Juke Joint Festival in Mississippi Kicks Off Blues Festival Season

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Editor’s note: this article is getting a lot of traction in anticipation of Juke Joint Fest 2012, so it should be noted that Juke Joint Festival 2012 is Thursday, April 12th – Saturday, April 15th! American Blues Scene will be on hand to cover the event! 

Spring is rapidly springing, and that means that festival season is upon us! The upcoming Juke Joint Festival, Saturday, April 16th, in Clarksdale, Mississippi is the unofficial blues festival season kickoff.

This year, the American Blues Scene will be on hand at the Juke Joint Festival — and you’re invited!! We will be with the Bluescentric BBQ tent, and wearing American Blues Scene t-shirts. Find us to get your hands on a free bumper sticker while they last — and they never do! If you’re unable to make Juke Joint this year, keep yourselves tuned right here and on our Facebook Fan Page to get live coverage and updates throughout!

The setting couldn’t be better; Clarksdale is known as “ground zero for the blues”, and is deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the land where the blues began. Juke Joint Fest provides thousands of visitors a true delta feeling; the “stages” are under blue tents, on sidewalks in front of businesses’ doors, and in tiny juke joints where the musicians play straight to the people.The festival’s main acts are a showcase of amazingly talented delta musicians.  T-Model Ford, Honeyboy Edwards, bill Abel, Pat Thomas, Super Chikan, Terry “Harmonica” Bean and many others can be found playing the down-home stages and drinking beers at the bars.

The festival is based in the downtown area, which gives visitors quick and easy access to such famous juke joints as Reds, located right on the Sunflower river, Club 2000, Messenger’s and, of course, the always popular blues club Ground Zero. We took a few minutes to talk to Roger Stolle, festival co-founder and owner of the famous Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art Gallery, to get a better feel for what Juke Joint is.

 

Tell us about the nature of Juke Joint Fest! What is it?

Reds Lounge on Sunflower Avenue
The iconic Reds Lounge on Sunflower Avenue

Juke Joint Festival is half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta. We put it on through the non-profit Clarksdale Downtown Development Association, and the idea is to put business into the businesses, and employ as many real-deal Mississippi blues artists as possible. The festival aims to attract blues fans, media and musicians from around the world — in addition to locals and regional folks who drive on in for it. Last year’s Juke Joint Festival attracted attendees from at least 45 U.S. States, plus D.C., as well as 51 Mississippi counties and an amazing 19 foreign countries. The event provides a rare opportunity to see so many of the Magnolia State’s living legends and up-and-comers in one place at one time. This year’s “Robert Johnson Centennial Edition” will feature 100 acts for 100 years — the most blues musicians to ever play on a single weekend anywhere in Mississippi. We’ll have 13 daytime stages and 19 nighttime venues. Folks can see the entire line-up at www.jukejointfestival.com.

Why is it called “Juke Joint Festival”?

Unlike traditional, big-stage music festivals, Juke Joint Festival seeks to highlight not only the blues musicians, but also the venues where their music grew from and where they feel most comfortable — the juke joints. For the Mississippi Delta, the juke joint is like the frame around the picture; without them, the blues would not look (or sound) the same. Just as our older generation of Delta bluesmen has thinned out in recent years, the jukes are endangered as well; they need all of the help they can get. So, every year, we try to utilize as many of the surviving juke joints as possible in Clarksdale for the nighttime portion of the event. We also typically feature a different juke joint venue on our poster each year. Authentic jukes in this year’s 8th annual fest include Red’s Lounge, Club 2000, Messenger’s, Delta Blues Room, Anniebelle’s Lounge and Pete’s Grill. We’re also using the historic New Roxy theater building where acts like Sam Cooke once performed and world-famous Ground Zero Blues Club, which emulates a juke joint. To help attendees make it to as many of the nighttime venues as possible, we also have 4 nighttime shuttle buses and a train shuttle to move fans around. A $10 wristband gets you into 19 venues for over 20 acts plus unlimited rides on the shuttles. [Editor’s note: yes, he really means an actual train! It runs from downtown Clarksdale to the Shack up Inn, a wildly popular visitor destination, a couple of miles away.]

How long has Juke Joint Fest been going on, and what motivated you to start the festival?

