Clarksdale Celebrates The Blues And The Juke Joint Culture That Gave It Birth

Most people throw themselves a party on their birthday, but Cat Head Delta Blues owner Roger Stolle throws one for his whole adopted hometown on the weekend in April nearest his birthday every year. The Juke Joint Festival, as it is known, has become the largest festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, surpassing the older Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and has also become the unofficial kick-off to the blues festival season, which flourishes in the warm weather months.

While the official festival is always held on a Saturday, music and related events string out over four days from Thursday to Sunday, bringing blues fans into the Mississippi Delta from all over the world. On Saturday, vendors sell arts and crafts from all over the country, and seven outdoor stages feature the very best blues artists from Mississippi and elsewhere. Best of all, these day stages are free, and located in and near downtown Clarksdale. Only at night do festival attendees need wristbands, which for a fee allow them to access any of the juke joints and other indoor venues. Here they can see artists in a more comfortable setting, with longer performance set times, and a full bar available.

One highlight of this year’s festival to me was Terry “Harmonica” Bean, who seemed to be everywhere, from an early performance on the big permanent stage next to the Blues Museum, to a day-ending performance during dinner at Levon’s Restaurant. Bean is from Pontotoc County, a Hill Country county located between Tupelo and Oxford, but he often gets overlooked in discussions of Hill Country blues. Similar in style to Delta players, Bean first came to notice when he recorded for Stolle and Jeff Konkel’s excellent Broke and Hungry label, which sought to document living traditional bluesmen in a way that most blues labels were not. The other highlight was finally getting to hear Little Willie Farmer in person, as I had heretofore heard him only on records. Farmer is from Duck Hill in Grenada County, technically also a Hill Country county, but he is another artist that does not often get mentioned in the Hill Country listing, despite having recorded for Fat Possum, the same label that R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough recorded for. Like Bean, Farmer had two performances during the day, and both were excellent, featuring both original compositions of his and also covers of blues standards. In addition to recording and performing excellent blues, Little Willie Farmer also runs the Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, a two-day festival in June that is intended to benefit the local Head Start program.

The Wade Walton Stage on Issaquena Avenue is always one of the better attended stages, and this year it featured an incredible line-up, which included Garry and Duwayne Burnside, children of the late R. L. Burnside, and Kent Burnside, a grandson, as well as Kenny Brown, an accomplished blues player who was mentored by both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside.

Unfortunately, for those who traveled from Memphis or other locations, the day’s fun was cut short by a threatening line of storms approaching from the west in Arkansas. Fortunately, most of the outdoor activities had already ended before they arrived, but the prediction of extreme weather including tornadoes caused some of us to leave early to get back home.

The Juke Joint Festival is held every year in April, and the dates are already determined for many years in advance. It is probably too late to book a hotel room in Clarksdale for next year’s festival, but now is the time to make plans if you want to attend.

A Great Burger And A Taste of Shreveport’s Musical History

It was my last day in Shreveport, and I wanted a hamburger. I resisted the thought of Twisted Root Burger Company at first, because I knew it was a Dallas-based chain. I had eaten at a location near Southern Methodist University years ago, and I wanted to try places unique to Shreveport. But there didn’t seem to be any other local upscale burger options, so I suggested to my traveling companion that we try it, and we were not disappointed.

The Twisted Root in Shreveport is located in a building on Line Avenue that once was a guitar shop. That fact may have occasioned the musical theme of the place, but to my shock, when we entered, we noticed a virtual Shreveport music hall of fame, with guitars, records and photos. Little shrines to various Shreveport musicians are located above each booth. A lot of guitars are displayed above one side of the bar, and a lot of records above the other. While most of the artists highlighted were country or rock and roll, I was thrilled to see Leadbelly, the musical Blade family, and soul singer Eddie Giles also remembered. A tree-shaded patio was just outside, but the threat of rain kept it empty.

But of course all the ambiance in the world cannot save a restaurant with bad food. Fortunately, Twisted Root is exceptional in that department as well. Our burgers were big, juicy and made to order, and came with hot, freshly-made fries. Hand-cut potato chips and freshly-fried pork skins are also available, as well as wagyu beef burgers. The soda fountain consists strictly of Oak Cliff Sodas from Dallas, a craft soda brand unique to the area and quite good.

