Mississippi: Home of the blues

By Jack Barlow

Down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, juke joints keep up the flow of beer and festival revellers soak up the music, finds Jack Barlow.

Musicians line Clarksdale's footpaths during the Juke Joint Festival, in Clarksdale, USA. Photo / Jack Barlow
Musicians line Clarksdale's footpaths during the Juke Joint Festival, in Clarksdale, USA. Photo / Jack Barlow

At first glance, central Clarksdale seems to be a study in dereliction. Boarded-up buildings with faded advertisements, buildings without roofs, buildings without even facades, abound.

It looks like a ghost town, quietly, gradually abandoned and left to the elements.

Although that's what it seems to be, that's not exactly what it is. The small Mississippi town, made famous by its early association with blues music, is once again making a name for itself by revisiting past glories.

Many of the broken buildings are actually fully functional bars, and several times a year they throw open their doors as the town plays host to blues festivals.

People come from around the US and overseas to get a taste of blues straight from where it all began, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

It's getting dark by the time we pull in after a six-hour drive from Louisiana.

We're here for the Juke Joint Festival, a two-day affair featuring hundreds of local musicians.

The festival is named after the area's juke joints, rough, bawdy bars that used to line the countryside in the deep South. Although they've mostly disappeared there are still a few in and around Clarksdale, and for a few days they'll boogie just like they did in their heyday 70 years ago. The New Roxy, a large, roofless building that looks to have been hit by a bomb at some point, kicks things off early Friday evening.

As darkness descends, locals sit around on bleachers outside, sipping 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor while local bands take to the exposed stage inside. The festival proper isn't expected to start until the next day, so a relatively small group of people wander in and out of the bare concrete building as the night progresses.

The headline act is a local three-piece, playing rough-as-guts delta blues. The singer looks like someone straight out of an early Alan Lomax photograph: hard, weather-ravaged face, overalls, a tattered hat and playing a battered guitar.

They drone on, the singer shouting unintelligibly and the drummer keeping an irregular, yet grooving, rhythm. They play for around three hours before they're off, a muttered goodbye and a wave to the small crowd signalling the end of their marathon set. The party is officially on.

The next day downtown Clarksdale is packed. The weather's turned out perfectly, and hundreds of tourists wander about in the steadily increasing heat, ducking in and out of buildings and stalls set up around the town.

Clarksdale would have been a rather pretty town at one point, with its early 20th-century brick buildings still looking rather elegant despite their obvious states of disrepair.

One bar is particularly busy. Nestled round the back of Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum - probably the only modern building downtown - Ground Zero looks like any other run-down building in the area. It's not.

The place is owned and run by Morgan Freeman, Hollywood leading man, and is actually relatively new. Also, everything's well-put-together and, with its authentic southern menu and solid local entertainment, it's packed throughout the festival.

People jostle for table space and etch their names on the bar's graffiti-covered walls and tables as a trio belts out somewhat conventional Chicago blues. There's a brief lull in the afternoon while festivalgoers sleep off the effects of the day's drinking so far, the sort of siesta typical of American blues festivals.

Beer has been in high demand, thanks to the heat. The one gas station (and cheap beer seller) in town has been doing a roaring trade, and by nightfall the line inside has spilled out its scratched and barred doors.

Nobody's quite sure whether open beers are actually allowed on the street, but the local police don't seem to mind.

Tonight's the night Clarksdale really gets moving.

The best musicians come out, inundating the town's bars and streets. Music is everywhere, different beats blending together to form a swirling cacophony of delta blues.

Bluesmen pound it out in local storefronts surrounded by drunken, dancing crowds. Juke joints turn hot and sweaty, their dance floors packed with people and sticky from spilled drinks. People crowd the footpaths and stumble into bar entrances.

We thread our way from one bar to another before catching a bus into the oppressively dark Mississippi countryside. We spend the rest of the night at a huge, sprawling plantation, drinking cold Budweisers and listening to yet another blues band playing yet another marathon set to drunken tourists.

It's all somewhat surreal, drinking beer and listening to a blues band play Margaritaville on a 19th-century plantation, but now's not the time for philosophical musings.

It's the night to party, and by the time the last note rings out, the sun is well and truly up over the long, flat delta fields.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies twice daily to LA from Auckland, increasing to three daily services from December-March.

Further information: See visitclarksdale.com.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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