“But you Listen.”

“But you Listen.”

 

They call me Mississippi Rose, or some folks call me Delta Rose.

 

When Rosalind Wilcox plays, she usually wears black—a thick-brimmed hat of some variety, jeans, cowboy boots, all black—except for her lipstick, which is always a vibrant shade of red or pink. And, she keeps her sunglasses close, whether she is humming in the shadows of Red’s Lounge, playing percussion under the string lights of Ground Zero Blues Club, or clutching her guitar beneath the pale-pink evening sky on the Delta Blues Museum Stage.

Today, though, she wears a bright red blazer, a necklace of heavy turquoise stones, and a soft smile. We are sitting at a popular Mexican restaurant in Clarksdale, a town in the northern part of the Mississippi Delta best known for being the “birthplace of the blues.”

As we talk, her voice cuts sharply through the flat murmur of the restaurant’s evening crowd, revealing a story, and life, of funky contrasts.  

“I lived [in Chicago] until I was 14, then bounced around a little—Iowa and then Kansas,”

She interrupts herself with a laugh, then continues.

“New Mexico, back to Iowa, back to Chicago, then Mississippi in 1996. Been in Mississippi ever since.”

Rosalind is one of thousands of black Mississippians who, since 1965, have left segregated and deindustrializing cities in the Northeast and Midwest, cities like Chicago, and ventured back “home.”

On one hand, her move—she calls it a “return”—to Mississippi from Chicago is common. Rosalind is one of thousands of black Mississippians who, since 1965, have left segregated and deindustrializing cities in the Northeast and Midwest, cities like Chicago, and ventured (back) “home,” as it were. On the other hand, her twenty-plus years in Mississippi have followed a path and beat all their own—contrasts.

“I’ve been all over the place. I was in Brookhaven (Mississippi), teaching at the Mississippi School of the Arts.”

She stops to profile her educational and training background, which includes a BA in Art Education from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa; an MA in Art Therapy from the Art Institute of Chicago; and an MFA from the University of Mississippi. She has certifications as a registered art therapist and educator, and she is the former owner and curator of an art gallery in Clarksdale. Currently, she serves as chair of the Fine Arts Department at Coahoma Community College where she teaches courses on art history, design and any variety of studio techniques, from still life drawing to water color and three-dimensional clay portraiture.

“I came to Clarksdale after Katrina,”

She continues.

“My house (in Brookhaven) got wrecked, and I said to myself, ‘if I’m in Mississippi, I’ve got licensure for K-12 (secondary education), and I’ve got two Master’s degrees. Where do I want to be? And, I just said, let me check out Clarksdale. Why? The blues. I’m a blues musician.”

“Blues!” I repeat almost instantaneously, a response born more from fascination than surprise.

I can’t split the two (art and blues). That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I can’t split the two, but I’m a blues musician to my core.

“Mississippi Rosalee,” she calls her stage name, matching my excitement with knowing confidence.

“They call me Mississippi Rose, or some folks call me Delta Rose. I’ve been playing guitar for 38 years. I’ve been playing drums on a set for about 10 years. Before that, I was doing djembes and tambourine since I was 15.”

Rosalind pauses, her attention caught by a fleeting thought.

“Now, I play by myself. I play with bands.”

She shuffles through a list of local and regional favorites.

“Reverend K. M. Williams out of Austin, Carlos Elliot, L.C. Ulmer.”  1

Drawing of LC Ulmer in pen and Ink by Rosalind Wilcox. 

Indeed, Rosalind is one of a small handful of black blueswomen playing Mississippi’s “Blues Circuit,” a series of festivals and shows between the Delta towns of Clarksdale, Cleveland, and Greenville.

“I can’t split the two (art and blues). That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I can’t split the two, but I’m a blues musician to my core.”

“Folks funny. They call blues the devil’s music and all that stuff. But, I’m not that girl. I tell ‘em, if you listen, you’ll hear all of the diaspora in that percussive sound, in that guitar.”

"Always Loving" Mississippi Rose. All images courtesy of Rosalind Wilcox.

We are now standing in a short line at The Rice Bowl, a dive restaurant in Clarksdale, a few weeks removed from our earlier conversation about her biography and educational background.

“What’s good (to eat) here?” I ask, surveying the menu, displayed on a dingy-white placard covering the top half of a towering plate glass window. The glass stretches down to a narrow countertop and an opening that reveals a cramped kitchen where the restaurant’s owner and two cooks scramble about, turning nobs, spooning large portions of rice into white styrofoam to-go boxes, and scribbling illegible writing onto crumpled sheets of paper.

“When Anthony Bourdain came,”

Rosalind quips,

“if I would’ve seen his butt, I’d’of brought him over here.”

She assures me that I cannot go wrong with my order.

“This is one of the places I would’ve brought him because, for one, you’re in a Asian spot in Mississippi—in the... Delta of all the places—and it’s as good as Chicago.”