Twisted Root has sweet options to end your meal as well, but the burgers are so filling that you will be hard-pressed to find the room for dessert. Prices are reasonable and fairly consistent with other upscale burger places. Despite being part of a Dallas chain, Twisted Root has enough Shreveport ambiance to warrant a visit by anyone who loves Shreveport music or great burgers.

Twisted Root Burger Company Shreveport

8690 Line Avenue

Shreveport, LA 71106

(318) 868-6410

Afternoon in Shreveport and the Strange Emptiness of a Lost Downtown

I had ridden to Shreveport with someone else, and although I wanted to eat at Orleandeaux’s now that it had opened in the old Smith’s Cross Lake Inn building on Cross Lake, my traveling companion did not, so we drove along the lakeshore for awhile, but did not eat there. He wanted to go back to the casinos for the evening, which left me with an hour or so to walk around downtown Shreveport, which I found somewhat shocking to say the least.

Local Shreveport people suggest that downtown is unsafe, particularly in the evenings, but as I walked Texas Street and other downtown streets, I had to wonder who would pose a threat. I saw almost nobody as I walked the eerily empty streets at 6 PM; perhaps a visitor might get mugged by a ghost, but one would be hard-pressed to find any other human beings. I found it a rather sad place, with so many historic but empty buildings, many of them reflecting the logos and names of stores which closed years ago, the old signs reflecting the fact that the buildings have never been repurposed or redeveloped. That I could stand in the center of the city’s most important street to take a photograph and have not one vehicle pass me in either direction should suffice to demonstrate how strangely empty things were.

Shreveport has had two modern entertainment districts in its recent history; the ruins of both adjoin the Texas Street Bridge. Shreve Square had begun in 1973 as an effort to bring live music and entertainment to the downtown area. Early complaints centered on dress codes that seemed designed to discourage Black patronage. One establishment, the Sports Page, flat out turned Blacks away at the door at times. By the late 1980s, Shreve Square had largely failed. Unstable buildings and mysterious fires finished it off. Under the bridge itself are the ruins of a more recent entertainment district, the Red River District. Designed by John Elkington, the designer of Memphis’ Beale Street, the Red River District initially attracted large crowds, as many as 20,000 on a few Saturday nights. As early crowds were predominantly African-American, the city began efforts to curb the crowds, employing police on horseback and eventually imposing a $10 cover charge, which quickly eliminated the crowds. Without the crowds, the bars and restaurants were soon gone as well. Today, the area is almost completely vacant; one or two spaces are occupied; the former restaurant patios occasionally become sleeping places for homeless people.

Memphis’ downtown has problems, but it is never as empty as Shreveport’s on any night of the week, and Memphis does not have casinos. It would seem that Shreveport lacks people with the necessary funding or visions to turn the downtown into the kind of place that people would want to visit. At present, Shreveport really has no entertainment district at all, and I suppose that people go to Bossier City and the Riverwalk. It is a tragedy, because Shreveport’s downtown is historic, and there is plenty of potential. But someone will have to step up and create a comprehensive plan to bring it back.

Herby K’s: An Institution in Shreveport

Although I have visited Shreveport many times in the past 23 years, somehow I had never managed to go to Herby K’s. There were too many other restaurants like Smith’s Cross Lake Inn, Anthony’s Steak and Seafood, Oxford Street or Ernest Orleans that I was always going to. I had heard of a Shrimp-Buster and knew that Herby K’s specialized in them, but had never had one….somehow, I imagined it being just another name for a shrimp po-boy. Finally, this year, I managed to visit Herby K’s, and will say that it is a must-visit spot while in the Shreveport area.

Herby K’s is certainly not fine-dining. It is an old dive-bar in the decrepit West End neighborhood along Texas Avenue, and it is not even located on the main drag, but on a side street that was cut off by the construction of Interstate 20. In one form or another, Herby K’s has been around since 1936; a brief experiment with a second location downtown featuring live music did not last long, but the original location remains and is going strong. The inside is classic Americana diner, with old-fashioned bar stools and booths, and all kinds of neon signs and memorabilia on the walls.

