Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"Piney Woods School"

On August 29, 2008 the 47th marker was unveiled at the Piney Woods School, which is located about 22 miles southeast of Jackson just off of Highway 49.  While many of the Blues Trail markers acknowledge individual musicians, others--such as this one--acknowledge the role played by labels, radio or other institutions in furthering the blues.  Music education has been central to the Piney Woods School's curriculum since its founding in 1909, and in the early '20s the school began sending out groups of students under the name of the "Cotton Blossom Singers" on fundraising tours.

One of these groups was a quartet of students who attended the Mississippi School for the Blind for African Americans at Piney Woods led by Archie Brownlee. After graduation, the group renamed themselves the Jackson Harmoneers, and took as a second vocalist the sighted Melvin Henderson (Hendrex), who was the father of soul/blues diva Dorothy Moore and keyboardist Melvin "Housecat" Hendrex, Jr. 

As the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi the group became one of the leading gospel groups in the country. Brownlee's vocal style--characterized by moans, screams and grunts--helped define the "hard gospel" quartet style, and was a major influence on soul artists including Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and Ray Charles. Here's a youtube version of one of their songs from the early '50s--just audio and pictures unfortunately, but listen to those voices!!

In 1937 Piney Woods established the all-female jazz orchestra the "International Sweethearts of Rhythm." Most of the members were African American, but the group earned the tag "international" due to the Mexican, Hawaiian and Chinese heritage of some of its members. The group became popular nationally, and in 1941 members decided to break ties with the school in order to get a bigger share of the money they were bringing in. The school replaced them on the road with the Sweethearts' understudies, the Swinging Rays of Rhythm. 

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke attendance records at major theaters, and toured Europe with the USO in 1945. In 1947 they made an extended "music video" that captured their unique and exciting stage show.

Bluesman Sam Myers (1936 - 2006), who was legally blind, attended Piney Woods beginning at age ten. While there he played the trumpet and drums in the school orchestra, toured with the glee club, and learned to play the harmonica by accompanying blues records he bought during visits to Jackson.  He also recalled traveling on the road as an assistant to the Swinging Rays of Rhythm.

Myers attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music after graduating from Piney Woods, and began playing blues professionally with artists including Elmore James, with whom he played both drums and harmonica. For many years Myers was based in Jackson, MS, and in the '80s he joined Dallas-based Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. They subsequently became favorites on the blues circuit. Here's a clip of Myers with the band with "I'm Your Professor."

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