As the two-lane highway nears Delta State University in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, what look like scraps of sun-bleached litter start appearing along the roadside.
It turns out to be wind-scattered cotton, blown from the newly harvested fields that stretch to the horizon.
The poorest part of the poorest state in America, the Mississippi Delta is rich in three things: cotton, sorrow and the blues to which those other two gave rise.
And now Delta State, struggling with budget cuts that have forced it to eliminate programmes including modern languages, journalism and theatre arts, is banking on the blues to improve its circumstances, those of the Delta in general, and of its students in particular.
It’s a case study in how a university can set itself apart by exploiting the cultural distinctiveness of the area it serves, says the university’s president, William “Bill” LaForge.
“I’m banking on that,” says LaForge, a Delta native who served as a congressional aide before returning to run his alma mater, and whose office is full of blues memorabilia. “We need to exploit the hell out of it.”
With a three-year grant from a private arts foundation established by a Mississippi multimillionaire, the university this year launched what it hopes will be an annual international conference on the Delta blues. It has established a blues studies minor, and is laying plans for an interdisciplinary major in the blues and a “blues leadership incubator” to help the creation of blues-related businesses.
It already boasts the Delta Music Institute, where students learn entertainment industry skills including audio technology. One of its recording studios was designed by veteran engineer and producer Norbert Putnam and is known as “Little Abbey Road”. Amy Grant and B. B. King have visited, and groups from gospel choirs to classical musicians have laid down tracks here.
In 2015, the organisation behind the Grammy Awards will open a satellite music museum on the campus. More Grammy winners have come from Mississippi than from any other state.
The Delta “is the birthplace of the blues”, says the Delta Music Institute’s director, Tricia Walker, a singer, songwriter and music producer whose song Looking in the Eyes of Love won a Grammy for bluegrass musician Alison Krauss. “We want to educate the next generation to carry that on.”
The Delta blues originated with Mississippi sharecroppers and is characterised by its use of guitar, box guitar and harmonica. It influenced American rock and British Invasion-era music, hard rock and heavy metal.
It is a creative legacy that Delta State believes can distinguish it.
“We’re trying to position ourselves in this era of cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts,” says Walker, grey hair spilling from a black beret. “What’s going to make us special?”
Using the blues to lift up its students and its region won’t be easy, however. Poverty persists, along with the obesity and mortality it brings. Nearly half the population of the Delta have left in the past 50 years.
But even as students on another part of campus hold a mock funeral to protest departmental closures, the university’s president is fiercely claiming ownership of music studies. LaForge, who plays the guitar and hands visitors a guitar plectrum stamped “Pick Delta State”, insists the blues can make the difference.
“We can’t be everything to all people,” he says. “We’ve got to understand what we do well and put our scarce resources behind that.”