So what’s a shrimp-buster? Basically just toasted, buttered bread with two or three gigantic flattened fried prawns, along with a special Shrimp Buster sauce that is relatively sweet and which has the color and flavor of barbecue sauce. It is in fact unique to Herby K’s, and is not at all like a shrimp po-boy. Herby K’s sells po-boys too, but it is the shrimp-buster that keeps people coming. They also have burgers, gumbo and a few other menu options; sandwiches come with fries, and the fries are delicious as well. And although we feared that the place would be quite crowded (parking was in fact quite difficult), we managed to get seated almost immediately.

If we had a complaint about Herby K’s, it was the prices. Two shrimp-busters with fries and sodas, with tax and tip came to $50. I understand that seafood is not cheap, and that Herby K’s has a certain reputation. It is not everyday that one can eat in a restaurant that has been open since 1936. Our food was quite good, and true, you can’t get a shrimp-buster anywhere else. And they do have hamburgers and po-boys which are somewhat cheaper. But at such prices, Herby K’s has to be a special occasion, not an all-the-time thing. All the same, when in Shreveport, it should at least be tried once. Rarely do you get the chance to eat history.

Herby K’s

1833 Pierre Avenue

Shreveport, LA 71103

(318) 424-2724

Are You Up For Brunch? Shreveport Is!

Shreveport has traditionally been a great town for breakfast, which happens to be my favorite meal of the day. I had many a memorable morning at legendary spots like Murrell’s, George’s and Joe’s, but time has not been kind to the city, and most of the unique local breakfast places, like many other Shreveport restaurants, are no more. (Strawn’s Eat Place is an exception to that rule, and more on it will be forthcoming). But, not to worry, Shreveport has gained some new breakfast places to fill the void, of which the new Up For Brunch is the most intriguing.

The West End of Shreveport along Texas, Avenue, once the center of Black entrepreneurship, has been rendered an apocalyptic wasteland by the the construction of Interstates 20 & 49 and years of abandonment and neglect. But in the midst of this drab and dreary view, Up For Brunch exudes a sunny, upbeat and positive image that is both infectious and contagious. Bright whites, yellows, golds and oranges characterize the outside and inside decor, along with plenty of glass and chrome. Even on a dreary day, which this was, the inside was cheerful. Of equal interest was the outdoor deck and seating, which on a warm and sunny day would be quite welcome. Through a peculiarity of the building design, it seems to be on the second level, even though it is even with the ground floor that one walks into from the street side. It overlooks I-20, which is not exactly a romantic site, but I imagine that if one looks to the northeast, the city skyline is visible.

Up for Brunch has a fairly diverse menu, centered around waffles. There is of course chicken and waffles, biscuit waffles, mini cornbread waffles, pancakes, omelettes, skillets and a breakfast roll (which sounds something like a burrito). There are also lunch-type items like shrimp and grits and cajun catfish and grits. Coffee was great and the service was quite attentive.

Like all new brunch places, prices were not cheap. This is not a hole-in-the-wall diner, but a more upscale breakfast experience, but unlike IHOP, Denny’s or Waffle House, they have mimosas. Also, I would imagine that the place gets quite crowded at times, although we visited on a Monday and had no wait for a table or for food. Hours are a bit limited, and they close at 2 on the days they are open, so check the website before venturing there.

Up For Brunch

1520 Texas Avenue

Shreveport, LA 71103

(318) 703-2884

Exceptional Food and Value at Gibbons Fine Grill in Shreveport

It’s got to be difficult to run a restaurant in Louisiana. No state in the union is more known for cuisine, and of course New Orleans is one of the country’s best food destinations. It is even more difficult to run a restaurant in Louisiana if you are elsewhere in the state than New Orleans, but Shreveport, which for many years was the state’s second largest city, has a long history of culinary excellence, even if many of its storied restaurants are gone.

