Traveling Exhibit Remembers Florida Blues History

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Gainseville resident Mary Mills reads caption that corresponds to the collage of famous blues photos at the Matheson History Museum Sunday.
Gainesville resident Mary Mills reads a caption that corresponds to the collage of famous blues photos at the Matheson History Museum on Sunday, Feb. 15. The museum is hosting the Museum of Florida History’s “Florida’s Got the Blues” traveling exhibit until April 30. ” Kathryn Williams / WUFT News”

The soulful sounds of the Mississippi Delta have made their way to Gainesville.

The Matheson Museum, 513 E University Ave., debuted the Museum of Florida History’s traveling exhibit, “Florida’s Got the Blues” on Feb. 9.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to bring it to Gainesville,” said Megan Mosley, a curator at the Matheson since 2012. “This is an exhibit that looks at the history of blues music in Florida specifically.”

Musicians who pioneered the blues are showcased, including Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers Band and W.C. Handy, who is considered the “Father of the Blues,” according to the Matheson.

“(Blues) is something that’s been reinterpreted by every generation,” Mosley said. “We make the connection between blues and rock ‘n’ roll.”

The exhibit connects the blues with other musical genres and portrays the genre’s ties to different regions of the country, including North Central Florida. Musicians tend to find or rekindle their passion in the area, said Rob Richardson, president of the North Central Florida Blues Society.

“This area has a really odd musical history that embodies a lot of different genres,” Richardson said. “There’s something about this area that people come out of or come into.”

The exhibit highlights local musicians, including Bo Diddley and Willie Green who both made careers in Alachua County.

Richardson said Diddley is the most commonly recognized local blues reference. Bo Diddley Community Plaza, the local live music venue in downtown Gainesville, was renamed for the rock ‘n’ roll singer after he died in 2008.

Green, an Ocala blues musician, continues to perform at the Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek.

“He’s one of the last remaining Delta area bluesman,” Richardson said. “And he still got it.”

Despite the popularity of the legendary names of Diddley, Green and Charles, smaller names have influenced blues talent in North Central Florida more than people realize, Richardson said.

Little Mike and the Tornadoes, a blues group in the 1980s and 1990s, backed big names like Diddley, Jimmy Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Richardson said when the popular artists went on tour, they wanted the Tornadoes to come with them. 

Although they didn’t perform in Alachua County as a group, frontman Little Mike restarted his music career in Alachua after buying a farm in the area.

Barrelhouse Chuck, a Gainesville native and bluesman, started playing when he was a student at the University of Florida. In an interview for Blueswax, an online magazine, he recounted his experiences touring with his friend Little Joe Berson, a harmonica player, and famous musician Muddy Waters.

Waters wrote a song for his 1977 album “Hard Again,” titled “Deep Down in Florida,” in which he mentions Newberry and sings about traveling to Gainesville to see his “old friend” Berson.

“Muddy Waters met his (third) wife when he was playing at the Cotton Club here in Gainesville,” Richardson said.

The Cotton Club, a dance hall and popular blues location in Gainesville, opened in 1948 in a building that was previously part of a World War II military camp for new trainees. Ray Charles, James Brown, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington were considered regular performers.

The club closed in 1959, but the University of Florida is working to have the location restored and converted into a museum and cultural center.

Even though the Cotton Club is no longer around, the blues scene in Gainesville continues to thrive, said Mary Mills, a New Orleans native and Gainesville resident touring the Matheson exhibit.

Mills, who grew up surrounded by the genre, feels that blues is soulful and can help people through tough times.

“It just reaches into your heart and grabs ya,” Mills said. “It just really touches you.”

Blues is considered the root of all other American genres of music, including jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, Richardson said. He said the community aspect of blues music comes from African-Americans working in fields, discussing their hardships and feelings.

“Blues is different in that it’s really more than any other musical genre,” Richardson said. “It’s about emotion. It’s not about technicality.”

Richardson has his own suspicions about the origins of blues music in Gainesville.

“There’s something mysterious about the water down there,” Richardson said. “It makes it feel like home, even if you hadn’t been there before.”

The exhibit is free to the public and open until April 30.

About Kathryn Williams

Kathryn is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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