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Willy Bearden is a Memphis-based filmmaker, photographer, author and producer. His documentary films include: Visualizing the Blues, The Story of Cotton, A History of Memphis Garage Bands, Overton Park, Elmwood Cemetery, Horn Island Journal, Project 366, The Perea Project, 100 Years of Juvenile Court, and The View From Adams Avenue. His museum projects include The Blues Hall of Fame, The Tunica RiverPark, The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum, Gateway to the Blues Museum, The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, and the Memphis Wonders Series. He is the chairman and a founding member of the annual Delta Symposium held at the University of Memphis. He is the recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts presented by the College of Communication and Fine Arts at the University of Memphis. Bearden regularly participates on film and writing panels, and presents at fifteen to twenty public speaking engagements each year. Other honors include the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award, and the Paul Coppock Award for Outstanding Contributions to West Tennessee History.
He is the author of three books: Cotton, From Southern Fields to the Memphis Market; Overton Park; and Memphis Blues, Birthplace of a Music Tradition. Bearden is also a 30 year veteran of the live event production business. He has produced the Blues Music Awards since 1998, the inaugural Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Mississippi Salute to the Grammys since 2007. In the summer of 2010, Mr. Bearden released his first feature film, One Came Home. Bearden grew up in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in the Deep Delta.
Storytelling is my business
I have learned that most things are not important until they are said out loud. I feel as if my artistic journey over the past fifteen years has allowed me to say many things out loud. By “out loud” I mean making films accessible to the general public by having them broadcast on television and available on the internet. One of the most rewarding results of my work has been an enthusiastic interest in local and regional history. It is refreshing to hear people discussing our culture and our history as easily as talking about sports, or the weather.
After my first documentary, Visualizing the Blues, was broadcast on WKNO in Memphis, I received a call from historian and writer Shelby Foote, praising my film and encouraging me to do more of that kind of work. Thus began our friendship. After that initial conversation, Mr. Foote and I talked on the phone after each of my films premiered on television. I felt as if Mr. Foote gave me his blessing, and permission to do this kind of work. He told me a lot about being true to your art, and not compromising just to please someone who might have control of the purse strings, but mostly he talked about the power of storytelling. Those lessons resonate with me to this day, and I think about the gift I was given by this fine gentleman.
In recognition of my body of work, and my commitment to the creative community, I was the 2011 recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts by the College of Communications and Fine Arts of the University of Memphis. But more than an award, it was a validation that art can change a community for the better.
I believe in the power of storytelling. It can change a mind, broaden a view, and bestow the priceless gift of knowledge. I want to continue to spur the conversation, to elevate the notion that we all have responsibilities when it comes to telling our stories, preserving our past and securing our future.