Gibbons Fine Grill is a relative newcomer as Shreveport restaurants go, but it revives the great food and reasonable prices of legendary predecessors like Smith’s Cross Lake Inn. Although it does not have the latter’s lake view, it does have an elegant and swank sophistication inside which exudes comfort and luxury. A whole wall is covered with bottles of wine available as an accompaniment for dinner, and the menu is full of the kinds of steak and seafood offerings you would expect from such a fine restaurant. But the prices are no more expensive than mid-priced chains such as Longhorn or Outback, and, unsurprisingly, even on a Sunday evening, the place was packed to overflowing.

We did not try the steaks, although we saw some and they looked great. Rather, we both tried the ruby red trout scampi style, which had the fish topped with shrimp scampi in a white wine butter sauce. It came with a choice of side, which in my case was a baked potato loaded with cheese, butter and bacon. As a finale, we split a piece of key lime pie, and our total bill was less than $50.

Any restaurant deserves notice for excellent food, but when that excellent food is also at an amazingly-low price, they should be given extra acclaim. Gibbons Fine Grill satisfies, and without pain to your pocketbook.

Gibbons Fine Grill

1714 E. 70th St

Shreveport, LA 71105

(318) 848-7071

Blues at Nightfall: How Dr. David Evans and High Water Records Tried to Secure A Future For The Blues

High Water Records was founded in 1980 by Dean Richard Ranta and Dr. David Evans, an eminent folklorist who was brought to what was then Memphis State University in 1978 to head up a graduate degree program in Musicology (Regional Studies). At that time, it was quite unusual for colleges to have their own record labels, and High Water received a fair amount of notice. Conceived as a way to connect the recording studio curriculum with the ethnomusicology program, High Water involved both professionals and students, both in the recording and production process, and in the field research and artist and repertoire process. Intended to record practitioners of the traditional music of the South, High Water Records managed to record artists who later became immensely famous, including Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill. In 1989 High Water expanded its range of coverage internationally, as Dr. Evans made field recordings in Venezuela and later in Ethiopia and MalaƔi. The label and its catalog still exist, providing opportunities for University of Memphis music business students to learn the day to day operations of a record label.

The Blues at Nightfall exhibit in honor of High Water Records opened on April 1, 2023, with an elegant reception attended by about a hundred people, including Kip Lornell and photographer/researcher Dr. Cheryl Thurber. Dr. David Evans, the label’s founder was honored with a special festschrift edition of the Tennessee Folklife Quarterly. Also opening was Bill Ellis’ blues art exhibit A Heaven of Our Own which complemented the label exhibit perfectly, and which included works by Frank D. Robinson and George Hunt. The exhibits continue through June 24.

Moscow Nights: Scenes From A Rural Juke in West Tennessee

The Delta Review has given a thorough description of Saine’s Blues Club on a couple of previous occasions. The remote juke joint north of Moscow in Fayette County, Tennessee is a throwback to the kinds of places where Black people routinely partied in rural areas prior to the rise of radio, television and urban development. A handful of these places still exist, but most of them have shifted to DJ entertainment strictly. Saine’s, with a live band every Saturday night is an exception in that regard. In a county where life has never been easy for African-Americans, people party and play as hard as they work.

Further On Up The Road: Celebrating the Legacy of Bobby “Blue” Bland in Barretville

On January 27, 1930, Robert Bland was born in rural Shelby County, Tennessee. Most biographies place the birth at Rosemark, which is barely a wide spot in the road between Millington and Arlington, although Rosemark at one time had several churches, a gin, a telephone exchange and a public school. But Rosemark also had a twin city of sorts, a village called Barretville, which consisted of the Barret homestead, several other houses for employees and family, a bank, a gin and a general store. The community has had a long and separate identity from Rosemark, and the Barret name still carries considerable political and economic weight in the area. Since the general store closed some years ago, it has been through a couple of iterations, serving as the home of Long Road Cider Company, and now as Barretville General Store restaurant, which offers breakfasts, pizzas, burgers and baked goods. The store is said to be owned by a young faction within the Barret family who also a few years ago decided to create an annual festival celebrating Bobby “Blue” Bland, who may well have been born on Barret land.

Bobby “Blue” Bland Day 2022 was a bright, blue, coolish day that was still comfortable enough to enjoy a day of blues. Some descendants of the famous musician were present, and were given a special tent on the festival grounds. Along the wall of the store, all kinds of great things to eat were available for sale, as well as T-shirts and other festival merchandise.

