The Berklee Mississippi Exchange Band headed to the Delta Blues Museum’s outdoor stage, ready for their first set of the day. It would be during the Juke Joint Festival debut by a Berklee group when the summer scholarship winner would be revealed. Both contenders, with family members and close friends were stage side, waiting, smiling politely, keeping cool. The two young women in all of their composure made an impression, and were an example to emulate when, suddenly, we realized that there were no drums or backline on stage.
Hmmm. How could the band plug in and rip through their set of blues, r&b, and pop tunes? Bill Banfield had prepared a narration that would tell the story of how music and musicians from the Delta had influenced the tunes in the Exchange Band’s set. Cool, composed minds would have to accept that there would be no backline to support the performance. Miscommunication, misunderstanding, missed opportunity. The band dispersed. The audience didn’t have a chance to gather. There would be another gig in a few hours at Ground Zero. In the meantime, we would announce the Delta Blues Museum scholarship recipient in the classroom inside, just off the stage. It would be smaller, more intimate moment than is the tradition. But, strangely, so wasn’t the presentation to the Robert Johnson Blues Museum recipient the previous day.
Friday was a day for touring blues and civil rights landmarks in the Delta, from Dockery Farms and Bryant’s Grocery Store to the grave sites of
Robert Johnson and Fanne Lou Hamer. Our tour guide, Dr. Luther Brown of the Delta Center of Culture of Learning at Delta State University, took us through Cleveland, Rulville, Money, and Greenwood. Kevin Johnson wrote a blog about the tour, which you can read here.
Among the stops was Baptist Town, an African American section of Greenwood that dates back to the 1800s. Honey Boy Edwards, 94, still tells stories of the night that Robert Johnson was poisoned at a gig they both played in there. Johnson died a few days later.
Steven Johnson, Robert’s grandson, is waiting for us in Baptist Town, sitting in a chair in front of Hoover’s Country Kitchen. Owner Sylvester Hoover has a deep historical sense of this area and gives tours and sometimes arranges concerts on the patch of lawn across the narrow street in front of his store. His also serves up Southern food and sells household staples and used records inside. Speakers placed in front of the store blare blues music. All around, people are eating, drinking, dancing, and meeting the Berklee group.
Johnson is a strong advocate of education, once being a public school teacher. He and his family go to any lengths to support the young people of their community. Usually, he produces talent showcases where contestants compete for the scholarship, and a spot at his annual Robert Johnson Birthday Celebration, an all-day festival. Other obligations took precedent this year, but in his mind he had a winner pegged anyway, and drove the young saxophone player two hours for an audition outside of Hoover’s.
Calvin Bogan, 19, from Jackson, asked Hoover to stop the blues and put on a CD with a backing track so that he could play. At least 15 people gathered around as Johnson stood off to the side beaming. People clapped and Mario Castro ran to fetch his saxophone to play a duet with Bogan. The scholarship presentation may have been lost on the boisterous crowd in front of Hoover’s, but Bogan said that he had wanted to attend Berklee but his parents told him Boston was too far away. Just in case he got the scholarship, he asked them about spending the summer up north, and they said fine. Read more about his credentials here.
If you did click the above link, then you already know that Paula Thompson won the scholarship in Clarksdale. Her mom cried when I made the announcement. Shelley Ritter, Delta Blues Museum director, was beaming at the first female summer scholarship recipient from her program. I made sure Jacquline Gooch understood how hard the choice was, and she said that Thompson was deserving. I’d later see Gooch on the Ground Zero stage smashing the drums behind a aggressive local blues group.
Read more posts from the Mississippi trip here.