In Memphis during the early 1980s, the concept of celebrating regional music as cultural heritage was largely dead.
Over a four-year span, musical iconoclasts Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and Elvis Presley had passed away. On Beale Street, a dubious urban renewal project — where homes and businesses were bulldozed to create a Disney-like entertainment district — had begun. Both the Sun and Stax studios were silent, and blues, rockabilly, and soul were looked on as antiquated, if not downright obsolete, musical traditions.
Judy Peiser, executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore, decided it was the perfect time to resurrect Mose Vinson's career.
Born in north Mississippi in 1917, the boogie-woogie pianist served as janitor and fill-in session musician at Sun in the '50s; when Peiser met him, he was playing at Peanut's, a seedy Midtown bar.
"Mose goes back to dirt. He looked like he was 150 years old when he was about 50," recalls local producer and performer Jim Dickinson, who, along with Vinson, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Bond, and the Spirit of Memphis gospel quartet, was a headliner at the Center for Southern Folklore's first Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, held in 1982. (The festival became an annual event in 1988.)
In 1997, Dickinson, Peiser, and Knox Phillips co-produced Piano Man, Vinson's first solo album.
"For me, it wasn't as much the historical aspect as it was getting the musical qualities of his voice on tape," Dickinson says. "I cut Mose the same way I did the Replacements. I just tried to make him comfortable and take him back to a certain place in time. When Mose asked, 'You ain't got no pain pills?' that just made it for me."
Dickinson, Bond, and the Spirit of Memphis will reprise their '82 appearances with new sets at this year's Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, which Peiser views as a tribute to Vinson, who died in 2002.
"This is a momentous year for us," Peiser explains. "We wanted to do something really special for the festival, and I said, we've got to salute Mose. I thought about the CD we did, which is out of print. I thought let's re-do it. It all came full circle, because this is really about what the center does. It's not just me and Jim sitting with Mose at the piano but using the recording as a way to preserve Mose's life and history."
Hundreds of musicians, storytellers, chefs, and folk artists will convene in downtown Memphis this weekend for the free festival, which has evolved into an all-encompassing celebration of music, food, and traditions that honor every aspect of local culture, ranging from Choctaw tribal lore to the dance rituals brought here by recent Asian immigrants.
This year, five stages located in and around the Center for Southern Folklore's headquarters at 119 South Main Street will feature rockabilly acts Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess & the Pacers, and Jason D. Williams, along with blues performers Bobby Rush, Blind Mississippi Morris, Kenny Brown, and Eden Brent. Gospel powerhouses the Anointed Cowan Singers, Roscoe Robinson, the Pilgrim Wonders, and the Sensational Six are slated to play, as well as bluegrass and country purveyors Devil Train, Papa Top's West Coast Turnaround, Greg Hisky & the Dixie Whisky Flyers, Roy Harper, and Kate Campbell. Look for jazz acts too, such as the Gary Topper Group, the Orange Mound Jazz Messengers, the Jumpin' Chi Chis, and Peter Hyrka & the Gypsy Hombres.
On an outdoor stage on Main Street, quilter Hattie Childress and Negro Leaguer Joe Scott will be on hand to tell their life stories, along with puppeteer Jimmy Crosthwait, storyteller Liz Bukewitz, and soul food chef Ella Kizzie.
Modern groups — ranging from Mouserocket and Giant Bear to neo-soul act Will Graves and the Millennium Maddness Drill Team — will perform, as well as rappers Kavious, Willie Firecracker, and the Priesthood Family.
"Judy's a curious person," Dickinson says. "To her, Memphis music — whether it's blues or punk or rap or gospel — is all the same."
"Because it's a free festival, it's not driven by ticket sales, so Judy has the freedom to get as 'out there' as she wants," says author/filmmaker Robert Gordon, a longtime festival supporter. "She has a staple of favorites, and they're all great, but she also has her ear to the ground, and she infuses each event with something new. She's launched a lot of performers into Memphis' pop-culture lexicon, from Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside to Millennium Maddness and Mose."
"The amazing cultural community we've built over the years has struck me the most," Peiser says, surveying the two decades of the festival's existence. "While we might talk about a musician, or a quilter, or a cook, everyone is connected. We're not interested in the popular hierarchy. We're interested in the tradition."
Reflecting on the city's current approach to its musical heritage, which, aside from this summer's obligatory nod to Presley's legacy and the Stax Records anniversary celebration, remains as lackluster as it was in the '80s, Dickinson adds, "Imagine if you took this festival to Paris. People would bow down and worship it.
"But around here," he muses, riffing on locally penned blues lyrics which date back to the era of Vinson's birth date, "Mr. Crump still don't like it."