Crystal Springs is more then 200 miles south of Clarksdale. It is 10 miles north of Hazlehurst, where Robert Johnson was born. A grandson of the most legendary Delta blues musician is Steven Johnson. He and his family make their home here. Steven’s father, Claude, Robert Johnson’s son, and his mother live close by. At one time, Steven was a teacher at the Crystal Springs High School, where he also attended. He is now vice president of the Robert Johnson Blues Museum and Foundation. The storefront museum is in the Crystal Springs historic district. Among its items is an upright piano that a local resident donated after a family member admitted seeing Robert Johnson play it.
If the museum is open, Steven is there, greeting people in his warm and friendly way. He gets a lot of visitors from Europe who make the pilgrimage to Mississippi to bow at documented and rumored blues landmarks. It’s not hard to imagine oneself back in the days of Robert Johnson or any of the fabled blues artists; things change slowly here. Even if a building is leaning to the right and the kudzu vines have covered it like a protective act of Mother Nature, it remains, like a holy shrine not to be taken away or else disturb the spirits, or a preservationist’s rehab efforts.
On a still Sunday night, it takes a while for the talent showcase to get going at the Crystal Springs High School, which you can see from in front of the Johnson Blues Museum. The sun is warm, so I sit on the front steps and talk with Jazma Wheeler, ward-2 alderman for Crystal Springs. He’ll be one of the judges. Someone who works for the school opens it up and wishes everyone a blessed night. There is no security; someone in our party will just lock the door when we’re done. Before she leaves, she tells me she wants to be an actress and asks if Berklee has any openings.
Inside the auditorium, families, some including babies and friends, huddle in seats, leaving a distance between each group. Some arrive with food to share. A table is set down on the floor to one side of the stage. Later, Steven’s wife, Miss Shelia, and another women from the community will serve hotdogs, cake, and punch. Though there are only 40 or so people in the room, there is a real sense of support for the teens. Miss Shelia is a teacher at the junior high school, next door. She tells me there is a high drop out rate in the regional middle grades, and that she and others there are trying to do all they can to encourage kids to stay in school.
Steven is off site, picking-up kids for the showcase. Kendra Savage, last year’s summer scholarship recipient from the Johnson talent showcase, arrives. She’ll be another showcase judge. Like Travis Calvin in Clarksdale, she is in contact with many students she met last summer at Berklee, and she is also trying to find a way to get back.
With the showcase still running behind schedule, she and I take the stage to give the quiet audience some sense of entertainment. I give the group a big picture vision on Berklee, and she talks about her experience last summer. No questions come back for us, but some people move closer to the font of the room.
Steven and more contestants arrive. He tells me he’s just on Mississippi time. He’s in a black, sleeveless t-shirt, like any former football player and coach would wear to preside over a room full of teenagers.
Taking the stage, he’s confident and encouraging on the microphone. He has experience delivering messages in front of people. He asks the room for a moment of silence and then prays. Several times throughout the night, he begins addressing the assembled, and then reminds himself that he’s not going to preach. His warmth and concern for the young people in the house makes you almost wish he would if it’s going to mean that somebody gains a little more faith in their future. He demonstrates a rapport with all of the youth there. In fact, most of the performers echo Steven’s faith with gospel songs.
Before Dameon Davis performs, he prays aloud. The evening’s first performer, who is 17 and from Greenwood, sings the gospel song “Stand.”
Crystal Springs’ Amanda Brown, 19, her mother watching intently from the second row, sings “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow,” which prompts Steven to exclaim that he “feels like having church,” before he asks who wants to go next.
Demetrius Williams of Brookhaven raises his hand and takes the stage with his brother. Demetrius sits at a keyboard, his brother holds the microphone since there is no stand. “I love music. It’s the best option I have to provide for my son,” he tells the audience before performing his gospel number, “I Need You Now,” by Smokey Norfield.
After Earnest Francis breaks format and sings the Brian McKnight r&b ballad “Still in Love,” it’s time for guest performer, and fellow judge, True to perform his hip-hop/gospel music. Rapping to a backing track of songs from his CD Christ Like Phenom, he has a feverish flow, and stands at the edge of the stage, waving his free hand at the audience to emphasize his convictions. He is seasoned compared to the hopefuls who are new and stand 15 feet from the front of the stage, making little eye contact.
Steven follows. Before he again reigns himself in from preaching, he tells the kids to not just listen to the beats in hip-hop, but to pay attention to the lyrics, because if the words are poison, they’ll affect their minds. He encourages the kids to make a choice in the music they listen to. He is not condemning, his life if defined by the blues and this was once considered to be the devil’s music. He is devoutly taking another chance to make a positive impact on their lives.
Justin Swanson next takes the stage and sings the night’s only original song, “The Rock,” which celebrates the memory of his late mother. Lashonda Talbert closes the auditions with “Prelude to a Kiss,” an Alicia Keys song.
The judges exit the room and walk down a metal fire escape onto the parking lot outside. The decision is clear and swift on who would get the scholarship. All hope that one particular female performer will try again next year.
The judges take the stage, and before Kendra announces the winner of the full scholarship to Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Performance Program , Steven invites all the performers to join the open mic session at the Robert Johnson Birthday Blast, an daylong music festival, in May.
When Demetrius Williams, 18, hears his name called, his family all leans into him, wrapping arms around his shoulders. His brother stood as the winner steps into the aisle and the two embrace. On stage, he lets some of his emotions show.
In a quick conversation before he joins his proud family who are headed for the door, he says his career goal is to become a contemporary gospel performer and songwriter. Besides gospel music, he also writes r&b songs. Performing regularly at his church, Williams is now starting to play in clubs and other venues. Winning the scholarship means he’ll make a featured performance at the Birthday Blast. He’s never traveled farther north than Florida, flown on a plane, or rode on a subway. He called recently asking what kind of clothes he should bring for Berklee and for church.