Clarksdale, Mississippi: Home of the infamous crossing of highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil so he could play a “mean” guitar. Today, Clarksdale is home to the annual Juke Joint Festival, where current Blues’ artists seduce audiences from all over the world with living, breathing Blues. Many southern spots claim bragging rights to the origin of the Blues, but the area around Clarksdale, Mississippi is the genuine home office, and the Juke Joint Festival offers plenty of evidence to support that claim.
It’s the 12th year for the Juke Joint Festival, and this year the event honors performers and Blues’ supporters who passed away during the previous year. Some of those include: Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, Martin “Big Boy” Grant, and Mrs. Myrtle Messenger. But it’s a pretty good bet that other Blues’ greats who had their beginnings in the area, such as Muddy Waters, will have had a recognizable influence on the musical style of some of the 2015 performers.
The Blues is the business at hand, but there’s plenty of “small town fair” activity available for everyone. Venues all over town, not the least of which is the Delta Blues Museum, provide hundreds of ways to experience the Blues. Music is at the top of the list of course, and it fills the air practically anywhere you wander, but there’s also plenty of soulful food, poignant local art, and interesting activity to add to the amusement.
Official festival day is Saturday, April 11, 2015, but one-of-a-kind establishments all over downtown Clarksdale will be open and eager to introduce you to the Delta on the days prior to and following that official day. Related festival activities will begin on Thursday, April 9, and there will also be related events on Sunday, April 12. Live music will be available all day Saturday on various stages throughout downtown, and numerous “joints” will be open on Saturday night.
Roger Stolle has forgotten more about the Blues than most of us will ever know. His establishment, Cat Head Blues, Inc. on Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale is unofficial Blues Headquarters, and it’s the place to find out anything you need to know about the festival—or the Blues. It’s also a great place to pick up a Blues CD or some fascinating facts about musicians and the area. Stolle, one of the festival founders, has first-hand knowledge about all the performers and venues, and is always happy to share about his passion. Likely to be “up to his blues albums” with festival logistics that weekend, he may be pretty busy when you’re there, but if that’s the case, you’ll still be provided with accurate information from any of his dedicated staff. (Cat Head Delta Blues, Inc.)
It’s completely mind boggling that small towns stuck out in the middle of cotton and bean fields could be so intriguing, but that’s just what the Mississippi Delta is. If there’s time during your visit to Clarksdale—an hour-and-a-half south of Memphis—take a little side trip another 30 minutes south to Merigold, Mississippi, home of McCarty Pottery. There you’ll get a little taste of the Delta oasis that Lee and Pup McCarty created on a city block that was once a mule barn. (McCarty Pottery) And if you happen to find yourself in Merigold—near Aligator—between 11:00 and 2:00 PM, ABSOLUTELY go to McCarty’s Gallery Restaurant on Sunflower Street. (McCarty’s Gallery Restaurant) There’s one gas station in town, so if you can’t find either the pottery or the restaurant, stop in there—they’ll know where to send you!
It’s the Mississippi Delta, it’s the Home of the Blues, and it’s the Juke Joint Festival, a festival like no other on earth. Music is the great communicator, and nothing does that better than the Blues. A musical form that grew out of pain and misery now provides beauty and connection for countless listeners. The Juke Joint Festival is the place to experience this musical phenomenon, and it’s not too late to make plans to attend!
Poster images provided by Roger Stolle / Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter