Most people would not want to be sad on their birthday, but for the Center for the Study of the American South, having the blues was the perfect way to celebrate.
The Center, which was founded in 1992 under the leadership of John Shelton Reed, commemorated its 20th anniversary Thursday with a special “Music on the Porch” event in with performances by Greensboro native Logie Meachum and Mississippian Ben Wiley Payton.
Harry Watson, a former director of the Center, gave the opening remarks for the event. He said he always feels welcome at the Center for the Study of the American South.
Watson said UNC is the world’s best place to study the American South, but people sometimes ask him why the Center is important when the South is disappearing.
“The answer I gave was different depending on the person, but the one I’ll tell you is that difference is enormously important although subtle sometimes, and it is enduring,” he said. “In this complicated world we live in, it needs to be attended to. It is a difference that continues to have an enormous amount of impact on us, but also to the United States and the western world.”
Bill Ferris, senior associate director of the Center and professor of southern music at UNC, said he thinks of the Center as the Vatican City for the study of the South.
He said the Center is a beautiful way of saying to the world that the South is important to UNC.
“This Center provides a platform or a hearth where people can sit and talk and share in a deep and personal way what the South is about,” he said.
Payton, an acoustic blues artist, said he recently moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Hillsborough to further his music career.
He said he hoped visitors who attended the celebration got a clearer picture of the what blues music was like in past times and how it has evolved in this era. He said he hoped they were inspired to try their hand at blues music.
Ferris received the honor of being able to introduce the performers. He said the heart of the South is the story.
“We love to hear and to tell stories, and that’s what we’re doing here today,” Ferris said. “Music tells a story in a powerful way.”
Ferris got to tell his own story while introducing storyteller Meachum.
Ferris said Meachum told him after they had a program together in Greensboro that it had been more fun than dancing with a bowlegged woman on a sawdust floor.
And Meachum told the audience they ought to try dancing with a bowlegged woman sometime.
A musician and storyteller who is finishing his Ph.D. in African American Literature and Rhetoric at UNC Greensboro, Meachum said he would like to take people back a little bit through his music.
Both artists told snippets of stories during their performances, filled with quips to suit the nostalgia of the crowd of southerners.
Peyton said most people are surprised to learn he used to play in an acid rock group. He said he once had trouble learning to sing a song because it was about the devil, and people don’t like hearing about the devil.
He performed it anyway.
Meachum jokingly announced his new plan for the government of the United States, much to the pleasure of the crowd.
“I have a plan for our government,” he said. “We’re going to fire all those folks up there, and we’re going to find the meanest grandmother and make her the Secretary of State.”
“And then we’re going to find the smartest grandmother and make her the Vice President. The sassiest grandmother — she’s going to be the President. And being sassy, she’s likely to get impeached. So we need lots of sassy grandmothers.”
Ferris said the South has produced the most important music and literature of the 20th century, but its importance has even been more far-reaching than that.
“The American South is arguably the most important region in our nation. It’s where we fought a war over the future, whether we would be a single undivided nation or not, it’s where slavery and the Civil Rights Movements occurred, and now there’s the New South,” he said.
“Ultimately we can argue that the South has been the deciding part of all of the history of our nation. Look at all the presidents that have come from the South. It’s a powerful and important world, and we need to understand it.”
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