Mississippi Delta sound part of Beatles’ musical roots – USA TODAY
JACKSON, Miss. — When Beatlemania hit Mississippi a half century ago, it struck a state clinging to segregation, even as teenagers rushed to embrace the music that was crossing the color line.
While lawmakers at the state’s Capitol in 1964 passed one Jim Crow law after another to preserve white supremacy, Jackson, Miss., teenagers tuned in to WRBC, the only station to play rock ‘n’ roll, a music form begun by African-American artists.
The roots of The Beatles’ music and the ensuing British Invasion lay along the Mississippi River in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, said Lynn Raley, associate professor of music history at Millsaps College, who teaches a course on The Beatles.
Malcolm White, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, is now promoting that link with the Mississippi slogan: “Birthplace of American Music.”
Marshall Magee, then a 17-year-old senior at Murrah High School, remembers the enthusiasm surrounding The Beatles’ music.
“It was the most sparkling twist on rock ‘n’ roll we had ever seen,” said Magee, who was already a Beach Boys fan.
The music, he said, provided an escape for Mississippi and for the nation, seeking to move past the dark days that had included the assassinations of Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy.
On Feb. 7, 1964, the Fab Four landed at the New York airport renamed after the slain president and performed live on The Ed Sullivan Show with more than a third of the entire U.S. population watching on their television sets.
That night, University of Mississippi student Cecil Brown was headed back to campus with his roommate when they realized they wouldn’t make it back in time to see The Beatles playing.
The pair pulled over their car, walked up to a house they spotted and knocked on the door.
“Are you watching Ed Sullivan?” they asked.
The family said they were.
“Do you mind if we sit and watch with you?” the students asked.
The family invited them in, Brown recalled. “When you’re 20, you’re kind of fearless.”
That night produced new images for a new generation — what Life magazine called one of the most important moments in American TV history.
Before The Beatles arrived in America, music was playing a key role in the civil rights movement. And before it ended, their music joined in the chorus.
Freedom songs encouraged those in the movement, said Hollis Watkins, who led members in such anthems as Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.
When Mississippi authorities arrested Freedom Riders in 1962 and placed them in the state prison at Parchman, the riders recounted later that they renewed their strength through songs.
“Whenever it got scary, we’d just sing,” recalled Freedom Rider Joan Trumpaeur Mulholland. “Music was the lifeblood of the movement.”
Weeks after Evers’ murder, Bob Dylan unveiled his song about Evers’ assassin being a pawn in the white politicians’ game.
He played the song on what would have been Evers’ 38th birthday, July 2, 1963, to a small group of civil rights workers gathered in Greenwood, just a few miles from where Evers’ assassin lived.
John Lennon heard Dylan’s music for the first time a month before The Beatles reached America. Before the movement ended, Lennon contributed his own protest songs, including the anthem, Give Peace a Chance.
Paul McCartney penned Blackbird about the black struggle.
Months after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, Magee graduated from Murrah and became DJ “Lee Marshall” at WRBC, witnessing Beatlemania up close, he said.
Excited by the music, teenagers flocked to WRBC, watching through a clear window as a DJ changed 45s.
Nancy Haas, who subsequently married Cecil Brown, was one of them, working at the station on weekends and taking listener requests.
She became vice president of the Jackson Beatles fan club (officially known as Beatles Southern Ltd.) and attended Beatles concerts in New Orleans, Houston and Memphis. For the final concert, she joined a busload of fans from Jackson that took up 10 rows inside the Mid-South Coliseum.
She attended some of their news conferences, and The Beatles told reporters about being influenced by African-American artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and The Ronettes.
White remembers at 12 watching that Ed Sullivan show and his grandfather helping him buy She Loves You.
His grandfather’s review? “It’s a bunch of yeah, yeah, yeahs, and it’s over.”
That same grandfather later took him to buy his first guitar, he said.
“I had no idea at the time of the link the British Invasion had with American music or Mississippi music,” he said. “It took me awhile longer before I understood where they were pulling their influences from. Once it sunk in, it was a revolutionary thought for a Southerner.”
Fans began to embrace the music that had inspired The Beatles. They also dove into the blues. “Would you believe that The Beatles helped open a lot of doors for blues players like myself?” B.B. King, a Kilmichael, Miss., native, later proclaimed.
Without the British Invasion, Southerners would never have connected the dots back to their roots, White said.
“These kids from Great Britain really brought our culture back to us,” he said. “It’s still happening today. Mick Jagger came to Mississippi because of the filming of the James Brown story. The circle is never really broken.”