College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Soul food meets high art in student’s collard greens opera

Black-eyed peas and cornbread. Rice and gravy. Collard greens and opera.

The third pair might seem an unlikely combination, but Price Walden, a senior music major from Booneville, worked hard to pair the leafy vegetable with high art.

Walden was intrigued by the invitation from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) to elevate the status of collard greens through music and spent last summer composing “Leaves of Greens,” a Southern oratorio in three parts for the organizations’ annual symposium.

“It struck me while I was eating at my grandmother’s house one Sunday that as we Southerners eat food, it’s never just about eating food, it’s about other aspects that we don’t even realize are important to us,” Walden said.

The bulk of text for “Leaves of Greens” comes from a collection of poems titled Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems, published in the 1980s by the annual Collard Green Festival in North Carolina and is supplemented with poems and traditional hymns. Walden’s opera is scored for soloists, a choir, piano and percussion, and lasts 30 minutes.

“Each of the three parts has to do with a different aspect of how we eat food, and it has turned out to be rather touching,” Walden said. “I hope the audience thinks about collard greens and the food we eat in a different way, and realizes the social aspects of food.”

Working with the Department of Music has been a boon for the SFA.

“The Center for the Study of Southern Culture has long been a national leader in interdisciplinary scholarship and outreach,” said John T. Edge, SFA director. “The SFA, inspired by that work, tells stories about the South through food. In the last few years, we’ve worked to use multiple modes of storytelling. A couple years back, we staged a ballet performance. This year an opera seemed a logical next step.”

Expectations for “Leaves of Greens” were surpassed.

“What Price Walden has composed is a very intellectually engaged and emotionally mature look at how foodways matter and how they are enmeshed in our daily lives,” Edge said.

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