Mississippi Folklife announces the new Fall 2021 Issue: Performances and the Pandemic.

Central Mississippi Blues Society: A Case Study in Creativity During an Emergency

Central Mississippi Blues Society: A Case Study in Creativity During an Emergency

The Central Mississippi Blues Society, Inc. (CMBS) is a non-profit arts organization that was established in 2005. For the past 15 years, CMBS has produced and sponsored its flagship program, Blue Monday, a weekly live blues music event in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. The music series, which has developed into a Monday-night tradition for local and visiting blues fans, was suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to be deterred, the Board of the Central Mississippi Blues Society found ways to continue key elements of its mission despite the exigencies brought about by the pandemic. This article describes two projects that took place during the 2020-2021 season and how they were adapted to meet public health and safety measures during the height of the pandemic. Both of these projects address core values of the CMBS mission: making blues performance available to the community and supporting area blues artists. One of the events, Virtual Blue Monday, enabled the continuation of the Blue Monday concept by offering high quality blues music to fans through Facebook, while providing a source of supplemental income to members of the Blue Monday Band. The second project described in this article was a case management collaboration to bring information about needed resources to out-of-work blues artists.

At a time when people really needed a positive outlet, adapting to virtual was a response to the needs of the community.

Continuing the Blue Monday Tradition Virtually

The Blue Monday project was funded by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts with additional support from Visit Jackson. When it became evident that live music and in-person events were no longer feasible during the pandemic, the Board of the Central Mississippi Blues Society made the decision to seek permission to change the use of project grant funds from a weekly live Blue Monday show to hosting Blue Monday performances virtually. The change enabled the video production of a series of blues performances that were posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other media platforms. The CMBS production of the Virtual Blue Monday Series was filmed live in the Red Room at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson with Keith Collins as videographer, Rick Lewis as soundman and Peggy Brown as producer.

Above (main image): Band members performing at Hal & Mal’s for Virtual Blue Monday. Right: Abdul Rasheed, vocalist with the Blue Monday live band.

All photos courtesy of the Central Mississippi Blues Society. 

The first night of filming, in early December 2020, resulted in 3 high quality shows featuring the Blue Monday Band. These shows premiered on three consecutive Monday nights on the CMBS Facebook page and YouTube channel. The night of recording featured regular participants in the Blue Monday live band including Lonn’e George on guitar and vocals, Calvin Lacey playing bass, Dwight Ross on drums, Kendrick Hart on keys, Malcolm Shepherd playing congas, and vocals by Abdul Rasheed, Jimmy (J. D.) Dean, Anne Fairley and Dennis Fountain, who served as the MC and performed on vocals. This production also featured a South Arts sponsored guest appearance by Jock Webb, a stellar harmonica player from Birmingham, Alabama.

Alabama Blues Hall of Fame harmonica player Jock Webb
Blue Monday MC and vocalist Dennis Fountain

The second filming session in the series occurred in March 2021, again in Hal & Mal’s Red room, resulting in three new shows that premiered on three successive Monday nights on YouTube and Facebook. The second series featured Lonn’e George on guitar and vocals, Kendrick Hart playing bass, James Bell on keys, Rick Lewis on drums, Malcolm Shepherd playing congas, Abdul Rasheed on vocals, Dennis Fountain performed MC duties and vocals, Jock Webb played the harmonica and Chris Gill on Resonator guitar, slide guitar and vocals. Keith Collins was the videographer again with Christopher Minter as the soundman and Peggy Brown as producer.

Special precautions were taken on both nights of filming to protect the musicians, technicians and others. The mask protocol was followed and every vocalist used a personal microphone. Hand sanitizer was available and social distancing was maintained on stage. While there was no audience for these performances, there was a small number of people on hand to help with the production and these precautions were taken by all present.

Although Virtual Blue Monday did not have all the features of the live event, such as a dynamic jam session and a full house in the audience, it was deemed successful by social media fans and participating blues artists alike. A survey of Blue Monday fans conducted online resulted in a strong affirmation of the temporary change to the virtual format. Both nights of filming were covered by two popular blues magazines, Big City Rhythm & Blues from Detroit, and Blues & Rhythm Magazine from the United Kingdom. Repeat presentations of the special video shows continue to be presented on the CMBS Facebook page on Monday nights, along with previous shows that were live-streamed. Fans of CMBS’ Blue Monday look forward to a resumption of live shows at Hal & Mal’s on Monday nights, but until that time, we are all very grateful for Virtual Blue Monday.

Over the years, this event has grown into a vibrant community of blues fans and lifelong musicians in the Jackson and Central Mississippi blues scene. Both fans and musicians offer something to the jam session. The musicians entertain and perform together while the audience members help provide the energy and encouragement the musicians thrive on during live performance. For CMBS, continuing the virtual Blue Monday event was necessary to sustain the sense of community that would be missed if there were no jam session during the pandemic. At a time when people really needed a positive outlet, adapting to virtual was a response to the needs of the community.