A fair crowd of people gathered in front of the new outdoor stage to hear people like Dr. David Evans and Blind Mississippi Morris perform traditional blues, and the music was quite good, even if considerably different from Bland’s more urbane and sophisticated style.

Blues culture in Memphis and Shelby County is sadly neglected. Tennessee does not have a Blues Trail in the way that Mississippi does, and rural blues artists in particular are neglected. It is good to see the Barretville community and Barret family support a festival dedicated to celebrating and appreciated Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Coldwater: A Struggling Town Celebrates Its Legacy

The original town of Coldwater, Mississippi was founded in Tate County, Mississippi in 1872 along the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad, which ran from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. Colonel Frank White of Como, Mississippi (for whom the Whitehaven neighborhood of Memphis was named) was president of the railroad and had some impact on where stations were located along its route. Although Senatobia was the county seat, the early town prospered, with a number of businesses and a hotel. In the 1920s, a local man named Hoyt Wooten founded the Wooten Radio Electric Company in Coldwater and successfully applied for one of the earliest radio broadcast licenses in the Mid-South. He asked for and received the call letters WREC, which represented the name of his company, and the fledgling station broadcast from the lobby of the Hotel Coldwater before it ultimately moved to the big city of Memphis.

But Coldwater’s prosperity would not last. During the 1930s, with massive unemployment coupled with unprecedented natural disasters, including drouths and dust storms in the midwest, and floods in the South, the government began massive public works projects, many of which were river dams to create large reservoirs. These would both prevent flooding and provide sources for lower cost electric power, and Mississippi, lagging behind in electricity and suffering from frequent flooding, was a priority spot for large man-make lakes. One of these, Arkabutla, was planned by the Corps of Engineers near Coldwater, and it soon became clear that the townsite would be flooded by the resulting lake. The town and its streets and buildings would have to be abandoned.

The United States government therefore built the current town of Coldwater several miles to the south of the previous town, hiring a city planner from Memphis to design it, using the latest principles of city planning. Aside from the immediate town center, which was a rectangular square, streets were curved and meandering like modern subdivisions. The highway through town, Highway 51, was four-laned and given service roads. A special area was set aside for business and industry. A peculiarity of New Coldwater was that the streets were laid and planned before anyone actually moved there. Many of the residents had their original houses and buildings pulled to the new townsite, which opened in 1942. Although the location was several miles closer to Senatobia, Coldwater still retained a high degree of separate identity from its larger neighbor to the South.

In the 1950s, Coldwater began to become famous in the music world, when Robert “Buster” Williams built Coldwater Indsutries Inc. which was actually a second record pressing plant for Plastic Products in Memphis. The pressing plant in Coldwater pressed records for Sun, Stax, Hi and a number of major labels as well, but closed in the 1970s after a unionizing effort and the closure of many of the company’s clients, including Stax Records. Music researchers also came through in the 1960s and 1970s, including folklorist Dr. David Evans who was attracted to the city’s Black gospel scene at that time.

In recent years, Coldwater has suffered from a loss of retail business to Senatobia and Hernando, and also the threatened loss of their high school, which the Tate County School District wants to split between predominantly-white high schools in Independence and Strayhorn, despite the fact that both are a half-hour drive from Coldwater and are in remote parts of the county. Residents of Coldwater have opposed the move, and are continuing to stand up for their town.

In October of 2022, the Coldwater Sesquicentennial was held, which people in the area informally called “Coldwater Day.” A crowd of several hundred people thronged the town square to hear performances from local gospel groups and blues and soul performers. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was a performance by Dre Walker and the Mississippi Boys, a popular soul band from Como. There were also a number of food trucks, and with election season so close, plenty of politicians campaigning for votes and lots of political signs everywhere.

Recently, there are signs that Coldwater may be finally starting to turn a corner, including the opening of Red’s Bar-B-Q and Blues, which is not only a good restaurant but also a live music venue, and the reopening of a long-vacant supermarket. Coldwater is also the new home of Sharde Thomas’ annual Goat Picnic, after they were forced to move from Otha Turner’s historic ground at Gravel Springs. We can wish Coldwater a prosperous next 150 years.