By ROBERT MCFARLAND, JR.
Twenty years ago this April, a Clarksdale star was born. Its name? Juke Joint Festival.
John Clark founded Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1848, when he bought land in the area and started a timber business. The town became a large trading center in the northern part of the Mississippi Delta. Years later, Clarksdale earned the title “The Golden Buckle on the Cotton Belt,” because of the fertile soil located around the town. Working the land took many people who often sang songs, which had been passed down for generations in the African American tradition, as they labored.
In 1902, Dr. Charles Peabody from Harvard came to Clarksdale to excavate several indian mounds located in Coahoma County. To conduct the excavations, Peabody needed some strong men. He hired a team of workers from Clarksdale and on their trek to the Stovall Plantation near the Mississippi River he made notes of the workers as they sang back and forth to each other while walking in pairs. These are the first written accounts we have of the beginnings of blues music.
Several of America’s most noted blues musicians (and others) hail from Coahoma County, such as John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Willie Brown, Son House, and Junior Parker. Today, a new generation of blues players have grown up in Clarksdale and Coahoma County. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who is currently receiving international recognition, is one of these young blues musicians.
While agriculture is still a major part of Coahoma County, so is blues music. Today, people come from all over the world to visit Clarksdale to soak up the sites and sounds of where a major portion of this special music was born. Along the way, several music festivals have been created in Clarksdale that salute and feature blues music.
The father of these festivals is the annual Juke Joint Festival held each April. This year, the festival will celebrate its 20th birthday. For two decades, the Juke Joint Festival has grown in size and now thousands of people from as far away as Japan and Europe attend.
Described as “half blues festival, half small-town fair—and all about the Delta” the event is organized through the Clarksdale Downtown Development Association.
Founded by Roger Stolle and Bubba O’Keefe back in 2004, the first edition featured fifteen blues acts. This year’s 20th Anniversary will feature over 100 musical performances as well as monkeys riding dogs, racing pigs, street vendors, Southern food, workshops, children’s activities, student art/writing exhibits, and much more.
The main event will be held Saturday, April 15, with dozens of related events beginning that Thursday and ending Sunday night.
“When we came up with the concept two decades ago, we hoped to do more than simply create ‘another’ blues festival,” says Stolle. “In addition to promoting blues culture, our festival mission was two fold: We aimed to put business into the businesses and mix locals with tourists from around the globe. The results long ago blew away all of our expectations.”
By 2016, the Juke Joint Festival was attracting attendees from as many as forty-seven U.S. states, fifty-four Mississippi counties, and twenty-eight foreign countries. As the pandemic shut down events worldwide in the Spring of 2020, the Juke Joint Festival pivoted to a successful twenty-seven-act, nine-hour, live-stream event. By last year, in-person attendance had returned to near pre-pandemic levels with fans from at least forty-seven states and at least sixteen countries enjoying the festivities.
The once small event is now Clarksdale’s biggest blues and business week of the calendar year—garnering media attention from the likes of PBS NewsHour, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, The Economist, and numerous music magazines. It also has a positive “halo effect” that lasts year-round.
As a result, the Juke Joint Festival is often credited with helping to fuel downtown’s ongoing revitalization efforts and providing a motivation for former visitors to ultimately move or invest there—from as near as New Orleans and as far as Australia.
“It’s the ultimate introduction to our historic town,” says Visit Clarksdale Tourism Director Bubba O’Keefe. “I always tell folks that we’ve got more characters than Sesame Street, and Juke Joint Festival definitely proves it. It also showcases our amazing array of cultural assets and business opportunities.”
Australian economist (and Juke Joint Festival fan) John Henshall noted these assets and opportunities in his textbook Downtown Revitalisation & Delta Blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi: Lessons for Small Cities and Towns. Even more to the point, Henshall and his friends from Down Under have seventeen hotel rooms booked in town for this year’s festival.
According to event co-organizer Nan Hughes, it will be worth the twenty-hour flight from Melbourne.
“We plan to make this year’s 20th Anniversary Juke Joint our biggest and best ever,” said Hughes. “Saturday alone will include at least sixteen day stages and over twenty nighttime venues. Plus, we’ll have all kinds of special activities from Thursday through Sunday night.”
She also reminds fans to book rooms early for next year, adding, “We’re in this for the long haul.”
Twenty years can be a long time. It can also be just a beginning.
For more information visit, jukejointfestival.com. For lodging and more visit, visitclarksdale.com.