People from all over the world will descend on the Delta city of Clarksdale, Mississippi this weekend, April 14-17, for the 13th Annual Juke Joint Festival. Over 100 musicians will play on outdoor stages and in legendary venues for crowds of locals that will be happily mixing with folks from all over The Magnolia State as well as nearly every other state in the Union and almost 30 foreign countries. But this is more than just another springtime blues festival – much more.
It was 2002 when the event’s co-founder, Roger Stolle moved to Clarksdale with the mission to “Organize and promote from within, based around the blues.” A life-long blues fan, he had visited the Coahoma County seat several times before, lured by the legends and lore of the city that gave the world blues artists such as John Lee Hooker, Son House, and Willie Brown as well as early R&B and Rock N Roll founders Ike Turner and Sam Cooke.
What he found at the time was, “An awesome place, but with very little actual blues in an organized sense or reliable way.” The classic juke joints were running much like the old house parties, with music on a sporadic basis and advertising being solely by word of mouth from those in the know.
Upon moving to the city himself, he opened the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store and almost immediately teamed with another Clarksdale businessman, Bubba O’Keefe, to found the Juke Joint Festival in 2004. The two quickly realized that there were no blues festivals in the Spring in Mississippi. “We felt that we needed that” said Stolle, “and he (O’Keefe) was very wise in stating that ‘not everybody here is a blues fan. How do we get everybody here to come out to this event?’ So we sort of hashed a mission statement so to speak; a slogan that says the Juke Joint Festival is ‘half blues festival, half small town fair, and all about the Delta’.”
Stolle says, “You come forward 13 editions and yes I book over 100 blues acts for it on 13 daytime stages and 20 night time venues, but we also have racing pigs. We have monkeys riding dogs and all the kid type stuff. We have a petting zoo, a bounce house, a rock wall; this was the theory and it actually worked. We not only attract a huge local population and regional population, but folks from all around the world and mix them all together for one glorious, blues-based weekend.”
Blues-based is putting it mildly. The 100-plus acts that play the annual gig are mostly from the South; Mississippi in particular, ranging from teenagers to those in their 90s. It is the real deal in Delta blues and unlike anything else in the world.
Stolle is quick to say, “The beauty of it is, that we mix all these people together based around the blues and small town fair components. We take locals, who back then may have been a little down on the blues or at least doubting whether the blues and cultural tourism could really do something to bring their town back; and we mix those folks with the folks from all around the world who are just thrilled to be here. The people visiting get the Southern hospitality and first hand history and the locals get the exotic experience of visitors from Israel or Brazil.”
The Juke Joint Festival, along with the crowds it attracts has been a boon to the city of Clarksdale in other ways. It has spawned more businesses in the downtown area including overnight apartments and a new sixty-two room hotel. “When the new hotel held their ribbon cutting, they mentioned the Juke Joint Festival and tourism as the reason why they thought it was worth the investment,” stated Stolle. “It all goes back to the mission of the festival. We love blues. Now that may be the heart of it, but if you don’t have a town, you don’t have the support of the people, you don’t have the places to have that music, then blues ceases to exist in the place that Lomax called, ‘the land where blues began’.”
Red’s Lounge, one of the original local juke joints in town owned by Red Paden, is a prime example of businesses in the city prospering. Some fifteen years ago, Red’s, which has been around for decades, may or may not have live music on a Saturday night, depending on whether or not someone was in town wanting to play and if people wanted to come out. Now, Red’s Lounge hosts live music every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, year round. A recent review posted by a visitor from New York on Yelp described Red’s as an “Amazing place to enjoy the blues in Clarksdale. Incredible music and a crackling energy. Dirty stories and scandalous dancing.”
A few blocks away and across the railroad tracks stands Ground Zero, the 21st century blues club that was the brainchild of actor Morgan Freeman, Memphis entertainment mogul Howard Stovall, and Clarksdale lawyer Bill Luckett. Although its been described by LA Times columnist Richard Fausset as “a simulacrum of a juke joint in the House of Blues style,” the Hollywood connection and live music four nights a week, including occasional nationally touring acts such as Bobby Rush and Big George Brock, make it a must-see stop in town.
Both clubs and 18 other venues make up the list of places in Clarksdale that locals and visitors alike can enjoy live Delta blues on the Saturday night of the Juke Joint Festival. A $20.00 wrist band gains access to all of the venues and acts that night as well as passage aboard the continually running shuttle buses that not only provide convenient transportation, but add the safety factor of not being tempted to drink and drive.
Other attractions in and around Clarksdale are equally historically significant and also involved with the festival. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. held the first major meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Clarksdale in 1958. The Riverside Hotel, formerly the G.T. Thomas Hospital, is the place where Bessie Smith died and has also been temporary home to Ike Turner (who wrote the classic song “Rocket 88” in room 7), Duke Ellington, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Nighthawk. The Illinois Central Railroad Passenger Depot, the “crossroads” of Highways 49 and 61, the historic radio station WROX, several Mississippi Blues Trail markers and, of course, the heralded Delta Blues Museum all reside along the banks of the Sunflower River.
Thanks to the Juke Joint Festival in particular, visitors to the city known as the “Golden Buckle on the Cotton Belt” now spend days there as opposed to a few years ago when their stay would last only two or three hours, normally just as a stop on a vacation tour from New Orleans to Memphis. The amount of visitors multiplied by the length of their respective stays equals more profit for local businesses, artists and attractions and has brought more people to live in Clarksdale, who, in turn, open more businesses. It is this cycle of recognition and success, all based around the blues, that has been the goal of Stolle’s personal mission.
Stolle doesn’t stop with just this annual April event however. Through what he refers to as “authentic marketing,” he brings the blues and the Delta alive to a mainstream world of people who may not be aware of their charms. This marketing involves his authorship of books such as Hidden History of Mississippi Blues; the production of award winning films including M for Mississippi and We Juke Up in Here; his forthcoming reality web series, Moonshine & Mojo Hands; magazine articles, radio shows and his co-founding of the annual Clarksdale Film Festival which takes place each January.
Tourist information, schedule of events, list of stages and night time venues, lists of exhibitors, local maps and more can be found at: