The Latin phrase for a great work of accomplishment is “magnum opus.”
The French phrase is “tour de force.”
The American inner city phrase is “the bomb.”
When looking collectively at the prodigious music, arts, and geological distinctions of the Southeast Arkansas Delta and neighboring Washington County, Mississippi, one can easily use all three of these phrases to sum up the region’s unique portfolio of world class accomplishments.
Such accomplishments by natives or residents include Grammys, Emmys, Doves, Stellars, and Pulitzer Prizes, in addition to inductions into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Film Registry, the National Recording Registry, and a range of additional distinctions.
Other assets further underscore the area’s greatness, such as the presence of the world’s longest bayou, the second most biologically diverse stream in North America, the innovation of the electric bass guitar, the blues guitarist credited with launching the British music “invasion,” the recording of the best selling jazz album ever (based on the artist’s childhood experiences in Jefferson County), the first African American producer at a majority record company, the invention of the first “talkie” movie camera, the invention of slow motion camera, one of the earliest radio stations in the nation, and a host of other important achievements.
The Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance (DRBA) was formed in February of 2016 with the idea of helping cities along U.S. Highway 65 South develop infrastructure to tell the powerfully compelling stories of music/arts and folklore/history of Bayou Bartholomew and Bayou Macon.
Using the successful models of the Blues Highway in Mississippi (U.S. Highway 61), the Music Highway in Tennessee (I-40 between Nashville and Memphis), and the Country Music Highway (U.S. Highway 23), the DRBA, with its distinguished board members and supporters, hopes to educate the national public and direct major tourism revenue to a corridor with Pine Bluff and Greenville, Mississippi, as the anchors. Through the establishment of museums, exhibits, festivals, and other unique events, cities including Pine Bluff, Gould, Dumas, McGehee, Dermott, Lake Village, and Greenville, Mississippi, will address area-unique themes related to music, arts, and the bayous.
To help accomplish this with state recognition, the DRBA approached State Rep. Vivian Flowers about the idea of naming U.S. Highway 65 South, “the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway.” She sponsored legislation which passed the Arkansas Legislature and was signed by the Governor on March 31, 2017. Two days prior, the DRBA received a letter from the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) stating that it wanted to do a full length documentary on the music of the corridor based on the 2015 book Delta Music and Film: Jefferson County and the Lowlands.
As a result of five meetings in Pine Bluff from 2016-2017 engaging approximately 200 people, the DRBA proposed a plan for Pine Bluff, its main anchor. This plan, focused on a downtown area between 2nd and 4th streets, includes the renovation of the Old Masonic Building to house the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Heritage Center (a music, film, television radio, fine arts, theater, and literature museum related to the Greater Jefferson County Area), relocation of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame to a 4th Street building, creation of the largest outdoor mural art gallery in the U.S. (featuring the music and bayous stories of the region told in 75 murals on existing buildings and installed decorative walls), development of an outdoor park for staging music and mini-festivals, establishment of an arts, craft, antiques and locally- made products mall inside the old Kroger building off 4th Street with an adjoining food court on the parking lot for trucks, the creation of the Jefferson County Civil Rights Freedom Trail and phone app (to give social context to the creation of the blues), a Delta music festival, a Great Bayou Raft Race, the creation of a full-time city position for heritage tourism grant writing, passage of a noise reduction ordinance targeting trains, and the creation of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway Website.
The price tag for all these items could run as much as $40 million. However, our approach is to build consensus in the community for the best ideas from this model. Hence, the public could discard aspects of this plan and keep parts it likes. This could dramatically lower the overall price tag (which could be paid by a local sales tax and a 10 percent DRBA commitment in identifying grant and private funding).
In fact, we think that the public would be best served by choosing from a buffet of ideas including those from the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance Plan, the Simmons Go Forward Plan, Pine Bluff Rising, and other initiatives. By offering the public the best choices, along with a transparent budget, citizens could vote to support a tax that fits a more tailored vision of growth and one which is consistent with their wallets.
The DRBA is committed to working with all existing initiatives to craft a plan which best serves the future of this city and the region. This is why we encouraged the Pine Bluff City Council to forgo voting on the Simmons Go Forward resolution on April 3, 2017.
We saw that the plan did not include an aggressive focus on branding and heritage tourism as an economic magnet, in spite of the current national trends showing these elements as key ingredients in the success of other communities. We encouraged a process of building more consensus, including new ideas, and then re-introducing a resolution which had more public buy-in.
Now that the City Council has voted for the resolution, the voters will decide the fate of the Go Forward Plan in June of this year. We strongly encourage citizens to consider the important ideas of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance as it relates to Pine Bluff’s future economic growth. Whether that vote passes or fails, the need for drawing the powerful force of cultural heritage tourism revenues to the area still exists.
The DRBA is absolutely committed to the region and will continue its important work developing interpretive infrastructure which tells a timeless narrative of artistic creativity and natural wonder in the Southeast Arkansas Delta. We know full well that the collective cultural and geological distinctions of the region make it a tour de force, a magnum opus, and the bomb.
Jimmy Cunningham Jr.
Delta Rhythum and Blues Alliance