One of the main educational concerns of Professor Laurence Clifton Jones, who founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in 1909, was musical training. The school boasted a piano while it was still housed in a converted sheep shed, and beginning in 1923 Jones sent out various groups named the Cotton Blossom Singers across the nation on fundraising tours, sometimes for months at a time. The “Mississippi School for the Blind for Negroes” was also located at Piney Woods between 1929 and 1951, and among the groups who performed a mix of spirituals and popular songs was a quartet of blind students led by Archie Brownlee (1925-1960). The group began singing on campus in 1936 and the following year John A. and Alan Lomax recorded them for the Library of Congress. Later, as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the group popularized the “hard gospel” style of quartet singing, and Brownlee’s dramatic vocal approach, accented by moans, shrieks and wails, influenced soul singers including Ray Charles, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett.
In the mid-‘30s Jones started several new jazz bands at Piney Woods, including the all-male Syncollegians and the all-female Sweethearts of Rhythm. Consuella Carter, the first leader of the group, later directed the music program at Coahoma Junior College in Clarksdale. Most of the Sweethearts were African Americans, but the group earned the tag “international” due to the Chinese, Mexican and Hawaiian heritage of some of its members. The Sweethearts began touring nationally in 1939, but in early 1941 they cut ties with the school and went professional. They became the most popular of the female bands that proliferated during World War II, when many male musicians were serving in the military. Their understudies at Piney Woods, the Junior Sweethearts of Rhythm, continued to perform as the Swinging Rays of Rhythm.
Laurel-born bluesman Sam Myers (1936-2006), who was legally blind, began attending Piney Woods at age 10, and soon played trumpet and drums and sang in the school’s groups. After graduation Myers studied music in Chicago and began performing blues professionally with Elmore James and others. Myers cut his first single in 1957 for the Jackson-based Ace label, and later found acclaim as the lead singer and harmonica player with the Texas group Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. Other blues artists who attended Piney Woods included guitarist Jody Williams, who worked with Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, and drummer Billy Stepney, a native of Grenada.
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