‘The world’s got the blues right now’: Art and music in Mississippi take a hit during COVID-19 shutdown

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Seven months ago, Rita Brent, Jackson native and comedienne, signed to an entertainment agency and left Mississippi to pursue her comedy career in New York. From acting gigs to comedy shows — performing with the likes of Rickey Smiley and Cedric The Entertainer — Brent secured “plentiful opportunities,” in Harlem and New Jersey. 

“I was performing in Jackson maybe a couple of times a week and New York, it’s just been amplified, (it is) unbelievable how much work I’m getting. I feel like I’m becoming a better comedian,” Brent said in a phone call with Mississippi Today.

D'Artagnan Winford

Comedienne and Jackson native Rita Brent

But on one early March night, everything hit pause. Brent noticed the confirmed cases of COVID-19 spreading across the country, specifically in her new New York home, and soon all her scheduled appearances and shows were cancelled. Hearing concerns from her family, Brent and her partner, Freda Clark, packed up and headed back to the South.

For Brent and other artists, the fear around the novel coronavirus has separated them from their audiences for the foreseeable future and no one knows when live, in-person performances will resume. In Mississippi, the result is the loss of costly, revenue-driving events, and performers unsure of their next paycheck, left “twiddling our thumbs,” one bluesmen said.

“There is no life, life is music. That’s non-existent right now,” said Sean “Bad” Apple of Clarksdale. Apple, a one-man band with 30 years of playing experience, was set to open his Bad Apple Blues Club last month. “Not only can I not open my club, I can’t perform, I can’t do anything. So we’re just stuck at a standstill here.” 

Over it’s 16-year lifespan, Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival prevailed through excessive rain storms and power outages – 2020 is the first year its organizers cancelled the event. Co-organizer Roger Stolle called the decision “heartbreaking.”

“It’s pretty crippling for anyone who has a business,” Stolle said. “(For) musicians, it’s like you’re kind-of out of luck. You just can’t get a gig.”

Recently, Stolle announced a virtual live stream of the Juke Joint Festival on April 18 via www.LiveFromClarksdale.org from 12 noon to 9 p.m. followed by a film premiere, Juke Joint Festival Revisited. The annual “half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta” event serves as an economic staple in the community, bringing in people from over 46 states and 28 countries at one time. The three-day fest requires extensive planning, Stolle said, adding they have to coordinate over 100 street vendors, music venues, workshops and panel discussions, student writing competitions, and contests like the monkey-riding-dogs.

Lou Bopp

Roger Stolle (right) stands outside of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art next to Blues musician Big George Brock during the 2019 Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale.

“People who drive in and pump gas before they leave to people buying bottled water in Walmart to shop in our stores downtown to eat in our restaurants,” he said. “When you really look at the spending of a tourist who comes into town, even if they’re not affluent, even if they’re thrifty, you still gotta eat.”

World-renowned blues musician and Pontotoc native Terry “Harmonica” Bean said he had to cut his international tour short back in January. 

“The world’s got the blues right now,” he said. Bean, who grew up with 18 brothers and six sisters, comes from a family of bluesmen who’ve played with the likes of B.B. King and other Mississippi icons. With no shows, and no computer to livestream, he said he plans to mow yards and pick up cans to make some extra money. 

“Everybody will be fine for another week or so, but after that we’ll desperately need to be earning money and working,” said Will Griffith, frontman for the Oxford-based group The Great Dying. Like many artists, Griffith doubles as restaurant staff, another source of income that’s dried up. “It’s pretty scary.”

Vicksburg-based mixed-media artist H.C. Porter said spring and summer shows like the now cancelled Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival are crucial for selling paintings, photographs, sculptures and other visual art. 

“The way that I’ve built my work through the years has been events and outdoor festivals,” she said. Porter estimates those shows generate about 80 percent of her income. 

Music streaming dropped about 8 percent in the week of March 13 to March 19, according to a recent article from Rolling Stone, around when self-quarantining began around the country.

