Written By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

As a musician, Tyler Keith’s love of music was bound to be a part of his graduate studies. During his time in the Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Expression program, he looked at the intersection of gospel and blues in the North Mississippi Hill Country and how locality is a part of the music.

His research culminated in his thesis film, “You Got to Move: the Sacred and the Secular in the Hill Country,” and his thesis paper, “North Mississippi Hill Country Blues: How the Last Genre of the Blues Came To Be, Through Family Tradition and Documentation, in a Place Called the Hill Country.” On June 25 he successfully defended his work for his M.F.A.

“Some of my favorite groups anywhere are Rev. John Wilkins, and the Como Mamas, both from the North Mississippi Hill Country,” Keith said. “The more I looked into these artists the more I saw deep roots in the community, some that I wasn’t aware of with both artists. Although I’ve been more than familiar with the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, putting out records and touring with R. L. Burnside in the late 90s, I wasn’t completely sure about the history and beginnings of the music.”

As he investigated, his focus turned more towards the tradition of the blues through different families in the Hill Country, and what made this music appear in this particular place.

Tyler Keith
He wondered, “Was it something about the geography and landscape that made it probable?” From the beginning, his research process was to focus on personal interviews with people involved with the music of the North Mississippi Hill Country.

Keith, who earned a B.A. in English Literature and later an M.A. in Southern Studies in 2011 from the University of Mississippi, used his knowledge and familiarity with the area to his advantage.

“Luckily, the musicians and the music I wanted to record and study were here and open to discussing their music and history,” he said. “In the area and at the university, there are numerous blues scholars and historians. I interviewed them at length because I wanted to concentrate on primary sources for my research. That being said, I also used the Blues Archives and other materials available on campus for information.”

His only regret is that the M.F.A. program wasn’t in place yet right after he earned his master’s degree.
“I had a conversation with Ted Ownby one night at an event, and I expressed my interest in the M.F.A. program,” Keith said. “Not long after, he sent me an email and encouraged me to apply. I had made a film and some photography for my M.A,. so I wanted to continue that training and learn more. I had such a great experience getting my M.A. that it was really an easy decision to return.”

Other people who assisted Keith on his journey are his thesis committee Andy Harper, David Wharton, and John Rash.

Harper, Keith’s thesis advisor, said he is very excited to see his student wrap up his work in the program.

Tyler Keith (bottom right) successfully defended his M.F.A. thesis June 25.

“Tyler’s thesis project is exactly the kind thing we had in mind when we decided to create the M.F.A. in Documentary Expression,” Harper said. “In addition to some impressive primary research, Tyler has created an important film documenting the ways that the North Mississippi Hill Country blues sound has been passed on to and kept alive by the next generation of artists. On top of that, Tyler has also taken and edited an impressive collection of photographs of both the Hill Country space and the people who today call it home.”

Keith, like the others who graduated this year, had the obstacle of COVID-19 to contend with while producing his film and defending this thesis, and he is thankful to his professors and classmates for their support and encouragement.

“I love the creative atmosphere that exists at the Center, and the interaction between fellow students,” he said. “I feel like it’s a special place with so many talented people. The Center sparked my creative energy and challenged my intellect, and I have and will continue to recommend this program to anyone interested because It’s an amazing place.”