Documenting the Blues

Documenting the Blues - Oxford

The University of Mississippi is internationally famous for its work in documenting African American blues culture. Since 1983 the Center for the Study of Southern Culture has published Living Blues magazine, which it purchased from the magazine’s founders in Chicago. The Living Blues and B.B. King collections of records and memorabilia were among the first major components of the Blues Archive, established by the university in 1984 and housed in the J.D. Williams Library.

Living Blues, the first American magazine dedicated exclusively to the blues, was founded in 1970 by seven young enthusiasts in Chicago. Cofounders Amy van Singel and Jim O’Neal became owners and publishers of the magazine in 1971, operating it until its transfer to the University of Mississippi in 1983. Cofounder Bruce Iglauer formed Alligator Records, which became the most prominent independent blues label, while cofounder Paul Garon wrote several books, including Blues and the Poetic Spirit and biographies of blues artists Memphis Minnie and Peetie Wheatstraw. Living Blues soon became a journal of record for the African American blues tradition, specializing in lengthy, first-person narratives of living blues artists and chronicling local blues activity around the country, including Mississippi. The magazine, which began as a forty-page quarterly priced at fifty cents, entered its fortieth year of publication in 2009.

The Center for the Study of the Southern Culture, established at the University in 1977, acquired Living Blues in 1983. The Center’s director at the time was Dr. William R. Ferris, a Vicksburg native who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Delta blues traditions and was a contributor to Living Blues. O’Neal, who lived in Biloxi and Oxford as a child, and van Singel moved from Chicago to Oxford after the transfer of the magazine. In 1980 they cofounded the Rooster Blues record label, and O’Neal later started the Stackhouse label and helped establish the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale. The Center launched its own Southern Culture label in 1983 to document Mississippi blues, gospel, and folk music. Living Blues was later edited by Peter Lee, who was a founder of the Oxford-based Fat Possum record label, David Nelson, Scott Barretta, and Brett J. Bonner. Ferris, Nelson, and Barretta also served as hosts of the University-produced radio show “Highway 61,” which began its long tenure on Mississippi Public Broadcasting in 1984.

Ferris was also instrumental in establishing the University’s Blues Archive, which opened in 1984. Ferris arranged for his friend B. B. King to contribute his large record collection and for O’Neal and van Singel to donate the Living Blues Collection of records, photos, subject files, and memorabilia. Other major components of the Archive, which is housed at the J. D. Williams Library, include the Trumpet Records Collection, donated by Lillian McMurry of Jackson, and the Sheldon Harris Collection. The Archive has aided thousands of researchers and has been headed by archivists Suzanne Flandreau, Edward Komara, and Greg Johnson. The University has also offered courses on blues topics taught by Ferris, Peter Aschoff, Adam Gussow, David Evans, and others, and in 2003 began hosting “Blues Today: A Living Blues Symposium.”

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