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Street Talk

City Has Strong Link To Blues Heritage

By Mickey Howley

The last week of September, I took a drive out into the Delta one sunny morning. I drove over to the front gates of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. There at the intersection of Mississippi Hwy 32 and US Hwy 49W, officials from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, the Mississippi Development Authority, the supervisors for Sunflower County, history professors from Delta State University and a number of former “residents” of Parchman Prison Farm had gathered.  This diverse crowd was there to see the unveiling of the 113th Mississippi Blues Trail marker, this one celebrating a place where the blues certainly has real meaning. The marker at Parchman not only refers to the blues song ”Parchman Farm Blues,” but also notes the many blues artists who served time there as well as the prison’s once touring blues band.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is a museum without walls, taking visitors on a musical history journey through Mississippi.  At this writing there are now 116 Blues Trail markers, 3 being added since my late September trip to the Delta. Five of the markers are not even in the state; one is as far away as Rockland, Maine.  Our part of the world, and Mississippi specifically, has a rich musical heritage. It is not a small coincidence that the two large cities, Memphis and New Orleans, located just outside of either end of the state are world renown as music towns.  This Blues Trail Marker system is an effort sponsored by the state to preserve, promote, and educate residents and visitors alike about the blues and Mississippi music.

The Blues Marker system comes at a time when tourism is under going a shift.  Many folks, especially older ones, are no longer limited to summer only travel with the kids to a beach or amusement park. They are traveling across the country looking for authentic places, in search of what the travel industry calls “cultural and heritage tourism.” This motivation for travel exists not only in the USA alone, but throughout the world. For many from Scandinavia or the United Kingdom or the Netherlands or Germany, travel to the American South and Mississippi is an exotic trip.  Hard to believe, right? There is a real fascination with the landscape, rivers, towns, people, and music. And so the State of Mississippi, known for its hospitality, is promoting this type of tourism.  It is really about economic diversity and development as a big motivator for bringing in tourists.  And with this type of tourism the money gets spread through out the state, not just where the casinos are.

So what has Water Valley to offer for this cultural and heritage tourism? A lot.  There is most obviously Casey Jones and the ballad written about him by Wallace Saunders. The ballad, which has been covered by many artists ranging from Mississippi’s John Hurt to The Grateful Dead to Marty Stuart, is what actually made Casey famous. This connection Water Valley has with this song and the railroads is a strong link to Mississippi’s blues heritage and offers reason enough for a blues marker here.  So, what are we waiting for?

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