OUR OPINION: Pontotoc County notes blues history

By NEMS Daily Journal

Pontotoc County, which celebrates its heritage and history with a year-long round of festivals, observances and gatherings, added to its distinctiveness Thursday when the Mississippi Blues Trail added nine Pontotoc-tied musicians whose notable music has enriched our state’s blues heritage.
A marker unveiled Thursday afternoon honors the contributions of people living and dead whose talent and love of music rooted in the blues has brought them fame, if not riches, and added significantly to the most distinctive musical heritage in American history.
As a news release from the Mississippi Development Authority noted, “Pontotoc County’s wide-ranging musical legacy encompasses African-American blues from Baby Face Leroy Foster, Lee Gates, R. C. Weatherall and Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean as well as music by white artists who combined blues or R&B with country, rock ’n’ roll, pop or gospel, including Harmonica Frank Floyd, Jim Weatherly, Delaney Bramlett and Cordell Jackson. African American theatrical and classical vocalist Ruby Elzy also featured some blues and spirituals in her stage repertoire.”
Elzy, who was headed to international stature, was born in Pontotoc in 1908. She had a short but lyrically notable life, including a major role in George Gershwin’s now-classic modern opera, “Porgy and Bess.”
As the story is told, a visiting professor heard her sing, helped her get into college, then The Juilliard School, and in 1933, she appeared opposite Paul Robeson in the movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.”
Then, George Gershwin heard her sing, and he cast her in the major role of Serena in his new opera, Porgy and Bess. She made her Broadway debut in the role in 1935, at the age of 27, and sang the part more than 800 times on Broadway and touring.
Serena is the woman whose husband is murdered by the villain, and then she sang “My Man’s Gone Now,” an epic lament of love and loss. Three of her performances are known to have survived, two of them from radio broadcasts.
She had been booked to sing at the White House when, after surgery, she unexpectedly died in 1943.
Weatherly’s football standing as an Ole Miss quarterback on some of the great teams in the early 1960s was surpassed musically only after his song-writing talents shone a new and different spotlight on him.
Many of Thursday’s honorees left Mississippi before their careers reached their pinnacles, a story that was repeated too often in the early and mid-20th century.
Their remarkable achievements, however, give them a permanent presence in Pontotoc County wherever they live or lived.