Clarksdale, Mississippi, gets plenty of tourist traffic thanks to its rich history as a center for Delta blues, but this weekend the blues on display will be as much for area residents as out-of-towners.
"We wanted to do something a little different, something that would bring out the locals to celebrate spring and inspire pride in our hometown," says Roger Stole, a local record-store owner and co-organizer of the third annual Juke Joint Festival.
"We've already got a ton of blues festivals in the area," Stole notes. "So we decided to do something distinctively Clarksdale." Along with local entrepreneur Bubba "O'Keefe" Kinchen, Stole organized a festival that celebrates the local venues that have incubated the Delta blues for decades and the artists who have made these places their home.
The juke joint is a Southern phenomenon, born in the days following Emancipation when working African Americans needed a place to relax after the workday. Segregation meant that blacks had to create their own venues for entertainment, and the term "juke" joint was perhaps based on the Gullah word joog, meaning to get rowdy and loose.
The blues played in jukes is often an up-tempo style, and dancing, drinking, and getting rowdy is half the fun. "You could put any of these local artists, a Big T or a Super Chikan, on a festival stage in the North and get a great show," says Stole. "That is absolutely not the same experience as having them perform in the juke joint that is their home. The comfort level is beyond anything you could get at a concert."
Comfort is a big part of the juke-joint experience. The feeling is akin to going to Wild Bill's here in Memphis, a juke joint in its own right. There is a house band and a full complement of regulars, but out-of-town guests are made to feel at home and encouraged to participate.
"A lot of times the things Bubba does, like myself, aren't the wisest business decisions. But if you really look at the motivations they make perfect sense -- just not dollars and cents," Stole says, adding that the secret mission of the festival is to encourage locals and tourists who otherwise might never meet to mix and mingle. "There are a lot of locals here who might avoid the larger tourist festivals."
Of course, until you can interact with the regulars, you're not getting the full experience. "Wesley Jefferson is the house band at Red's Lounge, and seeing him there you can really soak up the ambience," Stole says. "Wesley will start philosophizing and then Red will shout something back at him from behind the bar, and the place is just packed with regulars who love this music."
During the day at the Juke Joint Festival, there will be four outdoor stages. At night, 10 venues will be open, varying in size from Morgan Freeman's large Ground Zero Blues Club, with its high ceiling and actual stage, to Red's Lounge, where dancers and musicians can move bumper to bumper.
"We have almost exclusively local talent," says Stole, "except for a couple of acts that begged to come and play." The local line-up includes Big T, Wesley Jefferson, Super Chikan, Razorblade, Sam Carr, and Bill Abel.
"The few out-of-town acts, like Reverend Paton's Big Damn Band, from Indianapolis ... they just love coming down here," says Stole. "They will play for free or for the door."
Music is not the only thing the Juke Joint Festival has to offer. "During the daytime we have those four outdoor stages, so you can see music all day long, and if that gets boring you can just check out the racing pigs," says Stole. And if the pigs get boring, you can always check the sheep-herding monkeys from nearby Pontotoc, Mississippi. "It's really the dogs they're riding that do the herding. Those monkeys are just holding on."
The idea is to intermingle a music festival with a country fair, showcasing all types of entertainment and encouraging a diverse audience of locals and blues lovers from across the nation to make the most out of downtown Clarksdale. A $10 wristband gets you a seat on the daytime historical tour of Clarksdale, a ticket to the blues documentary Lightning in a Bottle, entrance to all venues, and a ride on the Blues Bus between the venues and local accommodations.