Story Jeff Clark | Photographs Sam Gause
The average music fan probably doesn’t mention The Beatles and Beethoven in the same sentence, but Columbus musician Dawn Barham isn’t your average music fan.
Born in West Point, Dawn began her self-confessed “love affair” with the guitar when she was 4. Her dad’s affection for the songs of Elvis Presley and her mom’s passion for classical compositions fueled her fascination with music. She recalls hearing “Crazy on You” by Seattle-rockers Heart for the first time and fondly remembers its being the song that changed her life.
“That song really got me,” Barham said. “It had that big ’70s guitar sound. I had to learn to play guitar after hearing that song. [Heart guitarist] Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite guitarists. She has a classical guitar background.”
Dawn shares that classical background.
“At the same time I was starting to take guitar lessons, I was also playing flute in the middle school band,” she said. “I was as equally smitten with classical music as I was rock ’n’ roll.”
After graduating from West Point High School in 1982, Dawn’s rock music aspirations grew stronger. While on a senior trip to Panama City, she decided to try and make her dreams reality. While her classmates were partying on the Emerald Coast, Dawn was focusing on what she hoped would become her career.
“The early ’80s was the time of the big cover bands,” she said. “Oh, my God, these bands had 18-wheelers hauling their big sound systems around — they were the thing. I knew of a band based out of Panama City — I can’t even remember the name anymore. Anyway, I found them in Florida and tried out for the band. They told me to pack my suitcase and get ready to hit the road. I couldn’t wait to call my mama and tell her.”
But Dawn never told her mother about landing the big gig.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
“When I called my mom to tell her I was leaving home to join a touring rock band, she stopped me before I could even open my mouth to tell me I had been accepted on a full scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi to study music. She never knew I was about to run off and join a rock band,” recalled Barham.
While at USM, Dawn studied classical guitar under virtuoso Giovanni DeChiaro. After years of pursuing her love of the Fender Telecaster, her musical focus began to shift.
“I sold every one of my electric guitars. I decided, if I’m going to play classical guitar, I’m going to play classical guitar,” she said.
With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from USM, Dawn landed a job teaching music in the New Hope Schools in Columbus. Four years later, she found her proverbial calling in life as the director of music curriculum at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) on the campus of Mississippi University for Women.
“After New Hope, I started teaching at MSMS, and I’ve been there 18 years. I love my job. These children are brilliant. The advantage for me is that music is an elective at MSMS and my kids want to be there. The weird thing is I have a 50-percent turnover rate every year because it’s a two-year school,” Barham said with a laugh. “Teaching music is frenzied, but it’s never stagnant.”
From The Dawn Barham Band to the long-lasting Juke Joint Gypsies, Barham is still pursuing her passion for music. In an NPR interview before his death, guitar legend Jerry Garcia was asked what he wanted to do before he died, to which he replied, “Learn how to play the guitar.” Dawn shared the same humility when asked about her love for music.
“Oh, my God, I’ve been blessed,” she said. “I’m not a brilliant musician, but thank God, I love working at it.”