By: Hope Harrington Oakes
Richard Ramsey of West Point sure knows a thing or two about good music. As a child, he grew up listening to all kinds of music that most kids of the sixties soaked up, and then some. Ramsey was extremely fortunate, though, to hear, firsthand, a blues legend that actually came to influence the musicians of the day like The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.
Chester Arthur Burnett, known to the world as bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, was a Clay County native. Ramsey’s father owned Ramsey’s Tire and Appliance, on Main Street in West Point, and as a young child, Ramsey and his brother knew about the tremendous influence that Howlin’ Wolf had on the music scene.
“Wolf loved to hunt and fish, so he’d buy his hunting license from Dad’s store, and shotgun shells, and fishing equipment,” Ramsey said. “My older brother was already playing in rock bands, and we definitely knew that The Stones and everybody were influenced by Wolf, so we’d get him to pull out his harmonicas and play for us. We also slipped out to see him out at Roxy’s Juke Joint when we were about 13 or so. Mom and Dad would have killed us if they’d known it. Nobody ever told on us, and we sure weren’t gonna tell.”
This worldwide respect for an amazing artist evolved into The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society of West Point in 1996. Their mission is “To Preserve, Promote, Educate, and Celebrate Mississippi’s Blues Heritage”. The Blues Society introduced the achievements of the “Wolf’s” role in American music to the public through newspaper, television, and their “Blues in the School” Program. Other projects have included hundreds of public, private and college students in blues history along with blues artists and hands-on sessions. The same year the Blues Society formed, the first annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival took place. A statue of “The Wolf” statue was donated the following year and has a place of honor downtown.
Years of Howlin’ Wolf memorabilia have been donated through the years, and in 2005 The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum opened its doors. It is located at 307 W. Westbrook Street in downtown West Point. It is filled to the brim with items that showcase the career of Wolf and his guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. There is even the shotgun that Wolf used, along with actual boxes of ammunition he bought from Ramsey’s father (with Ramsey’s mother’s handwriting on them) back in the day.
“Hubert was such a good friend,” Ramsey said of the late guitarist. “He literally walked in one day with paper sacks and his Rainforest Les Paul guitar. The sacks were full of his Grammy medals, and his blues music awards, and he said ‘Son, you’re gonna keep me and The Wolf alive forever, aren’t you?’ That just means the world to me.”
Other rare items from some of the most famous musicians in the world like Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Pete Townsend, to name a few, fill the wall, as well. Due to limited space, not all of the collection is on public display.
“We’re trying to expand this to the McClure Building to a world-class museum designed by Applebaum and Associates out of New York…the largest museum design firm in the world,” Ramsey said. “They did the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nascar Museum, and the Holocaust Museum, and what they’ve designed for West Point, for Wolf is world-class. It’s going to have a juke joint feel with a 21st century technology.” Visitors have come from over 42 states and 21 countries to West Point just to see the museum. Ramsey states, “I’ve just had people here from Brussels, Belgium come 4,000 miles to see the Wolf collection.”
An added attraction to this year is the Howlin’ Wolf mural painted on the outdoor wall of a hundred-year old building. It is a collaboration of Deborah Mansfield and Kathy Dyess. The city of West Point helped with the installation of framework and lighting. Right next to it is an “Autograph Wall” for people to sign their names and comments about what Howlin’ Wolf means to them.
“Some people say the blues is dead,” Ramsey said. “No, the blues is not dead. They say they don’t like the blues. Well, what do you listen to? You listen to Country? That’s the blues with a twang. You listen to rock n’ roll? Oh, the blues had a baby and named it rock n’ roll. You can’t play jazz if you can’t play the blues. It’s all connected to the blues, even rap and hip hop.”
The 18th Annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival will take place on Friday, August 30th beginning at Mary Holmes College Auditorium in West Point. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and the music starts howling at 7 p.m. This year’s artists include: Mark “Muleman” Massey Blues Band with Bill Earheart, Ben Prestage “One Man Band”, Homemade Jamz from Tupelo (who play guitars made out of car mufflers), The Braille Blues Daddy, Bryan Lee and The Blues Power Band. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Tickets can be purchased at Culin Arts in West Point, the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus and at Jack Forbus Insurance in Starkville. Tickets are also available online at wpnet.org/Howlin_Festival.htm.
“We’ll have CDs, DVDs, maps, fine art, tshirts, food vendors,” Ramsey said. “We’re looking forward to another great year to honor the Wolf in his hometown of West Point.”
Ramsey said he is thankful for all of the hard work that many volunteers have put in a lot of time and effort to make the festival a success.
“Music is a big part of life” Ramsey said. “It all started here. Mississippi is the birthplace of American music, and should be declared a National Monument for the contributions it has made to the Arts. It is unsurpassed by any other state. The Blues is damn sure not dead. It’s alive and well in West Point, Mississippi, honoring the legendary Howlin’ Wolf.“