Building a Blues Legacy

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Collection gives insight into Delta Blues Museum’s founder
by Emily Welly

It was not until the 1970s when Sidney Foster Graves Jr. (MA 71) took the helm at the Carnegie Public Library in Clarksdale that the Mississippi Delta town began to harness the power of its blues-rich heritage.

Graves, founder of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, died in 2005. Recently his daughter, Abby McCall of Mobile, Ala., donated a collection of his personal correspondence, awards, audio recordings and photographs to the world-renowned Blues Archive at The University of Mississippi’s J.D. Williams Library. McCall said she hopes that scholars will study the collection and learn of her father’s contributions to the blues legacy and to the state.

Graves grew up in Tunica and graduated from Millsaps College. He received a master’s degree from UM and a Master of Library Science from Peabody College (now Vanderbilt). He became director of the Clarksdale Carnegie Public Library in 1976.

Regularly encountering tourists seeking out local blues landmarks such as Muddy Waters’ cabin, Graves saw an opportunity and established the museum in 1979 as part of the Carnegie library, initially in its old Myrtle Hall branch. “Clarksdale didn’t know what it was sitting on,” said McCall, who was 5 years old when her father started the museum. 

“The museum, one of the earliest music museums in the country, is important to America’s cultural heritage. What Sid started remains crucial to the ongoing development of downtown Clarksdale,” said Shelley Ritter, director of the museum.

Among the museum’s first items, McCall said, was one of B.B. King’s Lucille guitars, which Graves hesitated to leave overnight in the museum for fear it would be stolen. “Every night, daddy would have to go get this guitar and lug it home,” she said. Eventually, Graves received grants for exhibits and involved musical superstars, including ZZ Top, to make the museum a destination.

In 1999, after Graves’ tenure, the museum moved to the historic Clarksdale freight depot, its current location. Today, the museum is expanding from 5,000 to 9,000 square feet of floor space for permanent and traveling exhibits. It includes a classroom for a year-round music education program and visiting lectures, and a stage that serves as the main venue during annual music festivals. Next door is actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club. The museum has become a stop for visitors on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

 “The fact that [Graves] was able to see the blues as a real cultural strength in Mississippi speaks a lot about him,” said Greg Johnson, UM’s blues curator and associate professor. “I think he’s been proven correct.”

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