It was while studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C., that Valerian E. Smith was implored by a faculty member to consider taking his talents and natural enthusiasm for organizing to the South where they would better serve the community. Born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia, Smith entered the Army and served in Korea after graduating from Howard in 1949. But once out of the service, he heeded his teacher’s advice and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to put himself in the service of the community as a dentist.
Smith’s dental practice allowed him to give affordable care to many of South Baton Rouge’s impoverished Black residents, but it was his musical and theatrical interests that allowed him to really leave his mark. While in school and the Army, Smith showcased his vocal and compositional talents in choruses and musical groups that he established. He re-harnessed this energy to create the Baton Rouge Community Chorus and Playhouse in 1952.
The Community Chorus and Playhouse would eventually enlist a cast of sixty amateur singers, dancers, and supporting musicians who would perform works composed by Smith or other Black composers, focusing on musicals, jazz, and religious music. Smith utilized the Chorus and Playhouse to present his own musicals and plays. The Chorus and Playhouse fostered generations of actors, artists, and musicians who would not have had the opportunity otherwise, including Smith’s own Golden Globe– and Emmy-award-winning daughter, Lynn Whitfield.
Reminders of the battle for civil rights were unrelenting in the South, especially during the Nixon presidency. Eleven days after the killing of four white students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio, two young students were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi during protests on May 15, 1970. The references of the latter event were barely mentioned in the media, as the students were Black.
Smith chose to channel his feelings of the tragedy into song and wrote “Mississippi Mud,” a blues dirge that echoes the language of Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and sharpness of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
To perform the tune, Smith looked no further than to members of his Chorus, referred to as Valerian’s Voices. As for the rhythm section, Smith looked to fellow scene booster and educator Alvin Batiste for some help. Woodwind master and composer Batiste had moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to help the band department at Southern University A&B, the HBCU on the north side of Baton Rouge.
By 1969, Batiste had created his own Jazz Institute at the University, instigated with the formation of the star trio of pianist Henry Butler, bass guitarist Julius Farmer, and drummer Herman Jackson. Batiste was an early advocate for collegiate “pay for play” and would farm out students for gigs, thus it was the trio who completed Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles.
“Mississippi Mud” was recorded not long after the tragedy in Jackson at Capital City Sound Studios in downtown Baton Rouge. An ominous vibe was set as the vocal strains of the choir were amplified with unique urgency by Herman Jackson’s insistent snare beat and Henry Butler’s blues-inflected Fender Rhodes. The lyrics are simple and pausingly effective: “The Mississippi Mud is soaked in Black blood / How many more must die?” The culmination of the dire message, lush vocals, and effortless funkiness made “Mississippi Mud” a singularly haunting track.
A single of “Mississippi Mud” was released with the tune “Angela” on the flip for Smith’s own Black Blood imprint with its signature red and black psychedelic labels. A second version of “Mississippi Mud” was released on the Stax imprint Enterprise under the alias Smithsonian. Drummer Jackson believes that the two versions were recorded together, the Enterprise version having Butler play acoustic piano rather than Rhodes.
Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles/Smithstonian’s “Mississippi Mud” has lived on, not the least through Tracklib, just recently revived by Brazilian superproducer Papatinho for L7NNON's 'Despertadores'. The tune might be how composer Valerian Smith was best known around the world, but it was really his work fostering the arts in the community of Baton Rouge that provided so much for so many in those particularly dark times.
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