Opinion: ‘Let there be songs to fill the air’

Starkville's newest street piano in front of The Pop Porium on Main Street (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)


From the first time I heard the opening guitar lick from the 90s Nirvana tune “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I’ve been a firm believer in the power of music. 

Anyone who halfway knows me will tell you I can ramble on for hours about a single album or type of guitar. But the potential of music reaches far past small talk over beer and cigarettes. 

This past week in downtown Starkville, a third street piano was rolled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Pop Porium on Main Street. In the short time that Lynn Spruill has been mayor, I believe it is safe to say there have been more random tunes filling the air downtown than any other time in the city’s history, thanks in part to the support from City Hall.  

I could rant in colorful, abstract terms about how music has saved my life time and again and molded me into the person I am. But for the eggheads who have no interest in music and only listen to talk radio, I think it’s important to note that one report from the Harvard Medical School says researchers have “speculated that listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the right half of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher functions. According to this construct, music — or at least some forms of music — acts as an ‘exercise’ that warms up selected brain cells, allowing them to process information more efficiently.”

It’s a small example, but I would venture to guess that even someone leaning on a street piano and listening to someone play ‘Chopsticks’ could see more cognitive benefits than they would if the opportunity were not present at all. 

On the macro-community level, a recent video posted by Starkville Community Theatre underscored the blending of the arts and the community at large, as roughly a dozen or so actors gathered around the street piano to sing songs as the sun went down as they prepared for a recent performance. 

Am I wrong to say a contribution this small can radically improve the perception and quality of life in any downtown? 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a culturally-rich place like Starkville, but the idea of public music installations has caught on in the last year and received positive reception from young, old, rich and poor. 

I have even fielded some comments about the concept spreading to different parts of the Golden Triangle, and can’t think of any better place than West Point for the area’s next street piano. 

Clay County, the birthplace of blues legend Chester Arthur Burnett, also known by his stage name Howlin’ Wolf, is obviously a different entity altogether from Starkville, but is no less primed for continued growth as far as the community’s musical fabric is concerned. 

As more jobs from companies like PECO Foods bring in new money and raise the quality of life in Clay County, the economic resurgence should be complimented by a rich cultural identity for area, the groundwork for which has more than been established already. 

While it’s still in the conceptual stage, the folks in charge of organizing the Black Prairie Blues Festival are hoping to turn the former Bank of West Point building in the city’s downtown into a regional blues museum. 

If this lofty project can come to fruition, then I can’t think of a better place to start in Point City. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a street piano, either. 

West Point, like Starkville, is brimming with talented artists who are actively looking for ways to make their communities more vibrant by adding new sights, sounds and scenes that may not have been considered 10 or 15 years ago. 

But as both cities see new art installations pop up like murals and public musical instruments, it’s important that this does not become a passing fad. 

Throughout the Golden Triangle, the bigger communities all have active leaders who drive the artistic scenes forward and these small cities have the chance to really add character to the day-to-day lives of their citizens by brainstorming creative ways to add culture to the city streets. 

While creative ways of driving revenue or improving infrastructure might be met with opposition, I think we can all agree that there’s no such thing as too much culture. 

I encourage citizens across the Golden Triangle to be active in their arts community, even if it’s just providing suggestions. 

Mayor Spruill, for example, has told me she couldn’t draw a stick, but that hasn’t stopped her from being a vocal champion for the arts. 

When I caught up with her on the one-year anniversary of being sworn in to office, she cited the city’s first street piano as her proudest accomplishment due to the sense of community it has fostered by doing nothing more than sitting idle on a sidewalk waiting for someone to play it. 

To give credit where credit is due, the pianos were donated (in this order) by Jim McKell, Jeremiah Dumas, and Patti Drapala, all of whom deserve the city’s gratitude for their contributions. 

So what are we waiting for? 

In every individual Golden Triangle community, surely there is an abundance of old pianos from Sears and Roebuck sitting in attics and storage rooms doing nothing but collecting dust. And I encourage every town from Eupora to Columbus, and beyond, to roll them out and work toward finding innovative ways to bring music to the streets. 

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either newspaper or their staffs.