I had the great pleasure of being invited to the 6th Annual International Conference on the Blues to present some of my research on blues guitarist, Memphis Minnie. The conference was held on the campus of Delta State University at the Delta Music Institute, in Cleveland Ms., a town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The conference was designed to celebrate the blues, through scholarly activity, discourse, and music.
The day featured concurrent paper and lecture recital sessions, with topics including the blues; African American musical traditions and influences on world cultures; the influence of gospel, spirituals, and soul music; music of the American civil rights movement; African American music as social commentary and protest; and history and culture of the Mississippi Delta.
The conference began with a session on the blues abroad; Prof. Michael Rauhut (University of Asher, Norway) presented a paper on the development of the blues in divided Germany from 1945, illustrating how political and social conditions shape the meaning of the music.
Dr. Clay Motley (Florida Gulf Coast University) then presented a paper entitled ‘Painting Clarksdale Something Other Than Blue: Colombian Street Art in the Delta’, in which he documented how the residents of Clarksdale, Ms., recently brought internationally renowned street artists from Bogota, Colombia to town to paint large murals downtown. The presentation examined how the project challenged Clarksdale’s identity as the “Birthplace of the Blues”, connecting the Delta to the Global South.
The second paper session of the day, ‘Identity and Appropriation in the Blues’, began with a paper from Nicole Sonneveld (Roosevelt University) entitled ‘From Cornbread to Country: Appropriation as Oppression in the American Country Music Industry’. Tackling issues of identity, racism and cultural appropriation, this paper explored the country music industry’s denial of Black artists’ contributions to the genre.
Dr. Barton Price (Purdue University, Indiana) then presented a paper addressing cultural appropriation in 1980s teen films. The paper, entitled ‘Nobody Leaves This Place Without Singin’ the Blues”: Appropriation in Adventures in Babysitting’ focused on a scene in the film Adventures in Babysitting that featured a Blues performance by white middle-class teenagers before a black audience in a club on the southside of Chicago, revealing the myth of racial harmony mediated by the Blues.
The third session of the morning focused on the Blues in West Tennessesse. Dr. Mitsutoshi Inaba (Austin Peay State University) presented a paper exploring the tradition of harmonica performance practice in West Tennessee from the 1920s to 1940s. His research was developed from reserach into Charlie Musselwhite, famed harmonica player from Kosciusko, MS.
In this same session, I presented my paper, entitled ‘How She Made That Guitar Talk: Memphis Minnie and the Lead Guitar in Early Blues Music’. A native of Mississippi, and a regular performer on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, Minnie was one of very few women to gain commercial success as an instrumentalist in the ealry blues field. My paper focused on her idiolect (individual playing style), including her creative engagement with master and seed riffs to unify her catalogue, and her influence on the development of the Blues.
After a ‘lunch and learn’ panel discussion focused on ‘Books and the Blues”, featuring authors and editors influenced by Blues communities (Dr. Tammy L. Turner, Dean Julius, Will Jacks and Craig Gill), Prof. Scott Barretta (University of Mississippi and Delta State University) gave a keynote presentation entitled ‘Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” Religious Songs Collected Outside of Church Settings in the 1941-1942 Coahoma Study’. In his presentation, Prof. Barretta detailed the variety of performances of religious songs captured by ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III, as well as recollections of older styles including hymns, spirituals, and shouts.
Following Prof Baretta’s keynote, musician, educator, and author of ‘So You Want to Sing the Blues’ Eli Yamin, gave a masterclass on blues singing, working with DSU vocal students. Mr Yamin began with some vocal warm-up’s and offered insight into general efficient technique, and then worked with some of the talented local students, offering guidance on approaches to rhythm, phrasing and timbre when singing in the blues idiom.
After a break to explore the town of Cleveland, which is home to the Grammy Mississippi Blues Museum , and located only a few miles from the historic Dockery Plantation (one of the key sites in blues history), we attended a concert by gospel vocal group, The Como Mamas.
Born in Como, Mississippi, sisters Della Daniels and Angelia Taylor, and cousin Ester Mae Smith, have been performing together for over 50 years, from their beginnings as youngsters in the church.
The group performed on the steps of the Downtown Cleveland Courthouse, the location in which W.C. Handy described as becoming “enlightened” to the power of the Blues, after watching an audiences fervent response to a blues trio playing at the courthouse.
Following the amazing concert from The Como Mamas, some of the conference participants attended a fantastic “blues in the round” jam session at ‘Mississippi Grounds’. The event was hosted by award-winning singer/songwriter David Dunavent and allowed local and visiting musicians to close out a full day of discussion and discourse, to play together – an amazing way to round out an amazing conference.
Many thanks to the conference organisers Shelley Collins and Don Allan Mitchell, and the whole team at DSU and the Delta Music Institute, for an amazing and inspiring day in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the home of the Blues.