Blues museum in 'concept' stage

 The former Bank of West Point building on Commerce Street in downtown West Point could become home to a new blues museum.
By: 
STEVE ROGERS
Staff Writer

A historic downtown West Point building could be the next home of a regional blues museum covering the lives and music of not only Howlin' Wolf but also the many other musicians who called the Black Prairie region home.

Some members of the board that puts on the Black Prairie Blues Festival every year in West Point is in the "conceptual stage" of a museum to be located in the former Bank of West Point building which was built in 1896.

"We're doing some research on musicians in the region, reaching out to a lot of the people who know the history, looking at ideas for displaying materials, just really in the conceptual stage right now," explained Deborah Mansfield, a member of the Black Prairie board who already has drawn some beginning plans for the facility.

"Obviously we would have Howlin' Wolf, but there are so many others in the region," Mainsfield added, noting the new museum would consolidate the existing museum that pays tribute to Chester Arthur Burnett, the man with the booming voice who left the hard prairie of White Station in eastern Clay County to make a name for himself as Howlin' Wolf in the Chicago blues scene in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 54th on the list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."

Among some of the ideas are including a replica of Roxie's, which was juke joint in the area. Lessons for adults and children also could be part of the program.

West Point businessman and arts promoter Milton Sunbeck has purchased the building and the group has begun discussions about eventual fund raising, grants and private donations to complete the project during the next two years.

"We've already found some pretty exciting, innovative ideas for displaying materials," said Mansfield, citing the new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson as one example of creative displays.

"We're tapping into people like (West Point native) Rufus Ward for knowledge and expertise," added Mansfield, who has painted numerous murals on downtown buildings and owns an art studio less than a half block from the proposed museum site on Commerce Street.

The area already is on the Mississippi Blues Trail and the museum could become an even bigger attraction, serving as a headway to the trail in the area.

For instance, among the other performers whose names are attached to the region are Eddy Clearwater, Carey Bell, and Jesse Fortune, all of whom achieved fame in the Chicago blues era, and Brother Joe May who became a gospel star in East St. Louis.

Fiddler Houston Harrington made a name for his entire family with his music and recording under the Atomic-H label in Chicago in the 1950s.

The late Willie King and current performer Big Joe Shelton continue to carry on the area's deep traditions.

Even African-American string bands began to cross the color barriers in the early 1900s, including the Duck Brothers, the Salt and Pepper Shakers, and the Nickersons.

"We're just at the baby stages, but really hope to have some momentum in the next six months. There is a long list of names and material we'd like to include," Mansfield concluded.

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