The Blues|Shirley Waring loves the music, but can’t sing the tune

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 13, 2009

When she feels like singing the blues, Shirley Waring doesn’t.

“I can’t sing, and I can’t play a musical instrument,” the president of the Vicksburg Blues Society said.

So what does she do? “I put on a CD.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

What are the blues? She defines it as “a memory you can’t lose. It’s deep. It’s expressed in humming and lyrics, but also it’s a feeling. The music is what expresses those feelings.”

It’s melancholy that brings on the blues, she said. “It evokes a memory. I’m telling you, it’s a memory that is in your heart that you deal with.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

And then she summed it up: “The blues fills the hole in your soul.”

She loves to dance, loves the rhythms, “but I have big boot straps to pull myself up with,” so she doesn’t get lost in a melancholy mood. Besides, she is very much an optimist.

Though born in Mississippi, she grew up in Southern California, always loving music, listening to Ray Charles and other artists who were heavily influenced by the blues. So, when she came back to the South, “it was a sound that I recognized. It was part of my heritage.”

Sharing that heritage — preserving and marketing it, if you please, is what she and the Blues Society are about. Among the objectives is to latch on to the Mississippi Blues Trail with a local one (on paper) so that, when tourists are following it and wind up in Vicksburg, they’ll have the opportunity and experience of hearing live blues.

Vicksburg is a natural place to promote such a venue. It’s at the foot of the Delta with the Blues Highway —U.S. 61 — running right through town.

It’s also the home of who Shirley calls the poet laureate of the blues, the late Willie Dixon, who was a producer and performer who wrote hundreds of songs that are played by such groups as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Dixon left here for Chicago when he was in his teens. He was not only a musician but also a boxer, and Shirley was shocked when she saw a picture of him.

“I thought he was going to be a wiry guy, like a baseball player. He was a big guy, immensely talented, who played the upright bass.” He founded Blues Heaven, headquartered in the old Chess Records building in Chicago. Its objective is to benefit blues musicians.

Another native of Vicksburg who gained national fame in the blues was Milton “The Judge” Hinton, an upright bass player. Also from here was Laura Mae “Mama Laura” Gross, famous on the West Coast for her Southern cooking and her restaurant where blues musicians gathered and performed.

The local society, working with the Vicksburg Heritage League and the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, has created a map and a guide showing points of interest, such as restaurants and historic sites, and places where live entertainment is provided. There is also info on special events, such as the Fourth of July weekend, Red, White and Blues, and last year’s New Year’s eve gala, Happy Blues Year.

Another activity of the Blues Society was honoring B.B. King when he came to town.

“In Europe,” Shirley said, “they rolled out the red carpet for him. But, at home it was often a ‘ho, hum’ attitude. We decided to change that, to let him know how much we appreciate what he has done to contribute in raising the bar for recognition for Mississippi, his home state.”

The blues is traditionally African-American and, though many fashionable clubs feature the music, the sound came out of the Mississippi Delta cotton fields and from rural churches and the jails.

Some blues songs have become standards, and one, “Corina, Corina,” written by a native of Raymond, was a crossover hit to the country charts, recorded by Eddy Arnold. There are others, such as “Misty Blue,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Hoochie Koochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “My Babe,” and many more, some recorded by such stars as Etta James and The Pointer Sisters.

Though the blues markers don’t include Caucasians, many white artists have also made significant contributions to the music. Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music who was born in Meridian, recorded a number of blues yodels in the 1920s. There are others, such as Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline.

“They certainly contributed,” Shirley said. “They loved it and they picked up on it — just like what happened to me.”

Vicksburg has four Blues Trail markers — for the Red Tops, the Blues Highway, Willie Dixon and one dedicated this past week in Marcus Bottom. Shirley thinks “the next step is that we need to provide live entertainment. We have a tremendous opportunity to offer more than a destination.”

“It’s all tied to economic development,” she said. “It’s our opportunity to use the tools the Mississippi Development Authority has given us. It’s up to us to say ‘OK, lets put ’em on stage.’ We hope to create opportunities for these performers.”

She and others in the Blues Society and related organizations are working to promote business in Vicksburg through food, history, art and entertainment, and they’re working with Demond Wilson — better known as Lamont from the TV series “Sanford and Son” — in co-hosting a golf tournament here.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, “to be able to integrate a passion that I have into my work life.”

You’re not likely to find Shirley Waring singing the blues.