The official excuse for the horrendous changes at this year’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale is that it costs money to bring in a “big name” like Robert Plant. The committee chairman is also quoted in local media saying that this year’s festival was a “success” and that the festival will be looking to bring in another “big name” for next year, which will likely mean another year of fences, barricades and no access to the stage, even though the performers on stage were the reason that people like us kept coming.
We are the fans of the blues. We never asked for “big names” like Robert Plant. No disrespect to him, but he’s not who I come to see when I drive to Mississippi for the blues. I would have been content to see Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, or Jimbo Mathus, or Super Chikan, or Afrissippi, or Eric Deaton, or L. C. Ulmer. How about Garry Burnside, or Dewayne Burnside, or Kenny Kimbrough? Maybe Luther and Cody Dickinson, or Lil Joe Ayers, or Kenny Brown. Perhaps Cassandra Wilson. There’s enough homegrown talent in Mississippi and nearby Memphis or Helena to keep Sunflower’s stage jumping without resorting to the importation of a “big name” from overseas or another part of the country, then denying us access to the stage because of the need to make more money to deal with the increased cost incurred by bringing in the “big name.”
Bigger is not always better. I would rather see three stages of local and regional artists around the downtown area, with all the fences and barricades gone, than a big name artist on one stage from a distance unless I’m willing to pay $250-1000 for a table, not to mention the $20 parking costs this year.
The blues was never uptown, bourgeois or corporate. It was raw and informal, and it was this very rawness and informality that attracted us to the music, and to Clarksdale. We don’t need the Sunflower festival to become another Beale Street Music Festival. Those festivals may have their place, but that is not what we come to Clarksdale for. Enough already with the “big names” we never asked for and don’t need. The majesty and supremacy of the Delta blues is enough.