OXFORD, Miss. — The official state motto here is Virtute et Armis ("by valor and arms").
But if you're a music fan fascinated by the roots of rock, we've got a perfect slogan for every license plate here-- Home of the Blues.
For a blues fan, the drive along U.S. 49 and U.S. 61--through the swampy, flatlands of the Delta region west of here--is like a trip through the Juke Joint Hall of Fame. It seems as if virtually every town or hamlet, no matter how tiny or how impoverished, has spawned a favorite blues son.
U.S. 49 meets U.S. 82 at Greenwood, where Guitar Slim was born. Farther west on U.S. 82 is Indianola, B. B. King's birthplace. Farther north, in the Delta, are tiny villages like Marksville (home of Little Walter), Glendora (Sonny Boy Williamson) and Aberdeen (Howlin' Wolf).
And finally, just off Mississippi 1 outside of Clarksdale (where John Lee Hooker was born) is Stovall, an old plantation site where sits a battered cabin that was Muddy Waters' childhood home.
Waters' old homestead is badly in need of restoration--and doesn't even have a marker to commemorate it. But if the state has--so far--been remiss in honoring some of its native sons, that doesn't mean the blues has been forgotten.
In fact, no one has done more to honor the spirit of the blues--and keep its musical flame alive--than the Center for the Study of Southern Culture here on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Operating out of a frayed 19th-Century building just off Sorority Row called the Barnard Observatory, the center has sponsored everything from an annual William Faulkner Conference to a symposium on "The Media and the Civil Rights Movement."
But thanks to center Director Bill Ferris, a longtime blues enthusiast who was away last week lecturing on a river boat, music is studied with equal seriousness. "Black culture is an intrinsic part of Southern culture, so it's a big part of the work we do here," explained Associate Director Ann Abadie, who noted that one scholar--and blues fan--affiliated with the center is Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, who is writing a paper comparing India's untouchables with the poor blacks of Mississippi.
"We also publish Living Blues magazine, which is probably the only magazine devoted entirely to the blues, while our Blues Archives is a major research facility with all sorts of records, film and memorabilia, as well as B. B. King's private record collection."
(One of the Ole Miss classes affiliated with the center is "The Roots of Rock 'n Roll," which is taught each Thursday by Robert Palmer, a New York Times critic and author of the musical history book "Deep Blues.")
"There's a whole generation of younger bluesmen coming out of Clarksdale and its surrounding towns," said Living Blues editor Peter Lee, a South African native who went to school at Ole Miss. "You can see people like Earnest (Guitar Junior) Roy and Lonnie Shields, who are really good guitarists, and Big Jack Reynolds, who has a new album out called 'The Oil Man.'
"The music is very much of a living culture, especially in this state," said Lee, whose office is decorated with flyers of local blues bands and a poster of the Parchman Prison Rodeo that shows inmates lassoing a steer. "It's still a big part of the black community's life, and that impact is spreading to young white people as well. We have a Delta Blues Festival in Clarksdale each September--and each year it attracts more and more of a younger audience, of both whites and blacks."
Lee would like to see the state take a more active interest in the blues--and its history. "I'd like to see them establish some markers or plaques. The only grave you can really find is Sonny Boy Williamson's, which is in Tutwiler, on Highway 49, and that was donated by his old record company and is kept up by his relatives, not the state."
BLUES POWER: Jim O'Neal, one of the founding editors of Living Blues, recently moved to Clarksdale, where he is writing a book on Delta blues and building a recording studio where he can make albums for his new label, Rooster Records. (He's already released 45s by Shields, Roy and Boobea Barnes, a Greenville-based guitarist/harp player.)
"In a lot of ways the Delta feels like it hasn't changed at all," O'Neal explained, after giving a visitor directions to Waters' childhood home. "They still farm cotton, even if it's mechanized now. And there are juke joints everywhere. You can get a pretty good idea of what crop means the most around here by their names--the Cotton Exchange, the Cotton Inn, the Cotton Club. There's also the Blue Diamond, the Red Top, the Harlem Inn--a fancy black show club that just celebrated its 48th anniversary--and Monkey's, which is down the street from me."