After placing our order and taking a seat in the dining area, I circle back to a question from our earlier conversation. “You do a lot with Hill Country (blues). You play it. You mentioned L.C. Ulmer, the original bluesman L.C. Ulmer. Tell me about Hill Country.”

“I grew up in the Pentecostal church,”

She begins then pauses, holding her mouth agape as her eyes freeze on a distant spot just over my shoulder,

“and when you come up like I did, in that Pentecostal world, you were really coming up with the blues, especially that Hill County sound, you know.”

“Hill Country…is different from other blues! It’s got that deep percussive sound, and I love it!”

This is Mississippi Rose, and we go’n’ go to church now, y’all

She becomes preoccupied with her own thoughts, seemingly forgetting for a moment that I am there.

“Hill Country is Holly Springs (Mississippi). (It’s) out of Holly Springs and really just North Mississippi. It’s a folky, country blues. It’s kind’of like, you know how Prince and…Time and all that came out of Minnesota, or Detroit and Motown…Hill Country has that Mississippi undertone, where you just know it’s Mississippi. It’s the hill country of Mississippi…The first time I heard it, I went nuts!

I’ve always liked blues, but it’s something about hill country blues that just kind’of called my name.”

“And, you say it sounds like church, like Pentecost—” I begin, but she quickly cuts me off.

“Oh my gosh! Oh my goodness. The Pentecostal church is all up in there! It’s very distinct.”

She begins singing a low, rolling bassline,

“doomdoom, doomdoom, doomdoom, doomdoom”

and continues with her description.

“You got your drums, the piano…You know when the shouting music comes on. Everybody know shouting music. Eeeeeverybody know shouting music. You almost feel like you’re in church.”

She interrupts herself.

“And, we say it on stage, ‘This is Mississippi Rose, and we go’n’ go to church now, y’all. Got my tambourines!" 

With that, she revisits the humming bassline, this time stomping and clapping a faster-paced beat.

“doomdoom, doomdoom, doomdoom, doomdoom.”

I stomp and clap along with her—“boomboom, boomboom, boomboom, boomboom”—until we both burst into laughter.

“And, you got all that rolled up in (hill country blues),”

I’ve always liked blues, but it’s something about hill country blues that just kind’of called my name.”

She continues,

“and people can’t help but dance. It’ll make you come up out of your wheel chair…out your hospital bed…out the casket, out whatever you in…if you listen.”

Rosalind’s art and music catalog is robust. It requires no qualifiers, no filler or pretenses. Her students at Coahoma Community College are recognized routinely at art competitions throughout the region, she was commissioned to create a mural depicting the Marks, Mississippi “Mule Train” on the side of the Marks Mule Train Market in Quitman County, and she is well known throughout the Delta for her percussion and guitar expertise. Yet, what makes Rosalind and her work remarkable—magical even—is that she has done it all while overcoming severe vision impairment.

“I’m legally blind.”

She informs me, her tone as matter-of-fact as it was when she shaded Anthony Bourdain, told me her stage name, and stated her preference for chicken over beef tamales. She has dealt with vision problems for more than thirty years now, her difficulties one of the debilitating symptoms of Stargardt’s Disease.

“Things are blurry,”

She explains.

“I see lots of dots, and things wiggle around. The doctor basically told me, ‘You’re gonna have a cane, and you’re probably gonna have a dog.’”

“And, you’re still doing art, you’re still teaching, you’re still doing blues,” I respond.

“I think Michael Jordan could shoot hoops if he was blind. I think he could still shoot hoops if somebody told him where to stand. I think he could do free throws…It’s in your bones…I can crochet in the dark. I could definitely play guitar in the dark!”

Rosalind Wilcox with "Ninja," her guide dog. 

“Has it been difficult? Has it become tougher?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s hard,”

She answers quickly, immediately.

“And, it’s hard when people tell you that you can’t do it. And, I ain’t perfect. I don’t try to be perfect, but I do my best. My patrons love my art, and my fans love my music. It’s not supposed to be perfect, cause life ain’t perfect.”

She rests back into her seat and laughs lightly.

“They don’t know (I’m legally blind), man. I’m tricky with it.”

She laughs again.

“And, your music—” I begin a question, but stop myself as the crease of her lips opens to reveal a wide smile. She takes a short breath.  

“That’s hard sometimes too,”

She repeats herself, calmly, assuredly.

“But, you listen…”

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Resources

Links

Blues Musician Robert Belfour (1940-2015) Live in Concert NPR on February 22, 2013. 

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Footnotes

  1. ^  This interview took place in April 2015, months before Ulmer’s death in February 2016.

Brian Foster

Brian Foster

Brian Foster is a writer and scholar of race and/in the rural American South—and an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His work draws both on his formal training in sociology (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and from methodological and theoretical paradigms in history, historical and cultural geography, and cultural studies. Currently, his work focuses on post-Soul (post-1960’s) black life in the Mississippi Delta.