I’m Allen Bush, director of Berklee’s public information office, and, at the moment, bridge-builder to Mississippi. I’m here in the Deep South this weekend to find teen musicians or singers and award them scholarships to Berklee’s five-week summer performance program. My partners will be the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, and the Robert Johnson Blues Museum, in Crystal Springs.
This is the second year I’ve been here for this privileged task. Admittedly, it’s outside of my usual responsibilities of placing Berklee stories in the media, though there will be newspaper and radio coverage this weekend. But, when conversations started a few years ago about finding ways of bringing more kids from here to Boston, I wanted to play a part. Mississippi has provided the foundation for just about every musician that has ever impacted my life. It’s authors and folk artists captivate me. It’s social struggles have directed my studies of American history starting in elementary school. There are few places I’ve visited that do more to spark my imagination than Mississippi. I had to take this chance to get closer to the music and the culture.
I fly from Boston to Memphis and drive 90 minutes to Clarksdale, home of the blues. On either side of the four-lane highway, the land is flat, the horizon in front is endless. I’ve haven’t ever been here in cotton’s high season, and for now the fields are brown with occaisional swaths of tiny yellow flowers. It’s warm enough that there are puddle mirages in the road ahead.
Clarksdale is characteristically quiet. The old downtown area is a few blocks of brick buildings, some empty, and just about every one has some dedication to the blues. Two are anchors for tourists – the Ground Zero blues club, and the Delta Blues Museum. They are just steps apart. The annual Juke Joint Festival is this weekend, and some of the faithful have arrived early, making a trickling stream between the two. More bars and clubs are welcoming them with outdoor barbecues and live music played on one store-front porch. This festival will draw blues lovers from all over the world. Clarksdale’s main industry is blues tourism, and throughout out the year, people come to visit the birthplace of Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Big Jack Johnson, and, more recently, Super Chicken.
With these legends long gone, younger generations fill the bars and juke joints. This is a vital music town but without the industry of, say, Nashville or Los Angeles. The youngest generation has a home base at the Delta Blues Museum’s after-school Arts and Education music program. Here, teachers and local musicians Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry direct ensembles and encourage students to play as many instruments as interest them. These students spill out of the classroom and into local clubs and festivals, preforming with their mentors or in their own groups.
Some student that I’ve met here are dedicated to traditional Delta music – blues, country, and gospel. All are used to rubbing elbows with living legends who come to Clarksdale to stand on the earth where their own careers are rooted. They talk about recent visits from Robert Plant, Paul Simon, Kiss’ Gene Simmons, among many others.
Delta Blues Museum director Shelley Ritter, teacher Daddy Rich, last year’s summer scholarship recipient Travis Calvin, and I sit with the teens who are auditioning for this year’s scholarship. There are four. Each will perform and answer questions, mainly from me since I’m the outsider.
First, we hear Jacqueline Gooch, 17. She is a singer/songwriter who plays piano, guitar, bass, and drums. She’s got 60 songs in her portfolio, and has preformed at he B.B. King and Robert Johnson blues festivals, and at one in Wisconsin in front of 20,000 people. Rich tells me she is the first one to graduate from the program who could play every instrument. Three local bands count her as a member. She performs her original tune “Hello Mother,” prefacing it by calling her music alt pop/rock and blues.
Next is PJ Walker, 18. He is studying now at Mississippi Valley State, where he directs a gospel choir. He is also teaching a third grade music class at Mound Bayou Elementary School. His kids are learning how to play the recorder. He writes children’s music, jazz and gospel tunes, and orchestral compositions, one of which was performed by a 15-piece group. He sits at the keyboard and plays the Richard Smallwood composition, “Total Praise.” He wants to join as many diferent kinds of ensembles as he can at Berklee, and learn more about music theory.
Clancy Pullen is 18 and wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. She loves Christian and classic rock, listing Nirvana, Floyd, the Doors, Zeppelin, and Chris Tomlin as some of her favorites. She has played the piano at church and other recitals. By looking at Berklee’s web site, she thinks she would like to peruse teaching or music therapy. She says if she doesn’t come to Berklee this summer, she will buy a guitar and learn how to play it, and look for live performing opportunities. She plays an untitled original song on the keyboard, accompanied by a 14-year-old drummer.
Vocalist Sarah Metcalf, 19, counts her inspirations as Koko Taylor, Aretha, Etta, Patti Labelle, Alison Krauss, and Donnie Hathaway. She was happy to know that Hathaway’s daughters – Lalah and Kenya – attended Berklee. She is also a drummer and, with her bass-playing sister, has played in her church, and in a couple of local bands. She aspires to be a professional singer and drummer. Unknowingly, she aligns herself with a Berklee alumnus when she sings Susan Tedeschi’s “Just Won’t Burn.” She then sits behind the drum kit and lays down a few rhythms.
Wow. Unlike last year, the judges saw no clear scholarship recipient. The talent was dynamite. Impressive. All of the young musicians had their own special talents and clearly defined aspirations that could be supported by a Berklee experience. Discussions and resolution took more than an hour. The winner will be surprised when a presentation is made on Saturday, on stage at the Juke Joint Festival. Like Travis Calvin last year, someone will be traveling to a large city further north they ever have for a life-changing experience.