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