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The Mississippi Blues Project is up and running! The “big bang” on Sunday afternoon August 20th featured the Cedric Burnside Project and Big George Brock in a stunning, earth-shaking concert in a large tent stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

The Cedric Burnside Project, a two-man outfit featuring Cedric Burnside on drums and Trenton Ayers on guitar, put down what might be called a “gold-medal” performance of modern Mississippi blues. Burnside’s awe-inspiring skills on the drums, and the artistry and athleticism of his playing no doubt left vivid memories in the minds of the many people crowding up to the stage, dancing, hollering, clapping hands, and perhaps wondering, as I was at times, how this was humanly possible. At times his sticks hit the cymbals in such a rapid-fire fashion that, from where I sat, some sort of optical illusion was occurring and it looked like the sticks were “eating” the cymbals as they flashed downward.

Cedric Burnside is the grandson of the unforgettable R. L. Burnside. Their relationship was very close, and Cedric often echoes his grandfather’s sound and style, especially when he says “Well, well, well” between songs – - which at this point is a Burnside signature element, with the vowel in “well” halfway between “well” and “whale.” The music is rooted in tradition but also fully contemporary both in topics and style, incorporating elements of hip-hop.

Guitarist Trenton Ayers was a dazzler, and I wish I’d had a chance to talk to him about his style. At one point between songs he strummed his guitar, and it sounded out-of-tune to me. He didn’t tune much, though, and when he went into the next song he got exactly the notes he wanted. Using a slide and bending strings, I suspect that Ayers in some ways plays the guitar the way a violinist or cellist plays. They don’t have frets on their instruments, and they know how to find the exact note they want without them.

A second guitar sat in a stand for the entire set. This was Cedric’s guitar. He plays in a simple but distinctive hill country style, and the only thing I could say that was missing in this inspiring show was that he did not walk over to his guitar and play a song or two on it. I suspect that he felt that the energy rising from his drums in the music they were playing was too compelling to modulate on-the-fly that afternoon. Of course that means we’ve got to get him back here again sometime!

Following the Cedric Burnside Project’s set would be a daunting challenge for any performer of any kind of music, but 80-year-old Big George Brock seemed up to the task. Brock is almost blind at this point, and has some hearing loss and problems with his hands, but none of that prevented him from singing the blues the way only an authentic blues singer can, and playing his harmonica with aplomb.

Brock was regally attired in robes, with a cape and crown, and his band was top-notch. He also brought with him singer Clarine Wagner, making her first appearance in this part of the country (Brock appeared some years ago at the Pocono Blues Festival). She warmed up the tent with “So Many Times” and the popular standard “Let The Good Times Roll.” Her appearance on Brock’s latest album “I Got To Keep My Bedroom Door Locked” is also her recording debut. Brock’s wonderful sense of humor comes through on the title track of this album, which he performed in the middle of his set.

In their own differing and very individual ways both Brock and Burnside made treasured memories in the opening event of The Mississippi Blues Project. What happens after the “big bang?” Well we don’t know it all, but everything expands and stars are formed. There’s a lot more still to happen in the coming year. Well, well, well…

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Map of Mississippi

Mississippi.

The mere name of the Magnolia State can still evoke vivid and often frightening memories. The brutality of slavery in Mississippi was followed by the hopelessly unfair system of sharecropping, in which many black farmers were perpetually in debt and unable to get paid fairly for their crops. Many of the most memorable and horrifying events of the civil rights movement took place in Mississippi — the murder of three young civil rights workers and its cover-up, the assassination of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, the shooting of James Meredith on a one-man “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson.

Home Grown

Blues in Mississippi arose from the crucible of plantation life and the punishing labor of picking cotton. The music expressed sorrow but also uplifted spirits much in need of positive energy. The “Mississippi Delta” isn’t really a delta; it’s a floodplain. Regular flooding had left rich alluvial deposits favorable to agriculture — as long as fields under cultivation weren’t flooded again, which required a system of levies. Building and maintaining the levies was arduous and dangerous work, and the levy camps were notoriously perilous places. In 1947 Alan Lomax recorded Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and John Lee Williamson (the first “Sonny Boy Williamson” in blues history) talking freely about plantation and levy camp life. Although they used fake names, the recording was deemed too incendiary, and too potentially dangerous for their safety, to be issued for ten years, first appearing overseas, and concealing the names of the three men until reissues years after that. The album is called “Blues In The Mississippi Night.”

For some players, music offered extra income, and for a few, such as Charley Patton, an escape from doing farm work. Yet for many, a physical escape from Mississippi was the only answer. Blacks left the state in large numbers for many places, primarily Memphis and St. Louis in the south, and Chicago and Detroit in the north. The rural “Delta Blues” was electrified in the postwar years, and artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and B. B. King (who never really had a “Delta” sound) established their careers and left cotton picking far behind them.

The blues also continued to thrive in the Delta, in the fields and the juke joints, as well as the “hill country” outside of the Delta, where Mississippi Fred McDowell influenced a generation of blues players with a more repetitive and trance-inducing sound than the blues of the Delta. Among the artists who would become well-known for this style are R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

Many blacks found better life outside of Mississippi, if not exactly the “promised land” of life without racism, but for some it didn’t work out. R. L. Burnside returned to Mississippi after two members of his family were killed in Chicago in separate incidents. Burnside ran a juke joint for a while, but, from recordings, his music was better known in Europe than here in the United States, until his surprise late-in-life success here that saw his music on TV shows and in movies. His music was featured in the film “Big Bad Love” (as well as a cameo performance appearance) and on TV on “The Sopranos.”

Juke Joints

The juke joint scene in both the Delta and the hill country was musically rich, though the clubs, as described in Bill Coday’s song “Country Back Hills Juke Joint,” could be pretty rough-and-tumble places. There were good reasons why some clubs were called “a bucket of blood” club. As the clientele for the joints aged, the violence diminished and a growing tourist industry became significant to their operation and the proliferation of the music. Sadly, in this century, the juke joint scene has been in substantial decline as casinos have arisen in Mississippi, and small club owners have chosen to hire deejays more often than live bands.

The 2012 film “We Juke Up In Here” explores the state of Mississippi juke joints and presents music recorded in one club that is thriving, Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, MS. While many of the players are senior citizens, there are some younger ones, including “Big A” (Anthony Sharrod), who is in the film, and Marquise Knox, who lives in St. Louis but has close ties to his family’s home in Granada, MS. Filmmakers Jeff Konkel, Roger Stolle, Damien Blaylock, and Lou Bopp carefully avoid pronouncing Mississippi blues dead or saying that it is on death’s door. (To be sure, this is an old and oft-repeated promotional ploy. Big Bill Broonzy, one of the first blues singers to tour in Europe, back in the 1950s, was sometimes billed as the “last of the great blues singers.”)

The Delta Today

Clearly, though, this is a time of transition, and what the old players can bring to us of the magic of Mississippi blues, the elusive grasp of pitch, texture, tone, and timing that is far more important than mere technical virtuosity in the blues, and the transcendent spirit of the music, is something of priceless value.

The state of Mississippi and its local communities have recognized the great cultural treasure that grew there, even though recognizing and celebrating it necessitates acknowledging the horrors that gave rise to it. With reverence for the trailblazers of the past and an eye on the future, they have established the Mississippi Blues Trail with markers throughout the state. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola present the Mississippi blues and its story as well, a story of music and human understanding unparalleled in cultural history.

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Anthony “Big A” Sherrod is a young Mississippi bluesman, schooled by a noted blues teacher in the area, “Mr. Johnnie” Billington, who taught not only the music but the value of hard work and knowledge of the culture and history from which Mississippi blues emerged, a world where the musicians worked at very hard, low-paying agricultural jobs.

Guitar is Big A’s main instrument, though he plays bass, drums, and keyboards as well. Big A and his band were regulars at Sarah’s Kitchen, one of the area’s major blues venues until proprietor Sarah Moore was killed in an auto crash, and the restaurant went out of business. He has played at numerous other clubs and events in the Delta area.

Recordings of Big A are few; he appears on bass with Alvin “Youngblood” Hart and the late, great drummer Sam Carr on a song called “Joe Friday” in the 2003 film “Last Of The Mississippi Jukes.” Alvin Youngblood Hart notes in his intro that Sherrod has been playing blues in the area from a very young age. Sherrod is also featured in the 2012 film “We Juke Up In Here,” now as the band leader. He offers a spirited performance of a song called “Call Me A Lover” in the best tradition of male boasting (along with a bit of humor), and he also wrote and plays the title track for the film. Big A is an exciting performer who freely moves around a performance space with some fancy footwork.

In videos posted online, Sherrod can be seen playing around Clarksdale, including a spirited, bluesified version of a children’s song “Patty Cake Patty Cake,” obviously pleasing his audiences and deriving pleasure from performing.

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Music and family came together for Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the famed hill country blues artist R. L. Burnside. Cedric became known for his high-spirited drumming in his grandfather’s band, which can be heard on albums such as “Burnside On Burnside” featuring R. L. Burnside and his band in a club on Burnside Avenue in Portland, OR.

Cedric also recorded with his uncle Garry Burnside, who is, despite that relationship, a peer of Cedric’s, and brother Cody Burnside on an edgy album called “Burnside Exploration” in 2006,  which revealed his considerable talent as a songwriter and singer. The album included old country blues favorites like “Long Haired Dony” along with striking originals such as “One Cold And Lonely Night.”

Later Burnside teamed up with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm to tour and produce a couple of albums of strong modern rural Mississippi blues. “The Two Man Wrecking Crew” album won them a Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist Debut” in 2009, and Burnside got the BMA honor for “Drummer of the Year” the following year (and repeated that with a win in 2011). Burnside and Malcolm toured with the Big Head Blues Club to celebrate the Robert Johnson Centennial, and they contributed several songs to that group’s “100 Years Of Robert Johnson” CD.

Although Burnside was primarily the drummer and Malcolm the guitarist, they could, and did, switch roles at times, and with his new Cedric Burnside Project in 2011, Cedric Burnside plays both instruments, his guitar style very reminiscent of his late grandfather’s. Brother Cody and uncle Garry round out The Cedric Burnside Project (guitarist Trenton Ayres has now joined the band since the CD “The Way I Am” was recorded). On this album, Burnside incorporates some rapping, though his guitar playing is still clearly hill country blues, and his drumming is as extraordinary as ever.  With songs like “Holly Springs” and “The World Don’t Owe You Nothing” they are thoroughly contemporary and also right in the heart of the hill country blues tradition.

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