Assisting Out-of-Work Blues Musicians
During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a serious blow to the world of blues musicians when venues were closed in response to a call for quarantine. Most, if not all, in-person blues performances were suspended for 15 months. Not only was this a tremendous hardship on the venues involved, it had a devastating impact on blues performers whose livelihood depends on performance fees and “tip bucket” contributions. Percussionist Maya Kyles expresses one of the major difficulties for her as an artist during the pandemic: “The most difficult thing about COVID-19 has been substituting virtual performances for live ones. The human energy exchange is the most significant part of the live music experience. And not being able to share in that has been quite trying.” 

Percussionist Maya Kyles
Audio: For percussionist Maya Kyles, one of the difficulties she experienced during the pandemic was not being able to perform music in front of a live audience. 

 

As stated in its mission, the Central Mississippi Blues Society supports “activities useful to the individual and beneficial to the communities served by the program.” In recognition of this mission and the obvious need, CMBS was successful in efforts to obtain a grant from the East Central Mississippi Community Foundation to support a case management program to assist out-of-work blues musicians in finding resources to help cover expenses.

The case management approach was the brainchild of Malcolm Shepherd, president of CMBS, based on a “one-stop shop” concept for artists in need that was originally envisioned by Dr. Edgar Smith of the MS Blues Foundation. Case management involves assessing needs, locating resources capable of addressing identified needs, and supporting clients in availing themselves by accessing those resources.

The program was publicized through collaboration with the WPMR 90.1 radio personality, Foxy Roxy, who hosts an online radio blues show every Friday night from 9 pm until midnight. Foxy Roxy, also known as Anne Fairley and vocalist Little MS Soul, invited Malcolm Shepherd and Dr. Edgar Smith to discuss the assistance project on her show, Fox Corner, on two occasions. Every other week, she promoted the availability of resources to help blues musicians during the pandemic and invited listeners to contact her or officers of CMBS if they needed assistance in locating resources for food, housing, healthcare, and financial aid. Fairley, a CMBS board member and frequent vocal performer at Blue Monday, commented that involvement in the project was very rewarding and that she was able to connect not only with the community of blues artists and blues enthusiasts, but artists and fans of other genres well beyond her original expectations. 

Ms. Anne Fairley, also known as Foxy Roxy.

The Department of Social Work at Jackson State University was invited to participate in the project through a field placement educational opportunity for a Master of Social Work student who was to serve as case manager. Ms. Heather Brown, a practicing social worker in her last year of study for the MSW degree, accepted a two-semester field placement working with CMBS as case manager. Dr. Savina Schoenhofer, retired professor of Nursing and Vice-President of CMBS, served as the agency field supervisor. JSU Social Work Department faculty, Dr. Theresia Johnson-Ratliff and Dr. Tanya Buckley, facilitated weekly clinical coordination conferences by phone with Brown, Schoenhofer, and Shepherd in support of the project. 

A list of local, regional, and national resources was compiled by Shepherd at the start of the project in November 2020 with Schoenhofer and Brown adding to the list during the course of the project, which ended in April 2021. Approximately 15 local case management clients were served directly by the project. Some of the needs identified by Brown in case management phone interviews included food, housing, medical care, budgeting, and grief counseling. Heather Brown indicated that she used a “strengths” approach in her work, assessing not only the needs of the clients, but also their strengths. In addition to local clients, artists in need from several other states as far away as New York and California contacted the project through the WMPR 90.1 Foxy Roxy show, and the list of national resources was shared with these out-of-state artists.

Ms. Heather Brown pictured on the phone with a case management client.

Those artists in need, assisted by the case management, were grateful for the “lifeline” extended by the project. Brown, a resident of Starkville, completed requirements for the Master of Social Work degree at Jackson State with the conclusion of the project. She found working with blues artists a wonderful experience and plans to make Blue Monday a regular Monday night event from now on. A few artists offered commentary about their experiences in the case management project. The artists’ names have been omitted due to the confidentiality of the social worker--client relationship. The artists have provided permission to include their statements for this article.

One guitar player spoke of their experience in the program,

“I really appreciate the support from the Central Mississippi Blues Society. I have received direct assistance with my mortgage, car payment, insurance and cell phone. The financial counseling has helped me and my wife to stick with our budget. It has made a world of difference to us.”

A bass player adds,

“The assistance provided by CMBS has truly been a blessing in helping me to maintain where I am. As a disabled musician, it has been hard to get around by having to pay people to transport me places. The assistance has helped me to meet doctor's appointments and making it to the few gigs I have had.”

A blues vocalist gave their thoughts on the program,

“After the place where I was living burned down, CMBS got me financial counseling and provided me with the ability to obtain new clothes and food. Without the CMBS program, I really don't know what I would have done.”

When invited to share thoughts about the value of the case management project for the community of musicians and CMBS, Malcolm Shepherd offered these reflections:

“While the program was a success, it only pointed out the need for artists to be more creative in using their art to support themselves, and to support other musicians and other music venues. The pandemic forced all of us to rethink how we live; to be prepared for other emergencies, and what to do during and after an emergency. It taught us to be able to adapt in creative ways, have an emergency plan already in place, and to be prepared to diversify and implement plans immediately.  In other words, we all need to think and plan for a longer term than just for tomorrow or next week.”

