HAZLEHURST, Miss. (AP) – When a young Robert Johnson first began to play the guitar around the Delta, many fellow musicians described his playing as “chicken scratch,” according to Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame founder Jim Brewer.
Johnson hopped on a boxcar headed toward his hometown of Hazlehurst. When he returned to the Delta two years later with his unique style sounding like two people playing guitar at once, it prompted the legend that he sold his soul to the devil to learn to play.
Johnson’s teacher wasn’t Lucifer, but his training ground was just as eerie. Under the work of lamplight, Johnson got lessons while sitting on a tombstone from Ike Zimmerman (also spelled Zinnerman) in cemeteries around Copiah County.
Brewer said they were likely just looking for a quiet place to train, but the location of the Beauregard cemetery near a crossroads only adds to the myth of Johnson’s deal with the devil.
Brewer has told the same story many times since the opening of a Mississippi Music Museum at the Old Train Depot in Hazlehurst last April. Brewer said the museum has hosted visitors from 19 countries.
While hosting a group from Germany, Brewer said he tried to stump the group by asking if they knew who trained Johnson.
“Way in the back of the room, this German said: Ike Zinnerman,” Brewer said. “They know more about Mississippi music than we do. It’s amazing.”
Brewer’s mission since founding the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 1996 is to educate children and the public about the state’s musical heritage.
“When you talk to people from Mississippi that go to concerts in Europe and they start talking to people, they will hear ‘Oh, you’re from Mississippi? Tell me about the blues.’ I get that story all the time,” Brewer said.
The museum is designed to take visitors “back-in-the-day” with a wooden shack blue root station, complete with diddley bow and stalks of cotton. It is in direct contrast to the hall of fame’s other new exhibit, the modern and stylish “Mississippi Music Experience” at the Iron Horse Grill in Jackson.
“It’s an entirely different atmosphere (compared to the Iron Horse),” Brewer said. “Tourists want something that will take them back to the time and gives them a flavor of Mississippi.”
The displays include album art wall, video documentary, vintage posters and memorabilia.
In addition to the blues, the museum has country and rock music sections, designed to honor Mississippi as the birthplace of America’s music.
Its location in the Old Train Depot building has added significance in Hazlehurst, where the final spike was driven into what would become the Illinois Central Railroad in 1858, connecting New Orleans, the Delta, Memphis and Chicago.
Brewer is a human database for Mississippians who went on to gain notoriety outside of the state, like Johnson and Elizabeth Greenfield. Dubbed the “The Black Swan,” Greenfield was born a slave in 1824, but was adopted by a Quaker family. Her vocal talent led her to perform for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and be considered the first black concert singer.
“There are two Mississippi’s,” Brewer said. “One is our unfortunate past. The other is the most positive thing. There is one thing that worldwide is positive about Mississippi, and that’s its music.”
If you go:
Location: 138 N. Ragsdale Ave., Hazlehurst. (Hazlehurst Train Depot)
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Special events and tour groups contact 601-894-3752
Sponsored by the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com
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