When The Recording Academy’s Grammy Museum decided to extend its educational mission outside of its Los Angeles home base, it aimed straight for a place that many consider to be the heart of American music: the Mississippi Delta.
Those vast and fertile lowlands gave rise to bluesmen from Robert Johnson to B.B. King, who in turn inspired and informed much of the popular music that defined the 20th century—especially the rock ’n’ roll explosion that began in the 1950s and ’60s.
On April 30, recording engineer Geoff Emerick represented that movement at the museum’s inaugural public presentation with a discussion of the recording techniques that helped cement The Beatles as pop music’s original innovators.
The event was held in the intimate Sanders Soundstage at the new museum’s Delta State University digs in Cleveland, Miss. Jon Hornyak, host and senior executive director of The Recording Academy’s Memphis chapter, walked Emerick through his accomplishments with The Beatles and beyond, including landmarks Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.
“The songs of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Motown—artists that had a major impact on The Beatles—were based on the blues,” Hornyak says. “And of course, Elvis was one of The Beatles’ musical idols. I think it was John who said, ‘Without Elvis there would be no Beatles.’”
The Grammy Museum Mississippi is closely aligned with the Delta Music Institute at the university, where aspiring industry pros study audio recording and the entertainment industry. The pairing provides students with opportunities to hone their crafts in real-world settings such as Emerick’s talk, where they operated the audio and lighting systems. For the past five years, students have also performed at Mississippi Night at L.A. Live during Grammy Week. The partnership is a two-way street, with many participating artists giving back to L.A. schools.
“Mississippi artists from the North Mississippi Allstars to Bobby Rush to Cedric Burnside have performed [at Mississippi Night],” says Hornyak, “but they also do a class for local students. It enables students there to engage blues artists, an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have in Los Angeles.”
Although the museum’s educational mission is modeled after the original museum in L.A., how they pull it off is unique. Grammy Museum Mississippi aims to reach the next generation of musicians and industry professionals with interactive exhibits such as a songwriting pod with Keb’ Mo’. Students can interact virtually with the blues artist by dragging and dropping pre-recorded segments of music and lyrics to create a song.
“They write the song and then send it to the producers’ pod, where they add backline and different instruments,” says Emily Havens, executive director of the museum. “Then they can edit and produce it and have a great takeaway from the museum. We have had kids who frequent the museum every week to write songs.”
A centerpiece of the museum is the Mississippi Music Table, where visitors are able to hear Mississippi-born artists while seeing the connections they have to the larger industry in an interactive, touchscreen format. Visitors can see the artists’ accomplishments, as well as where they fit into the cultural and historical context.
“The Mississippi Delta is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of America’s music,” says Hornyak. “The Delta is the heart of the blues for musicians from many genres and fans from around the world.”