John Szwed gives the keynote speech at Delta State University’s annual International Conference on the Blues.

CLEVELAND — Perhaps Alan Lomax’s greatest contribution to storytelling was letting the South speak for itself, John Szwed said to a room full of Blues academics this week.

“I think everyone knows there are terrific complexities of culture and mysteries in the South. Lomax certainly did,” Szwed said during his keynote presentation Delta State University’s annual International Conference on the Blues.

Lomax’s goal was to capture that heritage.

While Lomax and John Lee Hooker were the dual focus of the conference, dozens of scholars and musicians traveled across the country to present on topics from how Blues influenced the music that came out of Parchman Penitentiary to how rap finds its roots in the Blues.

“[This conference] is about academic dialogue, it’s about sharing the Blues with people around the world, and it’s about an ongoing conversation that’s gone on about the Blues for about the past 50-60 years,” said Don Allan Mitchell, co-chair of the three-day  conference that wrapped up Tuesday.

Lomax, a writer, musicologist and producer, spent his life promoting folk music by recording it and advocating to have it housed at Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Though Lomax traveled the world documenting cultures, he collected a body of work in Mississippi from 1933 – 1942, chronicling everyday people as well as greats like Lead Belly and Muddy Waters.

“These recordings also include interviews, life histories. It’s a sound picture of a people in a region. I don’t think there’s anything quite like this. Usually when nations and states do things like this they pick famous people. They want the best spokespeople. Seldom has anybody said, ‘This is what people were talking about. This is what they were doing,’” said Szwed, an anthropologist, jazz scholar, author and Grammy winner. 

Now, Lomax’s daughter is working to bring those stories back to Mississippi.

Anna Lomax Wood is the president of the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), which her father founded.

In June, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently awarded a grant to ACE and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at DSU for a collaborative project that will transfer, digitize and repatriate Lomax’s Mississippi recordings.

Jorge Arévalo Mateus, the director of the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE); Anna Lomax Wood, president of ACE; Emily Jones, University Archivist; Rolando Herts, the Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at DSU; and keynote speaker John Szwed speak on a panel at Delta State University’s annual International Conference on the Blues.

“Our goals are to primarily get that material into an online database and share that database with our collaborating partner institutions. We’re also hoping to do ceremonies, events, programs with families,” said Jorge Arévalo Mateus, the director of ACE.

Finding the families of those featured in Lomax’s work will likely be the most important part of this project, Mateus said during the conference at the Grammy Museum.

“It’s just always very moving to see people recognizing the film that Alan (Lomax) shot to see their grandfather or their father or uncle or mother or grandma, to see their family,’ Mateus said. “That just never stops amazing me.”

This concept of bringing stories back home and sharing back home stories with the world infiltrated almost all aspects of the conference.

I think [this conference was] a desire by the local Cleveland community and Delta State University to recognize the Blues’ impact on the world  …  It’s definitely academic, but what we tried to do is make sure there’s something for everybody because one of the charms of the Blues, one of the great aspects of the Blues is that it’s accessible to anybody,” Mitchell said. 

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis play at the downtown Cleveland Courthouse grounds after the first full day of the conference.

So naturally, the first full day of the conference had to end with a Blues concert.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis — three young Bluesmen hailed as the next voice of the genre — set up stage on the downtown Cleveland Courthouse grounds for a free show, and proved the Blues aren’t a thing of the past.  

“The blues have always been one of the outlets for our people. It’s been a way for us to relay how we feel sometimes without us getting into trouble,” Knox said. “Today there’s even a bigger need for some kind of music that speaks directly to the position in which we find ourselves now, the totality of all of it. So I still think there’s a need for more blues to talk about the time we live in, because these times are unparalleled.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.