There’s no question that Mississippi is the birthplace of the American blues, and its Mississippi Blues Trail network of highway markers is an ongoing effort to commemorate the genre greats who came from the magnolia state. The trail, which currently has around 100 markers, has begun to sprinkle markers in places outside of Mississippi that are part of that state’s musical heritage. This summer, one of these markers will be erected in downtown Rockland.

Paul Benjamin, co-founder and co-producer of the North Atlantic Blues Festival and past president of the Blues Foundation, got word April 9 that Rockland would receive a marker. He said he is still amazed.

“They don’t give these things to just anybody. There are a lot of places that deserve it, but they haven’t been able to find one person involved with the history enough to put it together,” said Benjamin.

He is that person when it comes to the history of the Mississippi blues in Rockland. In 1978, Benjamin was a bouncer at the long-gone Golden Spike. A rock ‘n’ roll band scheduled to play canceled its gig and a Boston promoter offered to send the club the Mississippi-born, Chicago-based Eddie Shaw and his band the Wolf Gang.

“Bobby Peterson and Tim Carey were the owners and we talked about it. We figured, we didn’t have anyone, so why not,” said Benjamin.

The decision could easily have gone the other way. Maine was even less diverse then than it is now, and Shaw’s band was a five-piece outfit of black guys from Chicago. When they first showed up at the club, a favorite hangout of bikers, racial epithets were uttered. Benjamin, as bouncer, laid down the law and Shaw and band began to lay down the blues. By the end of the night, they had completely won over the tough crowd.

“We got along so well, we booked them again and I started going down to Boston to see him. I started booking him at different places — the Trade Winds, the old Black Pearl, we put together a couple of rooms at the Navigator, even my backyard,” said Benjamin.

Shaw, meanwhile, began spreading the word about Rockland to fellow Chicago musicians and they began adding a trek up the coast of Maine around dates in Boston and Montreal. The first Rockland blues festival, not yet solidified as the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Harbor Park, took place in the Trade Winds parking lot and it is here Benjamin hopes the Mississippi Blues Trail marker will be placed, in one of the small grassy islands along Park Drive past the iconic rusty lobster.

“My first blues club was at the Trade Winds; every one of the blues artists who have come through has stayed at the Trade Winds; and in 1990, we had the first festival in the parking lot, so it seems the best place,” said Benjamin.

The marker is a handsome blue sign with historical information, embedded photos and a GPS beacon. Benjamin is beginning the process of putting together documentation of the blues’ 32-year relationship with Rockland, but it will be up to the Mississippi Blues Trail committee to determine what is included on the city’s marker. One of the reasons Rockland got noticed for the honor is Mississippi Blues Foundation member Janet Webb, who has a summer place on Islesboro and has attended the North Atlantic Blues Festival.

Benjamin said he hopes Shaw, who is on the list for his own upcoming marker in Mississippi, will be on the Rockland marker, but there are plenty of other Mississippi blues connections in contention. For example, the late Little Milton’s final gig was headlining the 2005 blues festival, and Lil’ Dave Thompson played the Time Out Pub days before his fatal car crash this winter. There are currently 96 markers in Mississippi and 10 of them are for musicians who have performed in Rockland.

“There are 96 in Mississippi; one in Helena, Ark., where ‘King Biscuit Time’ began; one on Beale Street in Memphis; one in Chicago; one in Alabama [Muscle Shoals]; and the next one will be in Rockland,” said Benjamin.

Benjamin said he has already spoken with the city manager, “who’s all excited about it,” and will need to get the location and sign cleared with the code enforcement officer and other official entities, but he doesn’t expect any difficulties. He hopes the unveiling will take place the week before this year’s North Atlantic Blues Festival, co-produced with Jamie Isaacson, July 10 and 11.

“We’ll have some dignitaries coming up from Mississippi and locally too. I hope we can get the governor and local legislators. This is a really big thing for Maine,” he said, adding there likely will be a public party with a couple of blues bands after the ceremony.

Benjamin said when he was introduced to the blues 32 years ago, he had no idea where it would take him and this community. It has been quite a ride so far.

“Here we are, the whitest state in the nation, getting a Mississippi Blues Trail marker … I’m really proud for Maine and especially for Rockland,” he said.

For a B.B. King-narrated video and complete information on the Mississippi Blues Trail, visit msbluestrail.org.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to dernest@villagesoup.com.