State of the blues: Photographer, writer document Mississippi’s music

OXFORD – Good news, folks, the blues are alive and well in Mississippi.
“When I was editing Living Blues magazine, I would never allow a writer to say that because I thought it was not a very thoughtful way of accessing what’s going on,” said Scott Barretta, an Oxford based writer.
So the blues aren’t alive and well?
“It’s kind of a complex picture,” Barretta said.
Photographer Ken Murphy and Barretta decided to capture slices of the modern-day blues for a new coffee-table book, “Mississippi: State of the Blues.”
They traveled to blues festivals and museums, cemeteries and radio stations, living rooms and barrooms. The result is more than 100 photographs, along with Barretta’s written descriptions of what he and Murphy found.
“Blues does have a backwards focus. That is a lot of the appeal of it. People come here because this is where Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton are from,” Barretta said. “At the same time, I think people are often surprised to find out the ways the blues are expressed today. It’s one of the things we wanted to capture.”
Murphy’s previous books of photography include “My South Coast Home” and “Mississippi.”
After he finished “Mississippi,” John Evans of Jackson’s Lemuria Books suggested that Murphy get in contact with Barretta.
In addition to being a former editor of Living Blues magazine, Barretta is a researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail, hosts “Highway 61” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio and teaches about the blues at the University of Mississippi.
They’ll both be at a book signing from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Reed’s Gumtree Bookstore. “Mississippi: State of the Blues” is available for $59.95.

Traveling
“Ken wanted to shoot the iconic images of the Mississippi blues,” Barretta said. “I thought about that for a little bit and said, ‘What exactly are iconic images of Mississippi blues?
“To a great degree, it’s kind of an ephemeral culture. People are from here and they moved away. The clubs fell down and there aren’t very many homes. You sort of have to go out and see what you find.”
Research involved visiting blues festivals across the state and catching what happened.
“There’s a picture in the book of Lightnin’ Malcolm with CeDell Davis, who had played together 15 years ago,” Barretta said. “During a festival, they were just jamming in an alley. I thought, Wow, this is cool.”
After a while, Murphey and Barretta began to notice they were spending a lot of time in the Delta. That made perfect sense, but it wasn’t the whole story of Mississippi blues.
“The preponderance of blues activity is in the Delta, but Jackson also has a long blues heritage,” he said. “We have pictures of Potts Camp, where they have the Hill Country Festival. Ken is from Bay St. Louis, and they have a 100-year-old club there. We went to West Point and the Howlin’ Wolf Museum.”

A little color
Historically, the blues have been documented with black and white images. For this book, Murphy fully embraced color.
Tupelo’s own Homemade Jamz gets a pair of bright photos from performance at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale. On the left, Kyle and Ryan Perry play, while their sister, Taya, is captured on the facing page with her bright yellow shirt and orange drums.
You’ll find photographs of blues artist Robert Cage at home. James “Super Chikan” Johnson shows off his homemade guitars. There’s a shot of Duwayne Burnside playing with his son, Duwayne Burnside Jr., and another shot shows B.B. King kissing Bobby “Blue” Bland on the head.
In addition to people, “Mississippi: State of the Blues” documents a number of places where the blues live today.
“Everybody knows the blues is from Mississippi, but not that many people go out and look at it,” Baretta said. “I think Mississippians will feel pride in looking at it, and will go, ‘Man, we live in an interesting place.’ We simply could not have gotten these images in another state.”
The blues could be dying, or they might be alive and well. What’s clear is the music is part of Mississippi’s past and present. The future will take care of itself.
“When I was showing the proofs to somebody, they said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were so many weird places that you could go to see the blues in Mississippi,’” Barretta said. “I was like, ‘That’s a great reaction.’”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

M. SCOTT MORRIS / NEMS Daily Journal