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MISSISSIPPI

Blues' hues in the Delta

A new museum will honor guitar legend B.B. King and the genre whose story is deeply rooted in this corner of the South.

August 31, 2008|Kay Mills | Special to The Times

INDIANOLA, MISS. — He started out here 60 years ago, singing the blues on a street corner for dimes. Now, less than three blocks from that corner, the legendary B.B. King will soon have his own museum.

The B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center is set to open Sept. 13, three days before his 83rd birthday. The museum honors the man who Rolling Stone magazine says "is universally recognized as the leading exponent of modern blues."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Civil-rights activist's home: An article in Sunday's Travel section about the Mississippi Delta said that Indianola, Miss., had erected markers calling it the "Home of Fannie Lou Hamer." Ruleville, Miss., hometown of the civil-rights activist, is the city that erected the markers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 07, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Civil-rights activist's home: An article in the Aug. 31 section about the Mississippi Delta stated that Indianola, Miss., had erected markers calling it the "Home of Fannie Lou Hamer." Ruleville, Miss., hometown of the civil-rights activist, is the city that erected the markers.

It is but one in a surprisingly long list of attractions in the Mississippi Delta -- surprisingly long only if you've never visited the region.

Visitors can see where the blues developed and where it's still played; where people risked their lives -- and sometimes lost them -- in the name of civil rights; where the designs of a Smithsonian-caliber embroiderer have captivated viewers; where the state's famous clay is turned into pottery.

At first glance, the Mississippi Delta seems stark. Its flat-as-a-tabletop landscape occupies the northwestern section of the state, stretching from Memphis in neighboring Tennessee to Vicksburg, from the Mississippi River to the Yazoo River. Yet this ordinary land has spawned extraordinary creativity and courage.

The town of Indianola, smack in the middle of the Delta, wanted to honor King not just for his musical genius but also for his influence on scores of other musicians, including blues guitarist Buddy Guy and Beatle John Lennon.

I toured the museum this spring (it was still under construction) with Connie Gibbons, the museum's executive director. I saw where the guitar studio would be located, where visitors can learn basic chord structures. Gibbons told me about the displays that would depict "what it was like to leave the small world of the Mississippi Delta and go to Memphis," where King got his own radio show in the late 1940s.

The museum complex also incorporates a brick cotton gin where King worked as a young man, when cotton was king in the Delta. Today, silos holding corn to produce ethanol have replaced most of the gins. But in years past, cotton grew on large plantations such as Dockery Farms, between Cleveland and Ruleville north of Indianola.

Dockery was a company town of about 400 families at its zenith in the 1920s. "There were three churches," Luther Brown said as he led a tour of college students from Texas. "It had its own doctor, post office, telegraph office, commissary and even used its own money -- Dockery dollars," said Brown, an associate dean at Delta State University in Cleveland.

A blue sign -- blue for the Blues Trail -- near the weathered old buildings describes the influence of Charley Patton, a sharecropper at Dockery Farms before becoming an itinerant musician. He's called the "father of the Delta blues," and his guitar style has been described as "percussive and raw." Another musician once said he sang as though someone were choking him.

His marker at Dockery is one of 120 that the Mississippi Blues Commission is erecting around the state (www.msbluestrail.org). The website also contains a list of regular gigs and special blues events in Mississippi.

While I was with the students at Dockery Farms, I ran into blues fan Chris Rogers of Brighton, England, and his wife, Louise. They were launching a tour of Delta landmarks "to feel part of" the music Chris loves. On their agenda: Clarksdale, 48 miles north of Indianola, to visit the Delta Blues Museum, where one exhibit includes remnants of the cabin in which bluesman Muddy Waters lived as a sharecropper, as well as actor Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club and the Riverside Hotel (once a hospital), where blues diva Bessie Smith died in 1937 after a car crash.

"The room where Bessie died is never occupied," Rogers said, "but if you ring the front doorbell, ask for Rat, then he's happy to show you around."

Mississippians are obliging that way.

HISTORY LESSON

You can't come to the Delta without running headlong into Mississippi's past. That was what the students from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, had come to explore. Along with professors John Strait and Jim Tiller, they were on a field trip that Strait called an exploration of "race, blues, rock 'n' roll and the geography of the Mississippi Delta." I tagged along for a day.

After we left Dockery, we stopped in Ruleville at the grave of civil-rights champion Fannie Lou Hamer, whom I had interviewed for a series of newspaper articles in 1973 and later wrote a book about. Even though she was in ill health then -- she died in 1977 -- she was still a commanding presence who spoke eloquently about the evils of racism.

In 1962, Hamer went to Indianola to try to register to vote, earning her such enmity from residents and law enforcement that she received death threats. Arrested in 1963 for trying to desegregate a Mississippi bus station, Hamer was beaten so savagely that she was permanently disabled.

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