Sharde Thomas performs in the Voices of Mississippi program at the Strathmore Music Center on Feb. 4, 2023. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
The roots of American music lie in the deep South. In a recent performance and presentation at the Strathmore Music Center, a fantastic program called Voices of Mississippi explored these roots through musical performances and photography and video footage compiled by William Ferris. Based on a 2018 boxed set of the same title that won Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes, this long-gestating live show finally made its way to our area, and it didn’t disappoint.
Musicians included some of the most prominent names in the blues. Guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson form the core of the North Mississippi Allstars. Ferris introduced the brothers as sons of one of his musical heroes, Jim Dickinson, a larger-than-life figure who worked as a producer, helming albums for Big Star and many others, and who played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Luther and Cody are deeply indebted to the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues tradition; Luther singled out the influence of Junior Kimbrough and mentioned how the tradition is being kept alive by Cedric Burnside, the grandson of legendary bluesman R. L. Burnside.
Joining them at Strathmore on Feb. 4 was Sharde Thomas, a fife player and vocalist and the granddaughter of Otha Turner, one of the major figures in traditional drum and fife music. For the uninitiated, a fife is similar to a flute, and is typically carved out of bamboo. Sharde, who was accompanied by a drummer, began the evening’s musical performances. She duetted with Luther on a few tunes and sang lead on BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Alvin Youngblood Hart, a distinguished singer, songwriter, and guitarist, was the next out on stage. In 2006, he opened at the venue for blues and early rock legend Bo Diddley. His first contribution of the night was a cover of a song he learned from the great bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards about a highway near his hometown.
The star of the show, without question was 89-year old Bobby Rush, who told the audience he’s been playing and recording this music for 72 years. He’s known as the king of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of clubs in the Deep South, formed during segregation, at which Black artists could perform for Black crowds. Even as he closes in on 90, Rush remains a dynamic performer, frequently moving around the stage. His performances included much ribald humor, as well as a great deal of personal warmth. When the show broke for intermission, Rush stayed out for a moment, shaking hands with and talking to folks in the front row.
Watch Bobby Rush perform “Hoochie Coochie Man Medley” at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival in 2014 via YouTube:
A native of Mississippi, William Ferris began documenting the state’s roots musicians in the 1960s. He was motivated by what he saw as a time of transition, wherein many of these traditional musicians and much of their legacy might be lost. He traveled the state over the next few decades, going to small towns. In addition to musicians, he also met with and recorded cultural figures and writes like late Eudora Welta, who appeared in the video footage. Ferris is an academic, specializing in folklore, who has taught at several universities, with a long tenure at Yale. Currently, he is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he is also the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South.
The audience got a real treat Saturday night with one of the longer programs I’ve attended at the Strathmore. You might’ve heard of the legendary juke joints in the South, lionized by songs like Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten.” Changes in the Deep South – the immigration of many Black residents to northern and western states, and the more integrated nature of the present-day music scene, has led to many of these places closing up, much as Ferris predicted. It’s certainly a positive development that Black and White artists can play the same clubs now but, at the same time, this has meant the loss of certain elements of this culture. As Freud observed more than a century ago, civilization is a pearl of great of price, and progress doesn’t come without costs.
Watch a preview of the Voices of Mississippi program by the Strathmore on YouTube:
Folks in my generation, especially those who come from outside of the Deep South, have never experienced these mythical juke joints, and it’s unlikely we ever will. Saturday night, while perhaps more tightly structured, was the closest we will get those places, to the family jams and gatherings. This was a celebration of music and heritage, and the joy from the performers was palpable. The evening apexed with a rousing rendition of “When The Saints Come Marching In,” during which Sharde marched through the audience, playing her hife, accompanied through the aisles by her thundering drummer, while the 3 guitarists on sage held it down on stage and Rush delivered vocals that are simply stunning for a man his age.
In closing, it’s worth mentioning that this program, and the related projects, are a sterling example of the contributions academia and academics make to our broader culture. This was a deeply enjoyable evening that fed both the heart and the mind.
Here are some photos of the evening with performers for Voices of Mississippi at the Strathmore Music Center on Feb. 4, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.