March 27, 2014
Ben Evans learned how little he knew about music when he enrolled in the class, History of Jazz.
“Because I was effectively starting with no knowledge of music, I learned more in that class than I think I have in any class before or since,” said Evans, a Millsaps senior from Oxford, Miss.
Knowledge of the structure and content of the blues is key to understanding jazz. The more Evans learned about the blues and its origins, the more fascinated he became.
“As a Mississippi native I was always cognizant of the blues, but I had no idea of its uniqueness and centrality to the development of American music as a whole,” he said. “I immediately started listening to the blues and noticed that there was a difference between the way that blues from the Delta and blues from the Hill Country, the part of the state I am from, were constructed musically. I was clearly not the first person to recognize this difference, but I couldn't really find a compelling reason why there was such a musical difference.”
Evans listened to the music of the late Otha Turner, a Mississippian and one of the last well-known fife players in the American fife and drum blues tradition, and wanted to learn more.
“For my senior seminar class I uncovered a number of interesting reasons for the existence of this style of music in North Mississippi,” he said. “Slave owners, particularly in areas where the slave population vastly exceeded the white population, were extremely wary of slave insurrection and in many cases outlawed slave gatherings and feared the use of slave drumming as a way to foment insurrection. In areas where the slave population was smaller compared to the white population, there was less concern over slave insurrection and therefore slave drumming. This, I think, at least begins to help explain the existence of a musical style with roots in Africa like the fife and drum blues.”
Evans conducted much of his research at the Mississippi State Archives, which is located in downtown Jackson and a short drive from campus. “Having easy access to the state archives has been an invaluable asset not only to my research but helpful as a history student as well,” he said.
What began as Evans’ senior thesis research became an interest he continues to study on his own.
Evans decided to consider attending Millsaps at the suggestion of his high school history teacher. “She was someone who was more of a mentor than a teacher to me, and I valued her opinion so I looked into it,” he said. “She was a big reason why I am studying history today. Millsaps has been one of the best decisions of my life.”
A member of the history honorary Phi Alpha Theta, a student government senator and a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, Evans said he has been challenged from the first day of class at Millsaps.
“Many of the ideas that I had accepted as fact were merely well articulated opinions that relied on a set of preconceived notions that I had never effectively deconstructed,” he said. “The process of deconstructing ideas that are often taken for granted is a process that I think is central to the liberal arts experience.
He has found it easy to develop close, personal relationships with professors across campus.
“Dr. Amy Forbes, an associate professor of history who is my advisor, has been a great person to help me along with my research project,” he said. “I value her optimism and faith in my research. Dr. Bob McElvaine, a professor of history, is another of my favorite professors.”
Evans has studied abroad in Mexico and in England, experiences that deeply influenced his study of history.
“I became fascinated with the history of Latin America, particularly Mexico,” he said. “My experience took something that I had only begun to understand in the abstract and made it real. Suddenly the places that had once seemed far off and alien became real and familiar.”
Last summer, Evans spent time in Oxford, England at St. John's College at the University of Oxford.
“I studied the history of the British Empire and the role of the World's Fair on European history,” he said. “It was incredible to not only study these fascinating subjects, but to do it in a place that is as steeped in history and tradition as St. John's College.”