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.

Preserving the Legacy of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues in North Mississippi

After an interruption caused by COVID-19, the annual Hill Country Picnic returned to Betty Davis’ Ponderosa near Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, with two days of great Hill Country music and artists. The Hill Country Blues style (or Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family calls their style of blues) is a unique form of music that originates in the Hill Country of Northeast Mississippi, and is especially prevalent in Marshall County, where well-known blues musicians like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived. The county is still home to prominent musicians, including Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough, as well as Joe Ayers, who was an original member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys band.

Unlike many other summer blues events, the Hill Country Picnic is generally restricted to artists who are from the Hill Country region, or who were mentored by the original Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues performers. This guarantees plenty of opportunities to see the African-American originators of the tradition, which sadly is increasingly not the case at other high-profile blues festivals.

On the hot July Saturday of this year’s festival, fans got an opportunity to hear R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Kent Burnside and Kenny Brown, who started the festival in Potts Camp some 15 or so years ago.

Although the crowds have been smaller since the pandemic, it is good to see things beginning to return to normal, and one hopes that attendance will bounce back toward pre-pandemic numbers with each coming year.

The Inaugural Alice Mae Blues Festival in Ripley, Mississippi

Garry Burnside, one of the sons of legendary Hill Country bluesman R. L. Burnside moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County not long ago, and was instrumental in getting the city of Ripley to build and dedicate a wonderful Blues Alley, which commemorates the Hill Country and Mississippi blues traditions with beautiful paintings of historic artists, a guitar-shaped table and benches. In addition, in October of 2011, he planned the first Alice Mae Blues Festival, named for his mother Alice Mae Burnside, held on a grassy field beside the First Monday Trade Day grounds on Highway 15.

The weather was incredibly hot for an October day, and crowds were small at the beginning of the day, but more and more people arrived as the weather cooled in the evening. Those who attended enjoyed great blues from Garry Burnside, Kent Burnside and Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s adopted son Kenny Brown from Potts Camp, and other local area performers.

In addition to music performances, there were food vendors serving delicious foods, and even a bar cart serving alcohol. When the sun went down, both the vendors and the stage were lit up in festive lighting, and the great Hill Country blues went on until the event’s end.

Celebrating the Music of the Hill Country at Waterford, Mississippi

One of the best things about our slow return to normalcy has been the reappearance of the festivals we missed in 2020. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa each year at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County was founded by blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah to commemorate and preserve the Hill Country blues traditions, and especially the legacies of the Kimbrough and Burnside families. Held over two nights, the festival generally attracts several hundred people from all over the world; sadly, this year, most of the international visitors were unable to attend, due to ongoing travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Still, several hundred people attended on Friday night, seeing performances by Jimbo Mathus and Kent Burnside, and Duwayne Burnside with his band. Lots of musicians were backstage, including Little Joe Ayers, and there were great charcoal-grilled hamburgers for the performers.

An even bigger crowd attended on Saturday, when artists like Memphisippi Sounds, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band performed.

Juke Joint Fest: Johnny Rawls at Hambone and Kent Burnside at Gentleman Lyfe

After Sherena Boyce and myself attended the Jimmy “Duck” Holmes party behind Sean “Bad” Apple’s juke joint in Clarksdale, we went different directions. She wanted to go to Kent Burnside’s performance at a new club called Gentleman Lyfe, which usually hosts more of a hip-hop crowd, but I wanted to catch Johnny Rawls’ performance at Hambone.

However, when I got to Hambone, I was somewhat disappointed. Rawls typically has a large band with horns on his albums, but at Hambone, he had a stripped-down trio band instead. Worse, the place was so crowded that I could not get anywhere near the stage. So I left there and headed around the corner to Gentleman Lyfe for Kent Burnside’s performance. Sherena got there about an hour after I did, but although Kent gave some rousing performances of Hill Country standards, the long day had taken a toll on me, and I was running on fumes. Ultimately, I left to head back to the hotel and to bed.

Together We Stand: Como, Mississippi Celebrates Its Vibrant Legacy

“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.

Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks. 

But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce.  Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago. 

Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system. 

Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening.  Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors. 

Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather. 

Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town. 

Jukin’ at Cat Head in Clarksdale


Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.




Celebrating Tate County’s Blues Legacy at Senatobia Blues and Brews


On November 4, 2017, Senatobia launched its inaugural Blues and Brews festival in Gabbert Park, in unusually warm and wet weather. In fact, dense fog enveloped the whole park, and made it hard to see the crowd from the stage area. But a small crowd braved the wet (although not technically rainy) weather to celebrate the unveiling of an historic marker in honor of Sid Hemphill, and the rededication of another to Black country pioneer O. B. McClinton, as well as beer, good food, and great blues. Of particular interest was the opening performer, Glen Faulkner, a master of the one-string guitar from the Gravel Springs community, which was also home to the better-known Otha Turner and his fife-and-drum band. Faulkner has been recorded little, perhaps because he doesn’t sing, and clearly was not feeling his best, having to be helped onto the stage. But once on stage, he demonstrated his absolute mastery of his somewhat unusual instrument, treating the audience to his version of Hill Country standards like “My Babe” and “When I Lay My Burdens Down.” Faulkner was followed by Little Joe Ayers, one of the original generation of Hill Country bluesmen who for many years was part of Junior Kimbrough’s band, and then by Kent Burnside, one of R. L. Burnside’s grandsons, who rarely appears in this part of the country, although he performs frequently in the Midwest and internationally. Mark “Muleman” Massey was next on the lineup, followed by Garry Burnside and his girlfriend Beverly Davis, along with the seldom-seen guitarist Joe Burnside, to close the evening’s festivities. There were quite a few local food vendors as well, including Alma Jean’s Southern Kookin and Bliss Handcrafted Ice Cream. It was a memorable night of blues on an unusually warm day in November.