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U of M records the blues in black&white to benefit needy musicians
Call it a bit of “playback.”

The University of Memphis’ blues, jazz and gospel record label High Water Records and student-run BlueT.O.M. Records have collaborated for a rare blues album that is benefiting needy local musicians — some of the same musicians who originally recorded the songs.

Blues in Black & White, which features 10 cover songs controlled by the University’s publishing company, Music River Publishing (BMI), was recorded and produced by Music Industry Program students and local musicians to raise awareness for the High Water catalog and to bring attention to the plight of elderly musicians.

The album benefits the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a public charity that provides support for Southern musicians who are 55 or older and have an annual income of less than $18,000.

The project began in the fall semester with Tonya Butler, assistant professor and Music Business area coordinator who also serves as faculty adviser for BlueT.O.M. She realized that the U of M controlled a large catalog of blues songs that weren’t being effectively promoted or sold and decided to market and revive them.

Dr. David Evans, professor of music, and Dr. Richard Ranta, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, created High Water Records in 1979 to record the indigenous music of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. “If you were a blues musician who played the jug or kazoo, you were not getting studio time at Sun Studio or Stax,” Butler said. “The music was in danger of becoming extinct.”

While the High Water recordings have been distributed for the past 20 years, they didn’t always get the highest exposure. Recently the songs have spiked in popularity, appearing in the Craig Brewer film Black Snake Moan and in international films and commercials.

The featured artists that were covered include Chicago Bob, Hammie Nixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill and The Pattersonaires. The music was written by songwriters such as Robert Lee Nelsen, Albert Wilson, George Walker and Ranie Burnette. 

In addition to its grants, the foundation sponsors mini-tours for some of the musicians. “They don’t want to retire, they still want to perform,” said Butler. “This offers more than just professional support. It gives them an opportunity to continue their craft.”

— by Gabrielle Maxey

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