In a small Mississippi town, a world-class museum will capture worldwide attention for B.B. King, the blues’ royal ambassador.
When the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss., opens on Sept. 13, it will fulfill a small town’s dream to honor a great Mississippian and to reveal his regional roots to the world. King also wants the museum to fulfill a greater purpose.
Those who know King, who turns 83 on Sept. 16, understand he has never forgotten his roots. During his annual homecoming, the blues king not only plays for the community, he holds workshops for the youth he endeavors to guide and inspire.
These goals of performance and education will be reflected in the $14 million complex that will draw travelers deep into the heart of the Delta while serving as a cultural center for residents. Innovative exhibits will explore the music King has carried around the world, probe the culture that spawned this uniquely American music, and stimulate the pride and hope so important to King.
Building a monument
“A very big project in a very small place” is how Allan Hammons, museum marketing director, describes the ambitious effort by Indianola (population 12,000) in west-central Mississippi to build a monument to its favorite native son. Riley B. King was born some 15 miles away, but, after losing his mother and grandmother by age 14, he settled in Indianola as a young man. To show appreciation for King claiming Indianola as his hometown, residents contributed $1.6 million to the project.
Indianola’s dream began in 2000 when a few leading citizens wrote King a letter to propose a museum in his honor. After he readily agreed, a site had to be chosen, and in 2002, an unlikely but perfect place was selected.
On 2.3 acres, skirted by railroad tracks that once carried bluesmen in and out of the Delta, stands the only surviving brick cotton gin in the state. When organizers showed the location to King, he told them he worked in the gin, which dates to 1914, as a young man. Donated by the City of Indianola, the gin was designated a Mississippi Landmark and restored in 2006. It will connect with the main exhibit hall to provide space for temporary exhibits and special events.
Impacting the lives of the Delta’s youth is integral to the museum’s vision. An education center will be connected to the museum by a covered walkway. King traveled to a press conference in Tunica last fall to accept a donation for the center from AT&T. Homemade Jamz, a three-sibling blues band from Tupelo, kicked off the event.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in my 82 years, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything so remarkable as these young people,” King told the gathering.
Telling the stories
Permanent exhibits devoted to the cultural heritage of the Delta, including the struggle for civil rights, are key to interpreting the legacy of the blues. They will provide the backdrop for tracing King’s career, from his impoverished start in life, through his transformation into the Beale Street “Blues Boy,” followed by his evolution to the acknowledged King of the Blues. Personal possessions and mementos from his 60-year career will play a prominent role in the museum’s exhibits. Connie Gibbons, the museum’s executive director, reports King has been so generous that he even offered the studio from his Las Vegas home, which will be dismantled and re-createddown to the pencil on his desk.
Arriving at the museum, visitors will enjoy an introduction to King’s life and music in a 50-seat theater. A collection of oral histories is being woven into nine different films throughout the museum. These narratives will feature King, locals who knew him and fellow musicians. Gibbons says they used King’s voice as much as possible to give visitors the feeling that he’s their personal tour guide.
Because all musical composition and style draws upon the synergy of past and present, the sounds and performances that shaped King’s music will be presented in five audiovisual and computer-interactive exhibits. The first uncovers the important role gospel music played in the development of the Delta blues, which was often called “the devil’s music.” Visitors will be led to compare and contrast the two musical forms in their sounds, styles, lyrics and instruments.
When King left the Mississippi Delta, he made his way to Memphis, one of America’s leading music cities. In this culturally vibrant center of African American life in the South, Beale Street was where it all came together for King. He developed a musical style under the guidance and influence of many musicians. To appreciate how this happened, visitors will hear the beats of Beale Street and become acquainted with the Memphis sound.
Museum guests also will experience the thrill of playing a simulated “Lucille”King’s beloved guitarin a studio environment. The highlight will be a virtual guitar lesson from King during which he reveals some of the skills that make up his style.
Making a difference
As with all good museum experiences, people will leave the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center understanding its subject matter either for the first time or in fresh ways. By being immersed in King’s world, they will be led to appreciate how disparate forces melded extraordinary artistry. For his admirers and music fans, all this will make it a worthwhile destination. Yet for King and Indianola, it has been designed to be more.
By preserving and sharing the lifetime accomplishments and values of King, it is the museum’s mission to enrich and empower the lives of young people and to unite and heal all people through music, art and education.
“There’s a sense of place that’s very powerful, and I hope it can make a difference for the children of the Mississippi Delta,” King said.
Darlene Copp is a contributor from Oxford, Miss.
|May/June 2008 Issue
Compiled by AAA Southern Traveler staff
Southern-styled blues can be enjoyed throughout the summer throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Here is a sampling of musical events any blues fan won’t want to miss.
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