Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
Robert Kimbrough is one of the many sons of the late legendary bluesman Junior Kimbrough, and a frequent performer at the Juke Joint Fest each year in Clarksdale. This year, he performed on the Cat Head stage in front of Roger Stolle’s Cat Head Delta Blues shop, and after his set posed for a picture with two of his brothers that are also musicians, Kent (a drummer) and David (a guitarist). Robert Kimbrough has also released a new album this year called It’s Your World.
When Roger Stolle moved to Clarksdale and opened Cat Head as a retail record store, art gallery and book store, he filled a gap that had been created by Jim O’Neal’s departure from Clarksdale and the resulting shutdown of the Stackhouse Delta Blues Mart and its Rooster Blues Records label. Cat Head remains a wonderful store, full of vinyl, CD’s, folk art, T-shirts, posters and books, and has also become a record label, and a source for blues information about not only the Mississippi Delta, but elsewhere in the state as well. These days, Stolle continues to give back to the music he loves so much, running a blues show on XM Radio, producing a webcasted blues reality show Moonshine & Mojo Hands and producing wonderful documentaries like We Juke Up In Here. Cat Head should be any blues lover’s first stop on arriving in Clarksdale.
Unfortunately, the ultimate theme of the film is the ways in which the Mississippi juke joints are dying out and fading, and so the movie focuses ultimately on one, the legendary Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale owned by Red Paden, a juke that simply has refused to die. So ultimately, We Juke is a bittersweet film, beautiful in its celebration of Mississippi’s African-American folklore, but with the ominous clouds of loss looming on the horizon.
After the screening, Roger graciously took our questions and discussed some of the making of the film.