The blues have shaped American music for over a century, and many people the world over consider blues music Mississippi’s greatest contribution to global culture.
In recognition of this distinction, the state created the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC) in 2005. Its original charter established a statewide Blues Trail, but it soon became clear that more was needed than just historical sites and signs. As Rep. Willie Bailey explains, “When the Blues Commission started putting up Trail markers across the state we discovered that many grassroots blues pioneers, artists and musicians were experiencing hardships due to misfortune and poverty.”
“The markers allowed the state to profit on tourism from an art form kept alive by these faithful souls,” Bailey said. “But as the Commission carried on its work, there were requests from destitute artists for a little help to get through hard times.” Bailey pointed out that back then there was no legal way for the Blues Commission to respond to their needs, but the Legislature passed the necessary legislation allowing the Commission to act. In 2010, the Mississippi Blues Commission was authorized “to raise and expend grant funds to provide assistance to any blues musician in need.” The Blues Benevolent Committee was created to oversee the distribution of these funds. Now any established blues musician in need can apply for up to $1,000 in a 12-month period.
Dr. Edgar Smith, chairman of the Blues Benevolent Committee, said, “As a son of the Delta, I am keenly aware of the challenges that confront these artists on a daily basis. Many blues musicians, especially the older ones, have no health insurance and no other source of income other than what they get from blues gigs. It’s appropriate for Mississippi to have some mechanism for assisting the people from whom the blues derived. The Benevolence Fund represents the effort of on the part of the Mississippi Blues Commission to address this issue. I envision a future in which this effort will become the major focus of the MBC to the extent that it will approach the scale of the Music Maker Relief Foundation of Hillsborough, NC.”
The Music Maker Relief Foundation, founded in 1994, helps support elder blues and Appalachian artists. Their Musician Sustenance Program provides monthly stipends (typically $50 – $200), grants for emergencies and periodic needs for health care as well as other services. In 2012-13, Music Maker’s budget exceeded $630,000.
The Mississippi Blues Foundation, the fundraising arm of the MBC, spearheads efforts to secure money for the Blues Benevolent Committee’s separate grants fund. Most funds come from private donations, but the sale of car tags and donations from the annual Mississippi Blues Marathon also contribute to the fund. John Noblin, director of the marathon, said that the marathon is on the fast track to help.
“We have included a specific donation option for participants on the registration form because we want to generate money earmarked for the Benevolent Committee,” Noblin said. “In years we’ve made a $10,000 donation to the Mississippi Blues Commission in general. But contributing directly to the Benevolent Committee was the perfect way to tie in with the wellness component and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi’s involvement because it covers financial shortfalls with health-related issues.”
To date, the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Committee has awarded grants totaling $16,000to 18 artists, including James “T-Model” Ford; “Cadillac” John Nolden; Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt; Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry; Jim O’Neal, producer and a co-founder of Living Blues magazine; Duff Dorrough, founding member of The Tangents; and Eddie “Chank” Willis, winner of the 2013 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in music.
Malcolm White, former director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said, “The blues is based on hard times, and for many years the cultural and heritage movements in Mississippi have sought to honor these artists and support them when hard times come back around. Now that the Benevolent Committee has been established under Dr. Smith’s leadership and persistence, we have finally put our money where our mouths are.”
“Helping our native sons and daughters is the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “To come to the aid of suffering blues artists and musicians expresses Mississippi’s appreciation and recognition of their contributions to this native art form. We don’t want them standing on a corner with a cup begging, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’”
“People talk about keeping the blues alive,” Smith said, “but we need to keep these people alive, too.”
(For more information about the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Fund, contact Dr. Edgar Smith at: 601-713-2756)