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Music, meaning, and the return

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An exploration of the origin of his deeply rooted connection with music, Jeff Mims, a doctoral student at Saybrook, delves into his family background and finds larger meaning.

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By Jeff Mims

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The year was 1984, the day was Sunday, December 9, and the band was live in concert, performing “The Holy Ghost Fell on Me.” The band was in a state of peak performance with no sign of slowing down.

All the while Pamela, the guitar player’s wife, was going into labor in the first row, desperately trying to signal to her husband Jeff what was happening. He recognized her anxiety, but the band continued, playing with intensity. It was as if the harder they performed, the harder the baby kicked. Once they finished, Jeff turned to his wife and whispered, “Can we play just one more song?”

I was born hours later at Presbyterian Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. When I was old enough to sit and listen, my parents told this story time and time again. I wondered what was so incredible about this experience—performing music live before an audience—that made my father not want to leave? Perhaps he was experiencing a sort of satori (Zen) awakening or enlightenment as a result of playing music. Maybe my father had the understanding that entering such a state requires a sort of mastering of the creative process that is worth staying in for as long as possible, even if just for a moment more.


Exploring family through music

Photo of the Pilgrim Wonders, 1961
My grandfather John H. Mims (third from left), lead singer of the Pilgrim Wonders gospel singers, in Galesburg, Illinois, 1961

Composing and performing music is a tradition within my family that dates back to at least the 1940s in the Deep South. Revisiting this history, I am reminded of how music has always shown up for me. It has undeniably deeply impacted my creative process in a way that serves a reminder of who I am—even from within the womb.

Hearing stories about my grandfather and his band traveling throughout the Deep South, living through experiences in the face of racial injustice, has stayed with me over the years. He would say things like, “And man, when we began to sang, folks would shout and fall all over the place. It was a good time, and then we’d go on to the next show.” My grandparents John and Helena were both singers and she, a pianist as well. I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t present in the lives of my family. It has always been our way of sharing stories about life and love for our creator.

Historically in the Deep South, creating healing environments with music as a way of survival was a common practice. In the African American tradition, this style of music is referred to as spirituals, which describes the songs and hymns sung by slaves as early as the 18th century. Quartet gospel music historically emerged out of Deep South spirituals. As one can imagine, chaos was ever present, and finding new opportunities for using music as a way to heal became a way of life for many.


My grandfather, John H. Mims: Life during Jim Crow

Performing across the Midwest and throughout the Deep South, my grandfather’s band, the Pilgrim Wonders, was more than just a singing group. They created and performed music during a time of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Traveling what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit (a network of black audiences and venues), they provided a sense livelihood and purpose.

Vinyl of "Smoothin' Out the Rough Way"
“Smoothin’ Out the Rough Way” by the Pilgrim Wonders single on 45 RPM vinyl, Fredlo Records, Davenport, Iowa, 1967

John, my grandfather, was the lead singer. He would share stories about what it meant to travel and perform during this time. Stories of traveling the back roads of the Jim Crow South at night in between performances in order to get to the next destination—that was just a part of what it took to be able to perform. Music offered a way for the Pilgrim Wonders to collaborate, bond, and respond to racism in a way that offered healing by escaping through the music. Sharing their gifts provided a similar effect for audiences who needed to see themselves in a positive image.

One of the band’s songs became quite popular. The Pilgrim Wonders wrote “Smoothin’ out the Rough Way” during a car ride between concerts. My grandpa told me the song was born out of an organic experience while driving in a rain storm with the request that God smooth out the rough way so they could make it by. It later became a famous gospel song, recorded by a major group, but the Pilgrim Wonders never received credit. However, it was performed in many places and resonated with many people.


Mims family in 1968
The Mims family (from bottom left, Jeffrey, John, O’nell, and Shirlene; back row, Helena and John) pictured in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1968. My grandfather John was a Baptist pastor known for his angelic singing voice; Helena, my grandmother, played the piano and sang in the church as well. My father, Jeffrey, was a beginning level guitar player at the time.

