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Community Spotlight: Celebrating the Blues in Ripley, MS

February 18, 2021 | Community Spotlight: Celebrating the Blues in Ripley, MS | By: Abby Armato, Communications Coordinator, NMSC |
The Blues Alley features handcrafted guitar cutouts, benches, and murals of musicians who defined the local blues style. Photo credit: Ripley Main Street Association

These days, Ripley, Mississippi, is all about the blues—the musical kind, that is. To celebrate their local blues heritage, Ripley Main Street Association has been transforming an abandoned alley in their commercial district into an inviting outdoor art gallery and social space. Dubbed the Blues Alley, the Main Street program plans to install murals of local pioneering Black blues artists, cutout guitars painted by local art students, and blues lyrics painted on the walls. This downtown activation will be topped off with strings of glowing lights, colorful benches, and pavers inviting passersby to take a walk through this important part of Ripley’s history and culture.

BluesAlley_mural_w_cap.jpgToday, the Blues Alley is located behind a row of popular businesses downtown: Stella’s Boutique, Beth’s Bungalow, Moxie Salon, and the Dixie Theater. But the history of this alley has deep roots in the history of the town. During the Prohibition Era, it is believed the alley and the surrounding area was the site of a popular speakeasy. Also nearby was Gus Brown’s Café, a popular eatery and gathering place for the local African American community.

“We wanted to create a public art space that reflected that historic era,” said Elizabeth Behm, Executive Director of Ripley Main Street Association. “There is a lack of diversity when it comes to certain historical eras, and we wanted to shed light on the blues history expressed around this alley and throughout Mississippi.”

The particular style of blues born in norther Mississippi is known as Hill Country Blues. For decades, local Black musicians in the North Mississippi hill country have been crafting and evolving this unique style of blues, playing at juke joints, picnics, and house parties. Music scholars trace this blues style to West African percussion styles and pre-Civil War fife-and-drum traditions. Today, the Mississippi Blues Trail describes this style of blues as “characterized by few chord changes, unconventional song structures, and an emphasis on the ‘groove’ or a steady, driving rhythm." Artists who defined the genre, such as Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Othar Tuner, Mississippi Fred McDowell, T Model Ford, and R.L. Burnside, are featured on the murals installed in the Blues Alley.

But the Alley is doing more than creating a place to celebrate the history of the region; it’s honoring the legacy of these pioneering artists. In the back of Beth's Bungalow, one of the businesses that backs up to the Alley, Garry Burnside, a Grammy nominee and son of R.L. Burnside, gives guitar lessons. Working in partnership with the Main Street program, the owner of this building will be converting the back of her business into a juke-joint style area for Mr. Burnside to give his lessons. What’s more, to directly connect this modification to the greater initiative, the building owner plans to open the garage of her building, letting the music flow out into the beautifully activated alley.

Speaking of local artists, the Main Street program partnered with several local artists to activate the Alley, including a local welder to create the guitar cutouts and a local muralist to paint the murals of the musicians.

To help bring their vision to life, Ripley Main Street received a Community Development Grant from the Mississippi Main Street Association. This matching grant program is intended to leverage placemaking within the coordinating program’s local communities. For State Coordinator Thomas Gregory, Ripley’s initiative does just that: “Ripley Main Street was able to transform an underutilized space and celebrate their local blues heritage at the same time, creating a one-of-a-kind destination in their downtown.”

“If you have not been, make listening to some Hill Country Blues and visiting The Blues Alley in Ripley part of your plan for recognizing Black History Month!” said Behm.