Royal Blues | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Royal Blues

Walking down the 300 block of Farish Street, Alex Thomas stops at a historic marker in front of a single-story boarded-up brick storefront.

"This was Trumpet Records," he says, placing a hand on the historic marker rising from the sidewalk. He points to a spot on the back of the marker where a code will be set later this year that will allow visitors with smart phones to access the music of Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson, who both recorded blues here.

Thomas, 36, directs the Mississippi Blues Trail program, part of his job as the music program development manager for Mississippi Development Authority. He's responsible for the 104 markers placed all over the country, wherever Mississippi blues artists made history.

After the trip to Farish Street, Thomas has to get back to his office in the Woolfolk Building. A publicist for David "Honeyboy" Edwards, 95, is down from Chicago, and she needs to talk to Thomas.

Thomas is always on his way to talk to someone about the blues. He recently saw Pinetop Perkins at a reception in Clarksdale, unveiled a new marker for Ike Turner, then attended the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. That was all one weekend. Another weekend, he's off to Meridian to attend a music symposium at the Riley Center, a renovated opera house. Meridian is also home to a marker honoring Jimmie Rodgers, father of country music and son of Mississippi blues.

The director was part of a panel about heritage tourism during the Marty Stuart Sparkle and Twang exhibit in Meridian. He helps communities plan music festivals that give work to local artists and vendors while attracting international blues fans.

"This kind of tourism helps rural communities, like in the Delta," he says.

This summer, Thomas and the Mississippi Blues Trail won the Tourism Visionary Award from the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau. Started in 2006, the Blues Trail has put up nine markers in Jackson. The trail program received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to place eight more markers outside the state. So far, there are seven markers in six cities: Memphis; Chicago; Helena, Ark.; Muscle Shoals, Ala.; Ferriday, La.; Rockland, Maine; and most recently, Grafton, Wis., the home of the Paramount Record label and the Paramount Blues Festival. All the out-of-state markers point out the Mississippi connection in recording and playing the blues.

The eighth is likely to pop up in Tallahassee, Fla. An African American heritage group there is campaigning hard for the honor. Thomas says it's probably going to happen.

"Pinetop Perkins, Bobby Rush, James Cotton—they all played there," Thomas says.

More out-of-state places want Thomas to include them on the ever-growing trail. And at out-of-state festivals, Thomas makes sure young blues artists are represented. He hosts a Mississippi Juke Joint tent at many festivals, where music lovers can pick up a mini-harmonica or a paper fan shaped like a trail marker.

The roots and the legends of music came from Mississippi. Growing up in Jackson, he didn't realize this although his dad played the music all the time. "We have all these genres of music—blues, country, rock ‘n' roll, gospel," he says.

"There was Sam Cooke, Tyrone Davis, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters. I had no idea these people were from Mississippi. Their album covers made you think of Chicago," Thomas says. "Nothing in school was about people in your own backyard."

Recently, Thomas took a break from the music festivals, workshops and talks with publicists to travel with a church group to Africa.

"I'm going on a mission to help build a church and school in Kenya," he says.

When he gets back to his office full of posters, pictures and a prominent guitar case in the window, he'll have work to do. He would love to do something this next year like he did last May on National Train Day. He rode on Amtrak from New Orleans to Chicago with the sons of Muddy Waters with stops along the way to the Bo Diddley marker in McComb and the Robert Johnson marker in Hazelhurst, to a reception at the King Edward Hotel in Jackson, to a blues concert in Clarksdale and to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. Bobby Rush got on in Memphis and rode all the way to Chicago.

"Passengers getting on the train didn't all know what was going on," he says. "We invited them to come back to the blues car."

The accidental audience loved the unexpected performances, he says.

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