Philadelphia project brings Mississippi Blues to the fore

Cedric Burnside plays at the Folk Festival.
Cedric Burnside plays at the Folk Festival. (MICHAEL LANIS / For The Inquirer)
Posted: August 21, 2012

Cedric Burnside has spent most of his life on the road.

Music is his driver, the blues is his boss.

"We play anywhere," Burnside said Sunday, just hours before his debut performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. "We normally do clubs and festivals. Do a juke joint once in a while."

Sunday, the Cedric Burnside Project - which consists of Burnside, 33, drummer and guitarist, and guitarist Trenton Ayers, 26 - brought their contemporary hill country blues to Upper Salford Township for the 51st folk festival, an annual rite that attracts upward of 40,000 music lovers to the grounds of the Old Pool Farm, near Schwenksville.

Big George Brock, harmonica player extraordinaire, a native of Clarksdale, Miss., who has played alongside such blues legends as Muddy Waters and Albert King, also was scheduled to make his first appearance at the festival.

Brock's raw harp draws on an older blues, as harsh and persistent as the cotton-country sun.

Both Brock, now 80, and Burnside appeared in the Philadelphia area under the auspices of WXPN-FM's Mississippi Blues Project, a yearlong effort designed to bring a lesser-known style of blues to the region's audiences and to demonstrate the evolution of the music.

"We wanted to bring awareness to a somewhat obscure form of blues from Mississippi," Bruce Warren, WXPN program director, said Sunday. "The Delta blues is always the foundation of the blues. We wanted to focus on . . . dozens and dozens of incredible blues guys and women who rarely play outside of juke joints and areas of rural Mississippi."

With funding of about $135,000 from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the advice and assistance of Jonny Meister, longtime host of the station's The Blues Show, WXPN will present four concerts throughout the year featuring eight artists.

Meister will also air music by, and interviews with, the musicians; field and studio recordings of the events will document the proceedings, and a Mississippi Blues Project website - http://mississippibluesproject.org - will gather essays, interviews, music, and other related resources.

For Burnside, grandson of legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside, the music is burned into his genes and into the landscape of his home, Holly Springs, Miss., southeast of Memphis on the way to Tupelo.

"I started playing music with [my grandfather] at an early age," Burnside said before the festival Sunday. "There was a house party every weekend. Dragged some raggedy drums onto the porch, jug of moonshine, anybody could come up on the porch."

He went on his first tour at 13 and has been touring ever since.

"It's been in my blood," Burnside said. "I was born to do this. I am the blues."

Brock has been doing it even longer. He worked the cotton fields around Clarksdale, like generations of black men and women before him, and, like the older blues artists, transformed the difficulties of the life into the beauties of the music.

"The blues," he once said, "grew like grass out of the ground."

Born in Grenada, Miss., Brock grew up in Clarksdale picking cotton, boxing, and playing harmonica. He moved to St. Louis in the 1950s and ran a string of clubs and formed a number of bands.

Riverboat gambling cut into club business, Brock has said.

But nothing cuts into the power of his music.

"It's that old sound that I like," Brock told StLBlues.net, reflecting on playing with Muddy Waters, Albert King, Jimmy Reed, and other blues titans. "If you come see me now, you'll think they're all in the room with me.

"I've been doing this," he said, "a long time."


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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