Juke Joint Fest Stage
A stage in front of Miss Dell's General Store on Delta Avenue

Local Clarksdale businessman Bubba O’Keefe and I started Juke Joint Festival 8 years ago. We wanted to add a spring event for both locals and tourists, promote the Delta’s indigenous blues music and acts, and raise awareness to the plight of our disappearing juke joint culture. Every year, the fest has gotten bigger and better. Also, since we started the festival, more jukes and clubs have begun booking more ‘regular’ live music. And more businesses have opened up downtown. It all works together — annual festivals and day-to-day businesses. We need both. Today, Nan Hughes, Goldie Hirsberg and I organize the festival from the top — along with dozens of fantastic volunteers and lots of very helpful sponsors and supporters.

Which acts and special things should folks watch out for when they’re at Juke Joint?

There are so many great acts and special events going on in and around Juke Joint Festival this year, but here are a few things to put on the ‘essential list’:

– THURSDAY NIGHT – Juke Joint Fest Kickoff at Delta Cinema, with poster signing at 6pm (lobby) and North Mississippi String Band led by Jimbo Mathus and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart at 7pm. (cinema stage) — free music sponsored by Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc.

– FRIDAY – Walk of Fame dedication for Super Chikan (Ground Zero Blues Club, 11am), MS Blues Trail Marker dedication for Wade Walton (Walton’s Barbershop, 1pm), “Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” book signing (Cat Head, 3pm), “Conversations with Honeyboy Edwards” (Delta Blues Museum, 4pm), and Broke & Hungry Records 5th Anniversary Party w/Duck Holmes (Cat Head, 5pm).

– SATURDAY – Daytime blues highlights include Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, L.C. Ulmer, Rev John Wilkins, Super Chikan, Selwyn Cooper, Cedell Davis, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, etc. (throughout downtown, 10am-5pm). Miss Sarah Awards will be at Red’s Lounge at 7pm. Nighttime highlights include Big George Brock, Super Chikan, Jimbo Mathus, T-Model Ford, Big T, Big A, Way of Blues Revue, Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, Mark “Mule Man” Massey, Johnny Rawls and more.

– SUNDAY – Don’t miss my Cat Head Mini Blues Fest with Big A, Rev Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Honeyboy Edwards, Big George Brock, Bilbo Walker and Robert “Wolfman” Belfour!

What does the festival do for the city of Clarksdale?

If you ask this question to folks in Clarksdale, they will tell you that this has grown to be the town’s biggest single yearly event. Whether or not that is actually true doesn’t really matter. What they’re really saying — both blues fans and non-fans, both tourist businesses and “traditional” businesses — is that they see footsteps and positive results from the festival. It impacts them, personally and professionally, more than any other event or happening in the town or the region. Sales tax receipts are way up. All of the hotels rooms are booked. Folks eat, shop, drink, listen to music, gas up cars, etc., etc. There is an amazing financial and cultural exchange that goes on. It’s infectious and leads to more events, more businesses, and more return visitors. When we go to the Mayor and City Commissioners each year to ask official permission to shut down all the downtown streets and put on the massive blues event, they smile when we walk into the board room and, honestly, ask US what WE need. Juke Joint Festival’s success lies in the fact that it is a positive event that appeals to locals and tourists from all walks of life. It is very inclusive and provides Clarksdale with a platform to reach the world. Clarksdale is an awesome little town with a lot of living blues culture and true Southern hospitality. Juke Fest is our invitation to come down y’all and check it out for yourselves.
(By the way, next year’s Juke Joint Festival will be April 14th weekend in 2012.)

Matt Marshall from the American Blues Scene will be representing at Juke Joint Festival this year, selling smoked meat and pulled pork, in true Mississippi style. The Juke Joint Festival  continues to grow and thrive, year over year, because it is one of the most unique and entertaining festivals in the country. To learn more about Juke Joint Festival, go to http://jukejointfestival.com!

We also heard a rumor that the Best Western: Executive Inn still had some rooms available for the festival — a rarity one week before Juke Joint Fest! It’s only two short miles to downtown! (662) 627-9292

Juke Joint Festival 2011 Poster
2011's Juke Joint Festival poster, featuring the New Roxy, where Sam Cooke cut his teeth.(Click for a larger image)