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Sweet, hopeful sounds in the Delta 

HELENA — First and always, it's the music. The sustaining memory from the annual blues festival over the weekend will be of sitting mesmerized amid a gentle cooling breeze on the Mississippi River levee late Thursday night. Fayetteville's Cate Brothers, Ernie and Earl and their band mates, flawlessly dished out a quintessentially Arkansas musical stew of blues and mellifluous soul and mild rock and maybe a hint of country.

“Is this blues?” a woman asked, not at all critically, but with earnest curiosity. I said it was blues-based and that practically all the American music of our lives was blues-based, which is kind of the point of this festival.

She seemed to be pondering that when, a few yards away, the music and drink inspired a man to rise and cut a wide swath of improvisational dancing, a near-gracefulness, actually, interrupted only by his falling hard backward inches from other festival-goers. He popped up unhurt, or at least unaware.

But there were other sounds of note that were not strictly musical — things political, environmental, educational, economic. In attendance at the VIP party, into which I ventured by knowing somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, was a large and oddly engaging man of silver hair who, they told me, conceivably could be the next governor of Mississippi.

This was Bill Luckett, highly successful business and trial lawyer from Clarksdale, the legendary “crossroads” of the Delta blues, just down the road over the river.

Luckett is now perhaps best known as the partner of actor Morgan Freeman in that upscale restaurant, Madidi, and adjoining blues club, Ground Zero, in a restored historic building in Clarksdale.

Luckett is a progressive Democrat and racial reconciler who thinks he might be the guy to lead Mississippi after Haley Barbour is term-limited at the end of 2011. Some Arkansas folks have befriended Luckett through acquaintances made at his restaurant and they will put on a fund-raiser for his political action committee in Little Rock in a few weeks.

Tim Richardson, government affairs director for the American Land Conservancy, cornered me to talk about the ALC's purchase of Buck Island, a wilderness Mississippi River island about a mile out from the Helena Harbor. The idea is to get an agency or agencies of government to take over its management for preservation and primitive recreational use. Richardson said the area along the Mississippi River is as rich a natural ecosystem as the Everglades, but that the Everglades gets a lot more money.

This natural richness in a going-green culture is a potential boon for Delta investment and tourism, he said.

By the way, Richardson said there are more bears than people along the river from Helena south to Arkansas City.

Dr. Steven Murray, chancellor of the local Phillips County Community College of the University of Arkansas system, told me about his school's typical student. She's 27, has kids, works at Wal-Mart and wants to better herself to become a nurse, a teacher or bank official.

That will require, he says, that she be able to get a four-year education while staying there in Helena.

It could happen through modern technology and maybe circuit-riding professors of business and education.

I told Murray that the most misdirected and arrogant columns I ever wrote — which is saying something — were those a few years ago about how we ought to shut down many of these proliferating community colleges.

He did not disagree with my self-criticism and remembered that I once referred to his school as less than a branch of the UA System, and more like a twig.

Murray wondered if I was ever intending to admit my error in a column. So now I have.

Finally, the KIPP School on Cherry Street, which I have extolled at every opportunity since Mike Beebe took me there seven years ago when he was attorney general, goes strong. The charter school's inaugural class of fifth graders, the ones I met on Beebe's escort, graduated last spring. All the graduates are in college.

I recall wondering on that visit years ago if the name of the school, the Delta College Preparatory School, was pretentious or hollow. It was neither. It was simply descriptive.

Can poor Delta kids learn? Of course they can. Why would anyone have ever wondered otherwise?

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