"Stones in my Pathway"

A black cat stares out from the front porch of blues singer Jack Owens as he plays his dark and haunting blues with harmonica accompanist Bud Spires. Owens, whose canon of songs comes from the minor-keyed Bentonia tradition made famous by the Delta legend Skip James, sings in his signature song, “It must have been the devil that changed that woman’s mind/I’d rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man.” Songs in the Bentonia tradition are suffused with brooding images of the supernatural. Robert Johnson drew from this tradition in composing his most haunting blues, “Hellhound on my Trail.” Photo © Bill Steber

A Tennessee photographer’s vivid, black-and-white images highlighting the Delta’s rich blues culture will soon be on display at the Museum of the Mississippi Delta.

An opening reception for “Stones in my Pathway: Photographs of Mississippi Blues Culture” by Bill Steber will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the museum.

“I not only see it as an artistic show, which it definitely is and it’s beautifully done in black and white, but it’s also a historical documentation of a time in the Delta that is passing,” said Cheryl Thornhill, the museum’s executive director. “Not just with people, but some of the way of life, and I think he’s done a good job to capture that.”

Steber, who resides in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, will attend the reception, which will feature refreshments and live music by Greenwood-based bluesman Ben Wiley Payton.

“I’m sure Bill will talk about his work during the evening,” said Thornhill. “I think it will be a fun event.”

“Stones in my Pathway” will be on display at the museum from Thursday to Feb. 29.

The name of the exhibit was inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s song “Stones in my Passway”: “I got stones in my passway/ And my road seems dark at night/ I got pain in my heart/ It has taken my appetite.”

Steber’s almost 30-year-old blues project began in August 1992, when he journeyed along U.S. 61 on his way to Leland in search of Son Thomas, who was a blues musician and folk artist.

A professional photographer and photo-journalist, Steber made the trek to capture Thomas.

He said driving down the famous blues highway and spending time with Thomas “forever altered” his life.

“The afternoon I spent with him talking about his life and hearing his music made an indelible impression on me,” Steber wrote about his time with Thomas. “I vowed to come back as soon as possible.”

When he returned the following spring, Thomas was dying of a brain tumor.

“Since that first visit, I’ve witnessed many changes in the Delta,” Steber writes to describe the inspiration for this decades-long blues photography project. “Not only has the blues world lost many important artists like Son, but the arrival of casinos has brought with them a flood of fast food, chain stores and the competition to the rural juke joints that help keep the blues alive in Mississippi. The plantation where Robert Johnson first learned music is now home to three casinos, and billboards now pockmark Highway 61, where once there was an unobstructed view of fertile cotton fields.”

Because of that, Steber has been chronicling a culture in the Delta that seems to be fading away. He documents the state’s blues musicians, juke joints, churches, river baptisms, hoodoo practitioners, traditional farming methods, folk traditions and other traditions that “gave birth to or influenced the blues.”

Many of his photographs were taken in the Delta, including Leflore County. One of the Greenwood-area photographs features bluesman and Lexington native Lonnie Pitchford in the Quito home that some think could have been the place where Robert Johnson died in 1938.

Thornhill met Steber last year when he attended a program at the museum that was presented by Scott Barretta, blues historian and Greenwood resident.

“We started talking, and he said he was a photographer. I went to his website and looked at some of his images, and I thought they would fit really nicely in the museum’s gallery,” said Thornhill. “From what I’ve seen of his work, he’s an artist who is really committed to documenting the blues and the Delta as well.”

A 1989 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Steber began his photography career working as a staff photojournalist for the Tennessean in Nashville from 1989 to 2004.

Steber has won numerous photography awards, and he won grants to support his work on “Stones in my Pathway” from The Maine Photographic Workshops and the Morrie Camhi award. He was an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in 1998, which gave him the opportunity to take a yearlong sabbatical from the Tennessean and pursue his blues project. Steber has shown work in galleries and museums around the country, including a one-man show at the Saba Gallery in New York, which was featured in The New Yorker magazine.

Steber works as a freelance photographer, and his photographs have been published in regional, national and international magazines.

Since 2006, he has been working on numerous projects using 19th century wet plate collodion photography, including tinytypes, ambrotypes and glass negatives.

Steber said “Stones in my Pathway” is his attempt to document the living legacy of the Delta’s rich cultural tradition.

“The blues is our country’s most important musical art form,” he said. “It has shaped every musical form developed in its wake, including gospel, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass and modern country. Its echoes still resound in the sweaty juke joints and dusty cotton fields along Highway 61.”

Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or rrobison@gwcommonwealth.com.

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