Little Ferriday (population 3,700 – give or take a few dozen) has always played an outsized role in the spectrum of American music history.
Take, for example, the once-iconic stature of Haney’s Big House lounge, a juke joint in the heart of the town’s black community, where just about every influential Delta blues artist performed at one point or another as they criss-crossed the Deep South, sprinkling the seeds that would eventually blossom into rock ’n’ roll.
And speaking of rock ’n’ roll, Ferriday is perhaps best known to music fandom as the hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the absolutely crucial figures in the early days of rock, the man whose frantic piano pounding and lascivious Louisiana drawl spawned such eternal classics as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
In fact, Lewis looms so large in both musical and regional history that he’s the first thing people see when they enter Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Well, not the Killer himself, but a sculpture of him and his two cousins – you might have heard of them, too – Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart at the piano.
The mission of the DMM, says institution director Judith Bingham, is to “collect, preserve and exhibit the music heritage along the Mississippi River, beginning in Memphis and following the river down to New Orleans.”
That’s a huge chunk of music history. But last year, thanks to drastic budget cuts, the state legislature slashed funding to the Delta Music Museum and 14 other similar state-run institutions.
Secretary of State spokeswoman Meg Casper says the department’s funding was hacked from about $10.4 million in 2009-’10 to just $3.9 million last year. Much of that money, she says, went to support state-run museums and other cultural institutions.
The facility, has existed as the DMM since 2002 (it was originally called the Ferriday Museum) and which falls under the auspices of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, could only stay open to the public three days a week, and it was forced to lay off staff. At one point, it looked like the museum would have to shutter its doors entirely.
Great balls of fire, indeed.
But the community of Ferriday and the surrounding region in northeast Louisiana came to the rescue. The Friends of the Delta Music Museum Foundation organized a series of fundraisers to boost the museum’s bottom line, and, coupled with careful budget maintenance, those efforts helped the DMM not only stay open, but continue to thrive.
The museum is now open five days a week, and a record number of visitors have been passing through, including a high of roughly 1,300 in one week. And it’s not just locals who are swinging the turnstiles; Bingham says fans from across the globe have been making music pilgrimages to Ferriday. For example, several businesses in the United Kingdom offer bus tours that include a stop at the DMM.
“In 2013, I’d say (patronage) has doubled,” Bingham says. “We really have been having huge crowds here. We’ve really just been thrilled at the response. You would be amazed at the number of international guests.”
Once in the museum, visitors will see displays of the DMM’s dozens of Delta music hall of fame inductees, a group that spans just about every genre of American tunes. The list includes rockabilly and country legend Conway Twitty, from Friars Point, Miss.; soul music legend Percy Sledge, a Baton Rouge resident who made hearts swoon with “When a Man Loves a Woman”; Allen “Puddler” Harris, a Jigger, La., native and Lake Charles resident who, among various accomplishments, was a member of the original Ricky Nelson band; John Fred Gourrier, the center of John Fred and His Playboy Band, who scored a surprising ’60s pop hit with “Judy in Disguise”; and New Orleans R&B titan Clarence “Frogman” Henry, whose gimmick of singing like (what else?) a frog made him a legend.
Henry himself says he was honored when the DMM inducted him into its halls.
“It was beautiful,” Henry says of the DMM and his induction ceremony. “I was glad.”
Also drawing tourists to the museum is its neighbor on Louisiana Avenue, the historic Arcade Theater, a newly restored gem that, in its glorious history, has hosted dozens of musical legends. In addition, induction ceremonies continue to take place yearly, and the museum’s staff and supporters hope to revive the yearly Delta Music Festival, which went dormant last year.
State government also seems to be recognizing the importance of the DMM; in May, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne visited the facility, and he returned in August when state officials and The Oxford American magazine hosted a forum honoring Jerry Lee Lewis and Delta blues.
Of course, the future of the museum isn’t completely secure – with state funding continuing to dwindle, the DMM and its supporters will still need to dig up private funding to keep it thriving. But for now, the DMM is an example of what grass-roots activism and community pride can accomplish.
“News of budget cuts is always difficult to hear,” says Casper. “But we’ve found that our staff and museum volunteers have been finding creative ways to do more with less money.”
And that should leave any rock ’n’ roller, as Jerry Lee would say, breathless.