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.