Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale, MS, April 15, 2010

By Karen Nugent
April 2010

OK, I know I ragged on Clarksdale after my trip there a few years ago, but I also pointed out that it must be different when there is a festival going on. This turned out to be so true. Last month’s Juke Joint Festival drew approximately 4,000 folks to indoor and outdoor venues featuring some of the Delta’s finest blues acts. One cannot say enough about the authentic feel of this event, which is very different from the usual blues festival. This is more about the venues—juke joints, Clarksdale, the Delta itself —and their history.

Let’s start with Red’s Lounge. Last time, not only was it closed during our entire stay, it was in danger of being shuttered for good because of a roof leak and other...structural problems. This time, you could barely squeeze into the place it was so packed (and it seems the roof has been fixed).

Big Jack Johnson, a harp player with a swampy sound, was the crowd-thrilling headliner. Even more thrilled was owner Red himself, who was sitting out front with a big wad of cash in his hand, and an even bigger grin on his face. The other well-known indoor venue was, of course, the Ground Zero Blues Club, which had Clarksdale’s own Super Chikan for the main act and guitar slinger Stacy Mitchart the night before the festival.

Hopson’s plantation, a few miles out of town and home of the infamous “Shack Up Inn,” had three indoor venues. One of them, the “juke joint chapel,” was the scene of my favorite festival show: Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, who varied a bit from their usual hill country sound with some Delta and Chicago blues. They brought the house down at the end of the festival, which officially is only one day (Saturday) but has related events and music beginning Thursday.

Downtown Clarksdale encompasses only about three pretty shoddy looking city blocks (a revitalization effort is underway, and its organization sponsored a few events). I did notice that a few more stores and restaurants have opened, and some sprucing up has been happening. With at least 20 venues (more if you include the solo musicians including Worcester’s Jon Short who played on a train that went back and forth between historic Clarksdale Station and Hopson’s Saturday night), there’s a heck of a lot to hear. At night, there were 17 different joints with live music--from the Ground Zero at the heart of the festival to Hicks Hot Tamales and BBQ (best ribs ever, according to the husband) a little way out of the downtown. In town, there was music in a bakery, a pizza parlor, and an art gallery.

The day time line-up was just as impressive: a total of ten outdoor music stages, all brilliant in the bright Delta sunshine. In fact, the point of the festival is to celebrate the arrival of spring. The music is combined with a sort of country fair complete with racing pigs, funnel cakes, and something called “Monkeys Riding Dogs” which I never did get to see. You can spend more money on blues art work, CDs and records, and T-shirts.

The stars of Saturday’s outdoor shows included many of the Delta favorites, including Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a Delta-born guitarist with his own juke joint; Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, Eddie Cusic, Blind MS Morris, and L.C. Ulmer. Two Delta blues legends, T-Model Ford and Honeyboy Edwards, were on hand. T-Model, in his 80s, recently played in Somerville at a BBS-sponsored sold out show. On the nearby Delta Blues Museum Stage, an older bluesman ran a session featuring museum students, some as young as nine, as spectators relaxed on a grassy field. This event also involved a Berklee (yes, the Boston-based Berklee School of Music) scholarship presentation and an exchange program performance.

One of the more popular street acts, and they seemed to be all over the place, was the Porkchop Willie Band. Their driving North Mississippi hill country sound, a style becoming increasingly popular, was made all the more interesting with Melissa Tong on fiddle, and David Kimbrough—of the Junior Kimbrough family—on bass.

Another pleasant surprise was the 19th Street Rhythm Band, whose guitarist-singer had a Howlin’ Wolf thing going on. They were outside of the Ground Zero all afternoon. The Scissormen, another hill country band based in Nashville, featured the entertaining Ted Drozdowski, formerly of Boston, on guitar and vocals and backed only by a drummer. Another guy with Boston connections is Watermelon Slim, who played outside of Cathead. It turns out Slim (a.k.a. Bill Homans), once a regular at the Cantab, has relocated to Clarksdale!

I think this festival, now in its seventh year, will become increasingly popular. Make your reservations now.

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