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Jam Session

Reshonda Perryman

By: Jim Beaugez on behalf of VisitHATTIESBURG

The origins of rock and roll, the cultural and musical gift America gave the world, have never been in question. African-American musicians toiling in the fields of the Mississippi Delta, primarily, created the blues, its direct antecedent, and then developed rock and roll in juke joints along the chitlin’ circuit.

But exactly who created the first rock and roll song, and when, are much more difficult to pinpoint.

“Jam Session,” an original piece by artist Reshonda Perryman in Hattiesburg, Miss. — home to more than 50 large-scale public murals documenting the city’s history and culture — offers an answer to the questions by featuring Hub City musician “Blind” Roosevelt Graves among the work’s eight honorees.

Graves, who often performed with his brother Uaroy in the Mississippi Jook Band, recorded what may be the first rock and roll song in Hattiesburg in 1936. On the jaunty and up-tempo “Crazy About My Baby,” a coronet echoes Graves’s melody with a call-and-response motif over driving piano, guitar and percussion — and, as The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll noted, with “fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat.”

An official Mississippi Blues Trail marker on downtown Hattiesburg’s Mobile Street commemorates the Graves session as well as other contributions to the roots of rock and roll in the area.

Mayor Toby Barker, a musician himself, wanted to honor Graves and others with direct ties to the city at the Hattiesburg Community Arts Center, illustrating the role the Hub City has played in developing quintessential American musical styles like rock and roll, blues, jazz and country.

Alongside Graves, whose likeness sits front and center, are fellow bluesmen Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt, “Mississippi” Matilda Powell and Vasti Jackson, flanked by country music songwriter and impresario Craig Wiseman, jazz artist Tom “Bones” Malone, harmonica player Greg “Fingers” Taylor and Jimmy Buffett, the late singer-songwriter and leader of his vast, global “Parrotheads” fanbase.

“They’re all very special in their own way,” Barker says. “I think part of the charm of Hattiesburg is that it’s a collision of backgrounds and worldviews and talent. I don’t think you see that sort of beautiful, messy tapestry in many cities in Mississippi.”

Buffett and Taylor are particularly celebrated members of Hattiesburg’s musical legacy. The duo famously met at The University of Southern Mississippi in the late 60s and became fast friends and collaborators as Buffett began his ascent as a songwriter and performer. Taylor blew harp with Buffett for more than two decades, appearing on all his classic-era albums and performing as an inaugural member of the Coral Reefer Band. He also played with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Bo Diddley and Jerry Jeff Walker.

As Buffett’s legacy solidified around signature hits like “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Margaritaville,” which married Caribbean flavors to essentially country music songs, another local was beginning his own country music career in Nashville. Craig Wiseman, who signed his first publishing deal in 1990 and went on to write 29 No. 1 hits, started his own publishing company on Music Row in 2003, where a marker for the Mississippi Country Music Trail stands today. Big Loud has grown into the management, recording and publishing powerhouse behind megastars Miranda Lambert, Morgan Wallen, and Hardy, a Philadelphia, Miss. native.

The same year Graves made his recordings in Hattiesburg, Mississippi Matilda, who was born and spent part of her childhood here, traveled to New Orleans to record four sides of her own. Her falsetto singing on “Hard Working Woman” was a watershed moment in the evolution of the blues into rock and roll.

A decade and a half later, entrepreneur Milton Barnes opened the Hi Hat Club, where Black revelers watched B. B. King, James Brown, Otis Redding and Ike and Tina Turner perform in their element. One of the largest and most important clubs on the chitlin’ circuit, an informal network of Black music venues and jukes that prospered during the segregation era, the club remained a hub of music and culture through the 1980s, when Vasti Jackson played it with artists like Z.Z. Hill and Bobby Rush. Today, the club’s former site is commemorated by Hattiesburg’s second official Mississippi Blues Trail Marker.

“Hattiesburg is a very diverse town, and with the energy and all the various people from different parts of the world going to the university, it’s quite like a small international city,” Jackson says. “We have had the opportunity to interact with musicians from Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Russia, Britain, Spain, Mexico and Africa, right here in Hattiesburg. With that type of

environment, I have been able to explore all of my musical dreams — not just blues but jazz, reggae, hip hop, gospel and country, too.”

For Jackson, a longtime Hattiesburg resident, the Hub City is the nexus of his global travels in music, as he brings blues workshops and concerts to Africa, South America and Europe. “A lot of the projects that I’ve worked on that have won Grammys and have been nominated for Grammys were developed right there in Hattiesburg,” he says.

And he’s not the only living blues master to call Hattiesburg home. Ninety-one-year-old Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt plays an emotional, contemplative blues in the style popularized by B.B. King with his band, the Rhythm Rockers. In his youth, he made his own diddley bow and then a four- string cigar-box guitar and learned the blues, and still performs throughout the region.

A resident of the area, Tom “Bones” Malone caught the blues in the ‘Burg and rode them to career-making tenures on Saturday Night Live — where he was an original member of The Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd — and the Late Show With David Letterman. The future trombonist, multi-instrumentalist and musical director began arranging songs he heard on the radio at age 13 and entered USM as a music major. While that changed when he got into Music Theory 101, his dedication to his craft only grew.

“I answered all the questions in class for the first couple of weeks,” Malone says, “and the teacher took me out in the hall and said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to come to class anymore. You already know all this stuff. You get an A.’ So, I changed my major to psychology and still played music professionally.” Malone took the skills he developed playing in bands across south Mississippi to New York and Los Angeles, where he played with a who’s-who of popular music.

“Jam Session” muralist Perryman, a graduate of Jackson State University and Savannah College of Art and Design, is best known for her “City of Soul” mural in Jackson, Miss., located adjacent to the state’s twin museums on history and civil rights.

“I’m a Mississippi artist — this is what I’ve been doing my whole life, since I could hold a pencil or crayon,” Perryman says. “I think Mississippi’s narrative gets stolen from us a lot, and I think my public art is an opportunity for us to take back control of it.”

The non-profit organization Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art is the producer of large-scale art projects in the city. It is the catalyst by which Hattiesburg will reach its goal of becoming a city of 100 murals.

“Putting the mural on the outside of this building was a way to claim that as a destination for the arts, but also to inspire the many artists that will go in those walls, both now and in the future,” Barker says. “We want them to know they’re part of a rich legacy.”

Since 2020, the city has emerged as a thriving public arts destination, with a primary focus on placemaking and storytelling. “Jam Session” transforms the arts center’s exterior into a work of art itself, welcoming all to the creative space.

“Compelling storytelling is a source of resident pride and a natural attractor for people seeking cool places to visit,” Marlo Dorsey, VisitHATTIESBURG and HAPA, CEO says. “We are leaning into telling one of the greatest stories of our community with this piece, and it is our hope it inspires others for many years to come.”

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