“Many people listen to music on their transit to and from work,” Bay St. Louis rapper MGM Mike Mike said. Mike was on the verge of dropping his new album, “Stupid Genius,” this month, but put the release on hold after cancelling his promotional trips to Houston and New York.

“Since the coronavirus, a lot of people are at home,” he said. “It’s just not working out for the streaming part.”

Singer-songwriter Hadley Hill of Pass Christian is a 24-year-old mother who was preparing to get married this summer. Hill, who relies on the checks from her three weekly concerts, said it’s scary not being able to plan long term.

In between her now online college classes and homeschooling her 7-year-old, Hill began live-streaming herself performing on Facebook, using apps like Venmo as her virtual tip jar. 

Ridgeland Tourism Commission

People view artwork from artists across the country at the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival in 2019 at Renaissance at Colony Park in Ridgeland.

“People need the art in the world right now,” she said. “People are turning to movies and Netflix for their entertainment, but we can provide that as well. People are looking for it.”

Like Hill, Brent has found creative ways to pay her bills. Leveraging her social media presence, she released a new song, “Quarantine Shuffle,” announced bookings for virtual comedy shows, and started “The Rita and Freda Show,” a donation-based talk show about love, relationships, and wellness.

“It’s really challenging me creatively,” Brent said. “What can I do from home? What is something I haven’t done that I’ve been sitting on? Now is the time we can manifest those things.

“You don’t have to panic if you’re an artist, a singer, a poet. You are the gift. So all you have to do is release your gift and trust that it will be fruitful for you. It doesn’t matter what it is, release it on all platforms, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, you have to have a presence so people know you’re there.”

Other artists echoed Brent’s optimism.

“It’s going to be alright,” Bean said. “If it wasn’t for any music or entertainment, the world would be in bad shape. Us musicians will be out and ready to go when they call us.” 

“I think that the minute we get a green light to play music again, I think it’s going to be very welcomed,” Griffith added. “People are going to want to listen to live music so bad. There might be a little light at the end of this.”

Local and national organizations have set up relief funds for artists, while other groups have started live-streaming shows and digitizing artwork:

  • The Mississippi Blues Trail Musicians Benevolent Fund is granting money to blues musicians. 
  • Larger organizations such as the Blues Foundation and the Recording Academy are also providing monetary support through programs like the MusiCares Coronavirus Relief Fund and the HART (Handy Artists Relief) Trust.
  • Live Music on the Coast is using its Facebook page to stream frequent live performances of different musicians on the Coast, helping them to receive virtual tips and donations. 
  • Shared Experiences USA is compiling a schedule of live stream arts and music performances for viewers.
  • In Oxford, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council organizes the [email protected] Festival featuring local artists

A list of some of the cancelled or postponed art and music festivals:

  • Mar. 21-22: Arts Alive! Bay St. Louis POSTPONED; tentative dates: Sept. 19-20
  • Mar. 28-29: Ocean Springs’ 27th Annual Spring Arts Festival POSTPONED until TBA
  • Mar. 28: Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade & Festival, Jackson CANCELLED
  • Apr. 2-5: Amory Railroad Festival – POSTPONED until TBA
  • Apr. 4: Anotherfest, Cleveland – POSTPONED until TBA
  • Apr. 4-5: Art in the Pass, Pass Christian CANCELLED
  • Apr. 4-5: Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival CANCELLED
  • Apr. 15-19: Crawfish Music Festival, Biloxi – POSTPONED until TBA
  • Apr. 16-19: Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale CANCELLED
  • Apr. 16-18: Delta Blues Dulcimer Revival, Clarksdale – RESCHEDULED to 11/5-7, 2020
  • Apr. 18: Cleveland Crosstie Arts and Jazz Festival – CANCELLED
  • Apr. 19: Cat Head Mini Blues Fest, Clarksdale – CANCELLED  
  • Apr. 24-25: Double Decker Arts Festival, Oxford POSTPONED to Aug. 14-15
  • May 1: Que on the Yazoo, Greenwood – REPLACED with a tailgate and block party, date TBA
  • May 8-9: Gumtree Festival, Tupelo CANCELLED