/president/international-blues-conference.

The project’s second prong, a blues-focused curriculum at DSU, is under development. Dr. Charles McAdams, DSU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said, “The curriculum will no doubt encompass several disciplines including music, literature, history, sociology and economics to name a few. There may be several ‘tracks’ or ‘concentrations’ in the program to allow the student to receive both a broad understanding as well as some specificity in a particular area of the blues or blues culture.”

Work on curriculum development began this fall, and courses could be offered as early as next spring, McAdams added.

The goal is to eventually offer a blues-related degree. However, DSU will start with a minor in the blues and then based on enrollment demand, move to a bachelor’s degree. Graduate degrees and certificates are possible in the future based on interest.

McAdams said, “Our goal is to be thought of as the ‘university of choice’ for students who want to study the blues. Graduate degrees and certificates are possible in the future based on interest. We are in the perfect place to assume this stature because of our location, our history of embracing and celebrating the Delta culture, the opening of the GRAMMY Museum, our current curriculum and activity in the Delta Music Institute, and the success of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning on campus.”

The third leg of the International Delta Blues Project is the Blues Leadership Incubator. It will offer community outreach through workshops and presentations aimed at boosting blues-related entrepreneurship and economic development.

The effort is spurred by the GRAMMY Museum, which is slated to open next year and will be only the second GRAMMY Museum in the world outside of Los Angeles. DSU aims to ensure local businesses are prepared to take advantage of the museum’s arrival.

“With the opening of GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in 2015, and the anticipated tourism that will accompany this opening, it is imperative that Delta State provides opportunities for local business owners to gain insight and knowledge on how best to promote and portray the blues and to be able to communicate its rich tradition,” LaForge said.

LaForge added that the incubator will be conducted in partnership with the Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi Blues Trail “to bring experts to the region to engage local businesses and entrepreneurs in promoting and providing positive Delta-centric tourism experiences.”

Mitchell said Delta State will be hiring a director of the International Blues Project, and one of the key components of that job is “incubating the incubator.”

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