Bill seeks to help needy Miss. blues musicians

Bill seeks to help needy Miss. blues musicians
March 4, 2010
Bloomberg Business Week

Mississippi's blues artists have won worldwide fame for their soulful music born out of the hardships of the state's old plantation system, but many of them end up broke and hungry.

The Mississippi Legislature has passed a bill lawmakers hope will lead to financial help for the performers who established the state's legacy as the "birthplace of the blues."

The bill allows the Mississippi Blues Commission to raise private funding for struggling musicians. It amends the law that created the commission, which is charged with promoting the state's blues heritage. The bill will allow the commission to "raise and expend grant funds to provide assistance to any blues musician in need."

The bill passed the House earlier in the session and passed Senate this week, but was held on a motion to reconsider. The bill would become effective July 1.

The change was sorely needed, said Luther Brown, a member of the commission.

Brown said he often hears of musicians who died broke or need help with medical costs or other expenses.

"I just had an e-mail this morning about Willie King, who is from Prairie Point, Miss. He died about a year ago and his grave is unmarked," Brown said. "He's a legitimate performer who has performed all over the world and has had albums out, but there's no money to put up a grave stone."

Last month, blues guitarist Lil' Dave Thompson died in a van accident in South Carolina. Thompson, of Greenville, Miss., left a wife and five children, Brown said.

He said guitarist Mickey Rogers was robbed and beaten after a gig last year. The commission couldn't give him money, but helped get him another guitar through the Mississippi Development Authority.

"Basically everything he owned was taken, even his guitar was stolen. In his case, he was potentially facing a loss of income because he didn't have an instrument," Brown said.

Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, said he asked the bill be held for more debate because wanted clarity on who would receive the money and how it would be managed. He said he's since learned the commission would handle all the funds and it would only go to Mississippi performers.

"We don't just want some guy who goes out and buys a harmonica to say, 'I'm a bluesman. Give me some money,'" Hewes said. "We want it to go to true artists."

Mississippi has focused its tourism marketing on blues history for several years. The state's blues trail has more than 100 markers identifying significant or historic spots related to the music.

Tourists spent $1.1 billion in a 14-county region in the Delta in 2009, according to the Mississippi Development Authority's most recent figures. Most of it -- $915 million -- was spent in Tunica County, a major casino destination. Many say blues enthusiasts, on the trail of Mississippi's musical originators, make up the rest of the tourism numbers.

"They're the state's biggest draw for international tourism to the Mississippi Delta," said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood. "The least we can do is help them in their senior years."
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