Watching a Ken Burns film is a little like going to church. You feel better having gone and your soul is uplifted by the experience.
During the past few nights, the Time Traveler has been enjoying episodes of the new Burns’ documentary on the history of “Country Music.” In fact, I can’t wait to turn on the television — for a welcome change.
It’s funny how music can transport a person back in time. Therapists who work with Alzheimer’s patients say an old tune or church hymn can instantly trigger a long-ago memory and bring that person “alive” again.
DeSoto County is a virtual gold mine of musical history, from old-time gospel standards to hill country blues and bluegrass.
Legendary blues man and “The Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy played his trumpet in the old gazebo on the DeSoto County Courthouse lawn around the turn of the century.
It was great to hear during the airing of the PBS documentary on Monday night a mention of Gus Cannon, early recording star and member of the famed Memphis Jug Stompers Band, who hailed from Southaven. He penned “Walk Right In, Sit Right Down,” a tune later popularized by “The Weavers” and “The Rooftop Singers.”
At your award-winning DeSoto County Museum, you can hear Cannon and other DeSoto County musical greats like Rev. Robert Wilkins, Nesbit’s Joe Callicott, and Horn Lake’s Big Walter Horton, along with Memphis Minnie, whose tombstone was paid for by blues/rock superstars John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt, both of whom considered Minnie a musical inspiration.
Minnie is buried in a small country cemetery outside Walls and attracts tourists and blues faithful to her gravesite on a regular basis.
We had a tourist from a far-off place up North ask us why Mississippi is called the “Birthplace of America’s Music?”
The answer is simple: Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music” hails from Meridian. Elvis Presley, “The Father of Rock N’ Roll,” was born in Tupelo. B.B. King, “The King of the Blues” is a native son of Indianola and Itta Bena.
The rich tapestry of American music unfurled during the course of the past 240 years is interwoven with threads of Mississippi soul.
Hard-working, tune-loving, foot-stomping folk from Mississippi have contributed greatly to America’s music.
It’s that heritage, that long anthology of musicians, singers, songwriters from the Magnolia State that makes the Time Traveler proud of his Mississippi roots.
This music is America’s music. Mississippi’s music. DeSoto County’s music.
That musical collaboration is experienced through festivals and concerts throughout the year like the recent “Cabin Fever Festival” and the “Front Porch Jubilee” that is set to take the stage at the old Clifton Cotton Gin Oct. 12 with an event Oct. 11 at the DeSoto Arts Council.
Local attorney and Mid-South musician and songwriter Steven Pittman has assembled a top-flight bevy of talent once again, ranging from the country/rock/blues of Travis Wammack to black gospel and other acts.
There is a certain goodness and sweetness to this kind of music as the PBS documentary points out.
Even in the dark days of the Depression when the dusty, downtrodden Okies packed up their belongings and headed to the hobo camps of California, living, working and singing alongside meagerly-paid Mexican migrant workers, hungry black sharecroppers and starry-eyed hillbillies, there was a glimmer of hope in their eyes and a smile on their lips.
There was not the meanness of our modern-day America.
There was a harmony of voices in those long-ago camps, each one an experimental laboratory of American democracy.
Everybody was in the same boat and rowing as fast as they could.
Music made America strong, resilient and enduring. Those long-ago notes on a harmonica which floated above the glowing campfires through the dusty California air were the sweet sounds of liberty.
May God help us to continue to let freedom ring.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.