Clarksdale rarely gets mentioned in the same context as South Beach Miami, the Vegas Strip, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but once a year, in April, people from all over the world flood to the Mississippi Delta for three days of great blues, arts, crafts and food. The Juke Joint Festival has grown from humble beginnings to become the largest festival in Clarksdale, surpassing the older Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and it is not unusual to hear all kinds of foreign accents along Delta Avenue on the weekend of the festival. Not only is Juke Joint Festival a world of fun, but the overwhelming majority of it is free of charge. The night shows on Saturday require a $10 wristband, which is a real bargain when compared to the price of a ticket to the average American music festival. For the lover of blues and American roots culture, Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is not to be missed.
Easter Sunday afternoon after church proved to be an absolutely beautiful day, so I headed first down to the Blue Note on Beale Street in Memphis where my homeboy Tune had started working to try the food there, and had a bacon cheeseburger, which I can truly say is the best burger on Beale Street. Then, with nothing else to do for the day, I decided to head down into the Mississippi Delta with my camera, taking pictures and finally ending up at The Blue Biscuit, Trish Berry’s excellent restaurant in Indianola. Two things stood out about my trip overall that afternoon, one of them the extent to which many of the Delta towns’ business district are basically ghost towns, all too many of them collapsed into absolute ruins, even though the towns themselves are still inhabited. The other thing that I noticed was the groups of young people walking in many of these places, still dressed in their finest clothes. In a few of the towns, family reunions and gatherings were going on either in private yards or parks. At Drew, for the first time, I saw walls and makeshift shrines commemorating young people who had been murdered, yet Ruleville looked cleaner and more prosperous, and families had gathered in its park to enjoy the afternoon. Nearby, on the stretch of Front Street traditionally nicknamed “Greasy Street”, two clubs were jumping, the venerable Club Black Castle which I remember from WCLE radio broadcasts back in the day, and the more grown folks-oriented Main Event next door. But at the next town of Sunflower, something else was going on altogether. The town seemed abuzz with young people the moment I entered it. They seemed to be in yards, in parks and on every corner, in what seemed to be a festive mood, so I gave little thought to them as I headed downtown to start photographing old and historic buildings. Sunflower, which was an historic battleground in the Civil Rights Movement (the legendary Fannie Lou Hamer was from nearby Ruleville), is home to a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee offshoot called the Sunflower County Freedom Project, which has taken over the row of historic buildings along the railroad downtown. However, I noticed almost immediately that Gangster Disciples graffiti had been spray-painted on the back of a stop sign, and not long thereafter, I heard police sirens heading into the downtown area. Apparently a brawl had broken out between two young women, in which bystanders had soon joined in. I parked my car outside a juke joint called Club Wide Open, as people gathered on the corner to see what was going on. “Oh, boy! Look at them run”, said a man from the club as a group of young men came running from the neighborhoods to the north toward the corner of Quiver and Martin Luther King where the fight had broken out. As I walked in that direction, I noticed pieces of hair weave strewn along the street, presumably from the fight, but as I got to the corner, I realized that the town police had sprayed pepper spray, and I caught some of it, so I prudently made my way back to my car. The remaining crowd seemed reluctant to disperse. “I want to know who jumped my muthafuckin cousin!” one young man kept yelling repeatedly, and I realized that the problems stirred up by the fight were likely to persist all night, so I got back to my car and headed on to Indianola.
It was nearly sundown when I reach Indianola, but there was just time for me to get some beautiful shots of the sun going down over Indian Bayou. The B. B. King Museum was closed, as was Club Ebony and 308 Blues Club (whose owner had been found dead earlier in the month), but the Blue Biscuit was open, and there was a decent crowd inside although there was no live music on Easter Sunday. I ordered my favorite meal there, biscuits and barbecue, which is exactly what it says it is, pulled pork placed between the halves of four buttermilk biscuits. It is truly incredible, and something that has to be tried to be believed. Afterwards, I made a drive around Indianola, but found very little going on, and called my DJ partner Bigg V to see if he knew where things were jumping off, but I couldn’t reach him either, so I started the drive back to Memphis. I considered stopping off at the Black Castle in Ruleville, but having to work in the morning, I thought better of it, and drove on into Memphis.
The Juke Joint Festival is one of Clarksdale’s two big music-related events each year, and the one I find the most enjoyable. The weather is perfect, many of the daytime events are free, and there’s no tents or roped-off areas to spoil your view of the performers on stage. It’s likely too late to get a room in Clarksdale, but it’s not too late to get a room in Tunica, Memphis, Cleveland, Indianola, Batesville etc. and drive over, and it’s definitely worth it. If you’ve never been, think of Juke Joint Festival as a South By Southwest of the blues and you’ve got the picture. A schedule of official and unofficial events can be found at http://www.jukejointfestival.com/fest_events.php. See you there.
Like Memphis, Mississippi has increasingly tried to leverage its musical heritage into increased tourism and/or film production, so they also had a trade show exhibit highlighting the blues. Festivals that feature blues drive a considerable amount of the state’s tourism, particularly in the Delta region.