Based on post-production evaluation, CMBS learned several lessons that will be useful in future productions and could be helpful to other groups moving from live to virtual productions.  We initially videoed three single sessions to make three different shows. Recording that way required us to stop and start the band three times and have an introduction for each segment. It also required us to have a timekeeper to make sure we started and stopped on time. For the second recording session, we tried a different approach that proved to be successful for the artists involved. The session was recorded in one long show that our videographer was able to edit into three separate shows. This method allowed the band to keep up their energy and not have to start and stop like in the first session.

“The most difficult thing about COVID-19 has been substituting virtual performances for live ones. The human energy exchange is the most significant part of the live music experience. And not being able to share in that has been quite trying.” 

It was a little difficult at first for the musicians to get into the feeling of the show without an audience to provide them energy, so it was important for our small support group to be quite vocal to provide crowd energy. Having an experienced MC and good notes for the use of the MC in introducing the event and our sponsors was crucial. The videographer was then able to edit the announcements into the three shows as needed. A key to the quality of our Virtual Blue Monday shows was in having a highly qualified, capable videographer with appropriate sound equipment to record the music properly so no instrument overplayed the other instruments or the vocalists. In order to present our virtual shows on media platforms we learned it is important to advertise the event presentation often and several days before each show.

Although there were adaptations required to continue providing high quality blues performances to our audience during the pandemic, the experience of switching from live to virtual was a valuable and educational one. Introducing flexibility into our production efforts and into our audience expectations has demonstrated that the blues music experience CMBS offers has varied format options to use in the future. As an organization, it is a source of strength to have confirmed our ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances and still be able to provide blues music to our community and offer assistance to performers in a great time of need.  

List of Resources

The Central Mississippi Blues Society has provided an abbreviated list of resources for musicians.

The Mississippi Blues Foundation
https://msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/the-blues-foundation

Renter Assistance
Mississippi Home Corporation

Utility Payment Assistance
Hinds County Human Resource Agency
601.923.3930
258 Maddox Road, Jackson, MS 39212

General Assistance
2-1-1
Call 2-1-1 to be connected with community services in your area, providing services like food banks, clothing closets, shelters, rent assistance, utility assistance and physical and mental health resources.

American Federation Of Musicians:
The Lester Petrillo Memorial Fund

www.afm.org
The Lester Petrillo Memorial Fund for Disabled Musicians provides a modest grant to temporarily or permanently disabled musicians who are members of the AFM.

Professional Musicians Local 47
www.promusic47.org
The Local 47 Musicians' Relief Fund is an emergency assistance fund that helps cover expenses when a member musician is in financial distress and cannot work due to a sudden illness or injury.

Jazz Foundation Of America
Musicians' Emergency Fund - Jazz Foundation of America
The Musicians' Emergency Fund offers aid to elder jazz and blues musicians in crisis.
COVID-19 Musicians' Emergency Fund - Jazz Foundation of America

Music Maker Relief Foundation
www.musicmaker.org
The Musical Sustenance Program gives grants to meet basic life needs and emergency relief to people 55 years or older and rooted in a Southern musical tradition.

Musicians Foundation
www.musiciansfoundation.org
Musicians Foundation helps professional musicians by providing emergency financial assistance in meeting current living, medical and allied expenses. All professional musicians are eligible to apply.

Society of Singers
www.singers.org
SOS helps singers who have financial needs resulting from personal, family, or medical crises. Applicants must have derived their primary income from professional singing for five or more years.

Sweet Relief Musicians Fund
www.sweetrelief.org
Sweet Relief provides financial assistance to career musicians who are facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.

Pinetop Assistance League
www.pinetopperkinsfoundation.org/pinetop-assistance-league
pinetopperkinsfoundation@gmail.com

Blues Foundation
Hart Fund
blues.org/covid-19-fund/

Musicares
A more extensive list of resources can be found here:
www.grammy.org/musicares/disaster-relief
www.musicares.org/get-help/relief-resources

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Savina Schoenhofer and Peggy Brown

Savina Schoenhofer and Peggy Brown

Savina Schoenhofer is a retired professor of Nursing, having taught at two Mississippi universities, Alcorn State University and University of Mississippi Medical Center. She currently serves as Vice-President of the Central Mississippi Blues Society, Inc. A native Kansan, she has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since 1994.

Contact Information:
Savina Schoenhofer
1841 Howard Street
Jackson, MS 39202
savibus@gmail.com
601-826-3813

Peggy Brown

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MISSISSIPPI MUSICIANS HALL OF FAME

OWNER/CEO, HIT THE ROAD ENTERTAINMENT - Management for King Edward Antoine and the Blue Monday Band. Booking Agent for “Miss Misty Blue” Dorothy Moore.

CONTRIBUTING WRITER - Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine (Detroit) and Blues & Rhythm Magazine (UK)

CHARTER MEMBER OF THE CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI BLUES SOCIETY - Talent coordinator for the CMBS. She has produced the Central Mississippi Blues Challenge for 7 years and helps produce the weekly BLUE MONDAY event at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson.