The Mississippi Delta: Drawn by the Blues

We’ve nicknamed our seven-week spring road trip the Tunes, Ruins & Stars journey. We’re on our way to the Southwest of the United States (a popular destination for Canadian snowbirds), seeking out music, Native American culture and the astronomy sites for which the area is famous.

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

In fall 2013 we explored the roots music destinations of the American Southeast and were so taken with the blues of the Mississippi Delta that we vowed to return. And so we did. This is where our Tunes, Ruins & Stars trip begins.

Clarksdale, Mississippi: Heartbeat of the blues

The enduring appeal of the blues is not hard to understand. It speaks to everyone. Always has. Always will. Take a walk through downtown Clarksdale on the second weekend of April and you’ll see every class, age and colour soaking it up and moving to the groove. People come from every point on the compass to this little corner of Mississippi where — legend has it — Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the keys to blues guitar mastery.

blues-1This city-wide Juke Joint Festival, the life’s ambition of writer/historian Roger Stolle, features a performer or band on every corner – and in many storefronts – of this mythical crossroads town in the northwest corner of the state.

“When we started it, we started with a slogan that’s kind of like a mission and we have held to it and there’s a reason for it,” explains Stolle who moved to Clarksdale in 2002 to follow his passion for the blues. “And that is we’re half blues festival, half small town fair and all about the Delta. What we’re trying to do is bring out locals and regional people who wouldn’t necessarily come out for a straight up blues festival. You got a family or it’s not your favourite genre – you just don’t realize how important it is to other people around the world.”

In its heyday, Clarksdale was just another of hundreds of communities in financial thrall to King Cotton. Like similar communities, it felt the upheaval of economic restructuring and even today there are many empty storefronts behind those bluesmen and women. Economic upheaval is familiar to this part of the world, but for the duration of the Juke Joint Festival, everyone has a drink in hand and a good feeling about life that goes with a shared love and even reverence for the blues.

blues-pigStolle has a strategy. “So we’re able to draw them in with racing pigs and lots of Southern food and a petting zoo and a bucking bull ride – all those kinds of things – you bring in all the families and all that and then, oh yea, you have 13 stages of live blues for free. The idea is that you mix local and regional folks who don’t necessarily understand what cultural tourism and blues can actually do for their town and region and state.”

The blues. Something about the simplicity of the form coupled to the closeness of the lived experience. It came from the ground, literally from the earth on which people slaved, met up with the texture of the gospel experience and absorbed the melodiousness of country and bluegrass and delivered to North America – and from there to the world – a distinct take on the human experience that went on to insinuate itself into all other genres of music. It is America’s great gift to global culture, a gift that keeps on giving, constantly reinventing itself and passing like a contagion from generation to generation on the streets of humble Clarksdale.

NEXT: JUKE JOINT FESTIVAL PRIMER

blues-walking

Juke Joint Festival primer:

  • More than 100 musicians on 13 daytime stages and 23 nighttime stages.
  • Daytime visitors around 7,000. Nighttime visitors top 3,200.
  • Modestly priced wristbands are needed for nighttime venues (daytime performances are free).
  • Visitors from 28 foreign countries, 46 U.S. states plus DC and 53 Mississippi counties.
  • Related events include an arts and crafts fair, mechanical bull ride and the ever popular pig races.
  • 2015 date: April 8-12 for festival and related events (April 11 is the main festival music day), www.jukejointfestival.com

Clarksdale’s “don’t miss” moments:

  • Local radio station WROX 105.7 plays the blues.
  • A great read is Hidden History of Mississippi Blues by Roger Stolle.
  • Local juke joints include Red’s Lounge, Ground Zero Blues Club (co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman) and – a little further out of town – the authentic plantation juke joint at Po’ Monkey’s.
  • Famous people who have called Clarksdale home include Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Morgan Freeman.

 Who’s writing: Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).