Elmore James latest entry on blues trail

Published 7:10 pm Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Elmore James, an originator of the electric blues style who performed in cafes and juke joints on Canton’s Hickory Street nearly 60 years ago, is the latest musician featured on a marker along Mississippi’s growing blues trail.

On Tuesday, historians, state officials and blues enthusiasts gathered in Canton to unveil the Elmore James/Hickory Street Blues Trail Marker.

The marker is the 14th created as part of a project designed to bolster the state’s blues tourism industry.

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“It’s grown much larger than anyone expected when we started. It’s now funded to the tune of $1.2 million with funds coming from multiple sources,” Luther Brown, a member of the Mississippi Blues Commission, said of the project.

The commission, created by the Mississippi Legislature in 2004 to market the state’s musical heritage, has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mississippi Department of Transportation, among others, Brown said.

By the end of 2008, the commission hopes to unveil 130 markers across the state, said Brown.

The trail’s path will stretch from Memphis Minnie’s grave in Walls, near the Tennessee border, to Farish Street in downtown Jackson, a historic black business district and home of the Alamo Theatre, where artists performed live.

The markers are cast aluminum mounted on a post. The back side has graphics designed with color and black and white photographs or reproductions of historic documents.

“The only problem is that we’re trying to do this quickly and efficiently, and we’re really striving for historical accuracy,” Brown said. “That means researching the text and photographs in these interpretive displays takes some time.”

Blues historian Jim O’Neal of Kansas City said he culled information about James from articles and interviews. He tapped a source in Australia, who was compiling a blues encyclopedia, and another in London, the location of the record company that has purchased the rights to James’ songs.

James was born in Richland, Miss., in 1918. He arrived in Canton in 1951 and worked in a radio repair shop. It was there that he learned a great deal about electronics, O’Neal said.

In a 1971 interview, Robert Earl Holston, who owned the repair shop, discussed how he and James would experiment to amplify the guitar’s sound.

“The first time they did was out on a plantation. They hooked the guitars up to a generator. Robert Earl said the sound had too much whipple in it,” O’Neal said.

James died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963, but his music has inspired artists that include Fleetwood Mac and “almost anybody who plays slide guitar,” O’Neal said.

The trail is still in the early stages so there’s no mechanism to track tourists who visit the sites, said Alex Thomas, director of the trail program for the Mississippi Development Authority.

Thomas said about 2 million tourists come to the state each year for its blues history, a figure based on attendance at festivals and museums.

“What we’re trying to add with the trail is to complement their visit,” Thomas said.