Clarksdale, Mississippi, is situated at the legendary "crossroads" of blues fame, where Highway 51 and Highway 49 meet, the magical spot where, it is said, Robert Johnson claimed to have made a deal with the devil for the gift of playing the blues. It sits deep in the delta, where dark-skinned slaves and later sharecroppers bent their backs to make White men rich. While they worked from "dark to dark" six days a week, when night fell on the weekends, African-American bluesmen donned the black hats and black threadbare suits they made famous and sang the anguish of their people into smoky night air in sweaty, jam-packed shacks called "jukes." If God wouldn't just reach down and lift his people out of their pain or strike down their White oppressors where they stood, at least the blues could touch their bodies and comfort their suffering souls, helping them to survive the longest lasting onslaught against one group of people in human history.
Despite Clarksdale's size (it only has about 20,000 residents even now), multiple generations of unrelieved local agony has produced the likes of Eddie "Son" House, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and Eddie "Bongo" Brown (one of the Funk Brothers, the group now attributed with almost single-handedly creating the Motown sound -- only to remain anonymous until recent years). Nevertheless, it wasn't until the last decade that the White business community in Clarksdale finally and fully admitted, accepted and even embraced the hamlet's reputation (and capitalistic promise) as the Blues Capitol of the World.
And this weekend, I attended, as you already know, the 21st Sunflower River Blues Festival there.
Needless to say, it was FAR too rich an experience to cover in only one post, so I'll offer you this overview and then post twice more later in the week -- once on Willie King and the Liberators and once on Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Band, both having stories so fascinating and talent so huge, I just couldn't put it all together without making this a book.
My running buddies and I didn't arrive in Clarksdale until late Friday night, so we decided to forego the evening's activities and just get some sleep, which turned out to be a wise choice because things started early on Saturday and, though you couldn't get it all, you would certainly want to get all you could.
When I first started down East 2nd Street about 8:45 a.m., looking for breakfast, I only saw one man out in the street with me. He was wearing two cameras and a big smile, introduced himself as St. Louis Frank and served as a human directory of immediately helpful information. Like where to get a really great country breakfast for six bucks while listening to live blues (the Blueberry Cafe in the refurbished train depot).
I heard Wiley "Tater" Foster (dressed as the old time bluesman he is), Robert Belfour (dressed to the nines), and Terry "Big T" Williams (above), who turned out to be one of my favorites. I saw Big T at the Depot backing Arthniece "Gas Man" Jones, again later at the main stage, and then ran into him personally at the old Hopson Plantation commissary the following afternoon on my way out of town while he was getting ready to set up to play again. His bass player -- young Lee Williams -- was cloning James Jamerson so well, I wished I had three heads so I could totally focus on each of the musicians on the stage.
Then, just as we were headed for the door, we heard that Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Band was about to lead a processional to the main stage. A couple of us had seen Sharde and her grandfather, Otha Turner (now deceased), featured on a Martin Scorsese documentary on the blues a couple of weeks ago and I'll write more later in the week about their story, but suffice it to say that this was probably the most electrifying moment of the whole weekend for me. Sharde started learning how to play the sugar cane fife at her grandfather's knee when she was about seven and when he passed, the mantle fell to her. Now, at eighteen years old, backed by a set of drummers, just as he was, she can take you to the mountain and make you jump off. To give you an idea, here's just a taste of Sharde and her brothers and cousins three years ago.
After the Rising Star Band left the stage, I listened to some more Big T and then trailed off to get out of the sun for a few minutes in the Delta Blues Museum. The sun was high by this point and it seemed like a good idea not to go back out in it, so we decided this would be the right time to head over to the Riverside Hotel to meet Frank "Rat" Ratliff who lives there, holds court, and conducts tours for whoever's in town. The rooms are named for the folks who made them famous: Bessie Smith (who died in the building back when it was the local Black hospital), Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk (who were staying there when they decided to leave the delta for Chicago), and John Lee Hooker, among others. Rat's mother opened the hotel in 1944 and he's been there ever since, where the blues people stay, where the guests might answer the phone, and where a sign in the busy living room reads simply "Be nice or leave."
At 5:00 p.m., however, we had to be back over to the main stage to catch Willie King and the Liberators. I had heard about Willie from an activist/professor at Delta State who told me that Willie was active in the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and just never quit. While he plays blues all over the world, he still lives in a trailer in Old Memphis, Alabama, which is not even on the map. And he rocked the stage.
Willie has a crowd-pleasing practice of coming down off the stage while he's playing and dancing through the crowd. When he took the tips of my fingers with his and jitterbugged with me for a minute, I got such rush, I was embarrassed. After he and the Liberators finished playing, I got his autograph on the cd I bought and gave him my card, telling him about this blog. "Can I call you?" he asked. "I only live three hours from New Orleans."
I paused, startled. "Absolutely!" I finally blurted.
Later, when I did my homework on him, I decided that if he doesn't call me after all, I will unquestionably call him first. We have things to discuss. But more on him in a later post.
After a rest and a shower, we were back at the main stage for Jimmy Burns, who started late, thank goodness, and got our mojo workin' again. I danced so much Saturday, my feet are still complaining.
But that wasn't the end of the evening. When Jimmy stopped playing, we proceeded to Red's where the bartender's shirt reads "The game's for life. Red's. Clarksdale Mississippi" (And yes I came home with one of those t-shirts.) Red's is a serious juke. Maybe one of the last. Small, filthy, old and worn, with the blues soaked into the very dirt itself. I spent the rest of the night there listening to Terry "Harmonica" Bean, who also got me to dance with him more than once while he was playing harp and when my ride came back to get me at a quarter to one (fifteen minutes before closing), I blew the bluesman a kiss and was glad I wasn't driving myself home because I just might not have gone alone.
The next day, we had a late breakfast at Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman's blues club, and then went on out to nose around the old Hopson Plantation commissary that's been turned into a blues club and museum, as well. Looking at the giant bell that ran the workers' lives and then standing in the safe (as big as a bathroom) where the profits were kept was an odd preparation for what came next.
As we pulled out of town, we came across an old Black church with a cemetary on the river butted right up into a cotton field. It was unnerving to all of us to think about how some of the people buried there probably lived out their days in the field and even in death, couldn't get far. So we spent some time in the drizzling rain, taking photos and communing with those who went before. And then we hit the highway, cranking up the cd player to take us home in a cocoon of the blues.
NOTE: All photos embedded and shown in this post were taken by the RatPackStLouis photographers.