My father, Jeffrey Mims: Growing up

I had the pleasure of interviewing my father in 2015. Of the many questions I asked him, one still sticks out in my mind today: “When did you first realize your purpose in life?” He answered, “The first time I heard live music. I had to be about 6 or 7 years old. I remember the Pilgrim Wonders were practicing at our house, and the guitar player was playing a cherry red Gibson SG (guitar). Man, it blew me away. I knew then, this is what I’m going to do. My dad bought me a guitar, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

For some, it takes a lifetime to experience a moment of affirmation such as this. For my dad, it happened in a single moment in his first deeply felt experience with music. He went on to play guitar professionally and write and produce music.

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My dad married my mother Pam, and later they moved to Oklahoma City. Not long after, they established friendships with other musicians and artists in the community. It was here my father began an independent record label to produce and record music while carrying on the tradition of creative expression. I remember learning songs and beginning to play drums in our music room by age 4. Performing before an audience became a normal part of my childhood as we were often times introduced as “Little Jeff and the Mims Family.”


Me, Jeffrey Jr. Mims: Following my music intuition

By the age of 5, I was the lead singer of The Mims Family band. We recorded our first album “Christian Home” on the family-owned label Shivon Records & Management Co. We performed for many years and produced multiple musical recordings that embodied elements of our faith and gratitude for our life experiences.

Mims family in 1989
The Mims Family Bang (from left to right, Jeff Sr., Jeff Jr., my sister Shannon, and my mother Pamela), Oklahoma City, 1989

By 2009, I had recorded with several artists ranging from jazz to hip-hop. This was the first independent album I created with all original music and lyrics. It was a period piece with respect to a moment in my life during which music felt like it was flowing out of me. After years of performing and playing music with other artists, I felt the time to share my original work had arrived. My first independent album, Journal Entry, was released June 25, 2009.

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The Mims family: Across three generations 

In April 2016, my 2-year-old son performed live, and it was the last time I would perform and share the stage with my dad. Three generations of musical creators bonded not only by music but also by blood. Sharing this experience on stage was one I will never forget.

Band photo in 2016
Jeff Mims Band (Jeff Jr. center, Jeff Sr. second from the right) is pictured at the Oklahoma Arts Festival in Oklahoma City in April 2016. This picture documents a historical event and is cherished among our family’s archival records.

As a lifelong musician and ancestor of music creators, I am now learning more about my life’s purpose—using music as a way to help people heal. For me, the return home to a place of a newfound awareness of my life’s purpose was nourishing creatively. Beginning with my grandfather’s inspiration and love for music, a deeply rooted connection was inherited, cherished, and then handed down to my father. This was evidenced in the intimate moments when my dad would play guitar as my grandfather sang. As we made music together, emotions ran high, and tears would flow from their faces as everything wrong was made right. This connection of musical expression is still shared among our family as each generation inherits this familiar gift.

I have found that I am empowered in understanding the creative ways music has been a part of my family. I take pride in knowing I belong to a culture that has traditionally created healing environments by using music as a way to promote well-being and respond to life experiences. This has forced me to observe and analyze our family’s history of creative process in relation to the music, meaning, and its larger purpose in my own life.

Author's son at recital
My son Ahadu, age 5, carrying on the tradition of his ancestors, performed his first piano recital in May 2019 at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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Author and his son onstage
My son Ahadu, age 2, and I, Oklahoma Arts Festival, Oklahoma City, April 2016

About the author: Jeff Mims is a Ph.D. student in the Psychology, Creativity Studies Specialization at Saybrook University. He is interested in exploring the experience of being in the pocket for professional musicians. Specifically, he wishes to learn more about the way people experience musical performances and the role it plays in relation to well-being. As a lifelong musician and ancestor of music creators, Jeff is now learning more about his life's purpose: using music as a way to help people heal. 

 

 

 


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