OXFORD, Miss. - Women were the first recorded blues singers, and the first decade of recorded music featured females almost exclusively. It is therefore fitting that Living Blues magazine's Blues Today Symposium, Feb. 15-17 at the University of Mississippi, focuses on blues women.
The fifth annual event, titled "Blueswomen Today," brings to the forefront women who sing the blues, play the blues, write poems about the blues and engage in scholarly investigations of women's blues.
This year's symposium is scheduled in conjunction with two other conferences held on campus at the same time: the Southern American Studies Association meeting, which focuses on blues tunes and blues texts, and the Southern Anthropological Society meeting, with a foodways theme.
"Our keynote speaker, whom we're sharing with a concurrent meeting of the Southern American Studies Association, is Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor at Columbia University and author of an innovative study of Billie Holiday," said Blues Today chair and co-founder Adam Gussow, a UM professor of English and Southern studies. "Wanda Coleman, a brilliant blues performance poet, will also be making her Mississippi debut."
Griffin's book "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday" (Free Press, 2001) is not so much a straightforward biography of the eminent jazz singer, but instead, according to Library Journal, examines "how Holiday's music spoke to listeners and celebrated and reflected their lives." At Columbia, Griffin is an English and comparative literature professor who received her B.A. from Harvard and her Ph.D. from Yale.
Programming for the symposium kicks off at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Powerhouse in Oxford, with "The Mississippi Blues Trail: A Public Introduction" featuring Scott Barretta and Alan Hammons. Following at 3 p.m. is a screening of Robert Mugge's "Blues Divas," a documentary film of some of the world's most soulful female performers, filmed at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Miss., and narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.
At 6:30 p.m., Blues Today, SASA and SAS participants can enjoy a tamales and champagne reception at the Longshot Bar and Grill in Oxford.
The symposium also includes a tribute to the late Jessie Mae Hemphill, a hill country blues guitarist from Como, Miss., who died in July. Hemphill was a blues music legend and her music was an inspiration to music players and lovers around the world.
"David Evans, scholar and folklorist, will be here to talk about Jessie Mae and play a few of her songs, as will young blues woman Olga Wilhelmine," Gussow said. "Paul Garon, a founder of Living Blues magazine and co-author of a biography of Memphis Minnie, will also share his thoughts. We'll have several workshops with the performers and, of course, our annual jam session, open to members of the audience."
Mark Camarigg, publications manager for Living Blues magazine, said that the major role women have played in the development of blues music may not be well known.
"Fortunately, writers participating in our Blueswomen Today symposium, such as Gayle Wald and Farah Griffin, should provide enlightening and timely discussion about topics in blues music sometimes neglected by the mainstream press," Camarigg said.
Coinciding with the symposium, Thacker Mountain Radio is to host its annual blues show at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Off Square Books in downtown Oxford. The show will feature scholar Gayle Wald, author of a forthcoming biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and others to be announced.
On Friday, symposium lectures and panel discussions, held in the Tupelo Room of Barnard Observatory, include UM assistant professor of journalism Mark Dolan's noon Brown Bag Lecture "Selling Women's Blues in the Chicago Defender," and W.C. Handy Award-winner and teacher Gaye Adegbalola's 4:30 p.m. multimedia presentation "Wild Women Do Get the Blues."
Also at noon Friday, in the Triplett Alumni Center's Butler Auditorium, blues musician and poet Wanda Coleman presents "Between Sisters: Poetry and Dialogue About Soulful Women."
Other lectures, tours of the Blues Archive, and a poem and song swap are also planned.
Just as important as discussions of the blues are live performances, including a concert Friday night at the Big Truck Theater in Taylor, Miss., featuring Di Anne Price and Venessia Young, a pair of acts that represent two generations of Southern-born blues women. Catfish dinners will be available for sale from Taylor Grocery across the street.
"Di Anne Price, singer and piano player, is sometimes called Memphis' best-kept musical secret," Gussow said. "She combines the soulful vocal stylings of Ernestine Anderson and Carmen McCrae with the barrelhouse power of Katie Webster. In concert with her juke-lounge quartet, The Boyfriends, she is the most amazing blueswoman you've ever heard.
"Opening for Price is another prodigy, Clarksdale native Venessia Young, a fiery electric guitar-slinger. She'll be rocking the house with her band, Pure Blues Express, which features her sister Fazenda on bass."
Saturday night the symposium concludes with Blues on the Square in Oxford, featuring different artists at local venues, including the Bill Abel Band with Adam Gussow at Two Stick.
"All in all, Blueswomen Today promises to be a fantastic and enlightening experience," Gussow said.
Symposium sponsors include UM's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and departments of English and African-American Studies, as well as Living Blues magazine, the Mississippi Arts Council and the Mississippi Humanities Council.
Registration for the Blues Today Symposium is $50. UM faculty, staff and students can attend the symposium lectures at no charge but pre-registration is advised due to limited space.
For more information, including a complete schedule of events, or to register, visit http://www.bluestodayonline.com. For assistance related to a disability, call 662-915-5993.