We’ve got the Mississippi Blues
Rain or shine, Juke Joint Festival draws an international audience to celebrate Mississippi’s music and cultural heritage, the blues.
Written by Michael Newsom | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Downtown Clarksdale is hallowed ground in the history of American music. And each April, it is the scene of Juke Joint Festival, which brings fans from around the world to hear thumping drums, greasy slide guitar and howling voices singing about lust and heartbreak.
Juke Joint Festival is more than just a soul-cleansing communion of those who want to dance and forget their troubles. It offers something for everyone. There’s the ever-popular monkeys riding dogs, which is exactly what it sounds like, along with a petting zoo, pig races, history bus tours, street vendors and tamale rolling lessons, to name a few.
Roger Stolle owns Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc., a blues music emporium in downtown Clarksdale. Stolle, who is a co-founder of the festival, sees it as more than just a gathering of musicians and music fans. JJF is one positive against the world’s negative perceptions of Mississippi, the birthplace of many of the genre’s most beloved and well-known acts.
“It just gives you that rich, Mississippi experience,” Stolle said. “Historically, Mississippi has gotten a lot of bad press, and there are so many great things here, (especially) the people. Blues music is a great ticket to get people to meet the locals.”
Stolle had his own awakening years ago when, as a young blues fan, he came to Clarksdale as a blues tourist. He has made it his home since 2002.
“Growing up in Ohio, I won’t lie, we never heard anything positive,” Stolle said. “Then, I got into blues music, and that’s what brought me here. It was like, wait a second, I understand there is some challenging history here — there is everywhere — but the people here are amazing.”
Stolle has been actively involved in helping promote the music of the Delta and expanding its reach. The work has paid off by growing the local music scene, which helps the area’s economy. In recent years, Juke Joint Festival saw tourists from 46 states and 26 foreign countries. Last year’s weather made surveys difficult, but Stolle predicts a similar turnout this year. Hotels have been booked since June 2019, including the new Travelers Hotel and the Auberge Clarksdale Hostel. The Saturday night crowd is typically around 3,500, with double that number during the day if the weather is good.
“We’ve gone from only one or two nights a week of live blues to 365 nights of live blues music a year here,” Stolle said. “For a town of 16,000 that is just unheard of. That is just ridiculous.”
Even torrential rain didn’t faze last year’s attendees. The lineup featured musicians with memorable names like Super Chikan & the Fighting Cocks, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Earl “Guitar” Williams, Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Sean “Bad” Apple and many more.
Inside Cat Head, Pinkie Pulliam, a bass player from Holly Springs, avoided the rain and waited to take the stage with Duwayne Burnside, who was energetically pacing about the store, chatting with Stolle’s customers. Pulliam was excited about playing authentic north Mississippi hill country blues for the crowd. It’s not like Delta blues, he noted, beaming with a little hills pride.
“It just has a feel to it that is natural to me,” Pulliam said. “The mood of the music is, to me now, like if you ever watched African women dancing. It has that feeling; it just moves your body. It’s not sad. It’s not, ‘I lost my baby,’ and all that.”
Pulliam said he enjoys transferring his energy to the audience.
“I am trying to give them what I am feeling,” Pulliam said. “I just try to share the music in me with them. Music is just like a portrait. You put all the pieces together, and you have a picture. Once you present that hill country picture to people, they just love it. It comes over them.”
Even for those who may not fully understand English, or grasp the dialect of the singer, blues music is something you feel. The large number of international tourists the festival attracts is a testament to the universal appeal of the genre.
Parisians Pauline Tornue and Lucile Engoulevent, who now live in New York City, traveled to Clarksdale as part of a tour of the region that included stops in Memphis and New Orleans. The scene was something new for the French-born tourists, who spoke in front of Stolle’s place as hill country blues legend Kenny Brown played a particularly hot version of the staple “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
“The food here is amazing,” Tornue said. “Yesterday, I ate chicken gumbo soup and etouffee. We had grits and cheese, also.”
“We were saying that we feel like we are in a movie,” Engoulevent said. “Especially for foreigners you know when you see movies and TV shows from the United States, there is always this kind of atmosphere going on, and now we are here for real.”
Juke Joint Festival is always held rain or shine. Todd Hicks, of Cleveland, a veteran of the festival, said he’s actually had more fun there when the weather is rough.
“The weird thing is the worse it rains, the better the time we have,” Hicks said. “It pushes people into a tighter spot and every-body is not walking around. We kind of get huddled up a little more, more drinks are shared, more stories are shared, and more friends are made.”
Hicks had been on a bus full of tourists from other countries while he was at the festival. The diversity illustrates the potential the music has to change the area’s reputation and fortunes.
“All of Central America is here, and all of Scandinavia is here,” Hicks said. “The blues gives us something to draw people here. The blues can’t save the Delta, but the Juke Joint Festival will make a damned good go of it.”
The 2020 Juke Joint Festival kicks off Thursday, April 16, and runs through Sunday, April 19, with the major events being held on that Saturday. Find the music lineup, schedules and more info at jukejointfestival.com.