Blues markers feeling effects of weather, wear

Published 10:00 am Sunday, July 8, 2018

GREENWOOD, Miss. (AP) — The Furry Lewis plaque on Carrollton Avenue’s got the blues.

Faded to near white, one side of the Mississippi Blues Trail marker commemorating the Greenwood native’s blues career has deteriorated almost to the point of being unreadable.

Eight Blues Trail markers are in or just outside Greenwood, and they are in various states of repair and disrepair, with the Lewis marker showing the most wear.

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Allan Hammons of Hammons & Associates is project coordinator for the approximately 200 markers that have been placed across the state since the Blues Commission first formed in 2006.

“The faded ones are on the replacement list,” Hammons said. “The commission has a list, and I’m not sure where they are on the timing of the list, but they’re about to be replaced.”

Scott Barretta of Greenwood, one of two researchers and writers who created the content on these markers, said the Mississippi Blues Commission had a good funding system initially with grant money to put the markers up and splitting the cost with communities, with Visit Mississippi and other funding entities.

“I’m not sure there was a solid plan for replacing worn-out ones,” Barretta said.

The markers feature text in raised, embossed letters on one side and vinyl panels with text and photos on the other.

Those vinyl panels, Barretta said, were great because they allowed for smaller and more abundant text on the markers as well as the use of color images.

One of Greenwood’s markers, in front of the Elks Hall on Scott Street, features a 1960s vintage snapshot of Ike and Tina Turner playing on the Elks stage, the colors slightly muddy, just like those family photos from the era made with Kodak Instamatic cameras.

“The negative thing about using that vinyl is that those things wear out. We expected them to wear out, and they wear out at different rates of speed,” Barretta said.

Around the state, some have had to be replaced for other reasons, such as being struck by automobiles, and a few, such as the Lewis marker, have had to be replaced due to extreme fading that depends on exposure to the sun and other elements.

“The ones in very rural places, we have to rely on visitors to let us know if they are in bad shape,” Barretta said.

Hammons & Associates is responsible for replacing faded or damaged vinyl panels with new ones.

Barretta said one good thing about replacing them is that text can be revised or updated as new information is gathered or, say, if someone was alive when the marker went up but has died in the interim.

The idea behind the Blues Trail was to create an infrastructure for cultural tourism in Mississippi, directly related to the blues.

The B.B. King Museum was opening 10 years ago, a project Hammons was heavily involved in, and the state was looking for ways to promote the cultural economy.

“The state became very cognizant they could make some money off the blues,” Barretta said.

Additionally, the markers became repositories of local cultural knowledge and pride.

The ones in Greenwood, put together, tell the story of a rich legacy of musical creativity and production as well as human drama.

The first one erected in Greenwood, on Howard Street, marks the WGRM Radio Studio where B.B. King performed with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers of Inverness, before his solo career took off in Memphis a decade later. WGRM was the site of King’s first live broadcast in 1940.

The marker at the Robert Johnson gravesite at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Money Road is perhaps the most visited of the Greenwood sites with its dramatic retelling of Johnson’s brief but legendary career and his death at nearby Star of the West Plantation, allegedly due to poisoning.

The most recent marker placed in Greenwood, also on Howard Street, honors the radio disc jockeys who played a major role spreading the blues and nurturing musical careers, including Ruben Hughes, who became the owner-operator of Greenwood’s WGNL in 1988.