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
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
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
— by Gabrielle Maxey