Postcard from… The Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels. If you would like to take part please get in touch – eluxton@hotmail.co.uk or @em_luxton – I would love to hear from you!

This week’s Postcard comes from Betsy Steichen, the traveller behind the awesome blog Just One Backpack. Betsy says “I’ve learned a lot about lugging stuff around while travelling. Keep it simple and pack light. You don’t need much. It’s amazing how far a small backpack, sensible shoes Postcard From Clarksdale Mississippiand a waterproof jacket can get you.” A great philosophy, and one I could learn from; I especially love Betsy’s advice “take twice the money and half the clothes”. Don’t forget to check out her blog and her Facebook Page, too.

Welcome, Betsy! Where did you go?

I hit the road for 6 weeks travelling through eastern Texas, Cajun Country in Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. The trip itinerary was fairly loose except for getting to Clarksdale Mississippi to attend the Juke Joint Festival on a certain weekend. Located along the Sunflower River, this great city in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is steeped in history. The first cotton crop commercially produced entirely by machinery, from planting to baling, was grown during the year 1944 on 28 acres owned by the Hopson Planting Company of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale has also served as home at one time or another to: Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cook, Ike Turner, the Staple Singers, the Five Blind Boys, and many others. Clarksdale is everything to Mississippi Blues and the Juke Joint Festival is just one of many festivals throughout the year to celebrate the music.

Postcard From Clarksdale Mississippi

Sounds very cool! Did you stay somewhere nice for the festival or was it camping all the way?

We camped at the Coahoma County Expo Center Fairgrounds which was nothing more than a place to lay your weary head down. There were “permanent residents” in this treeless field, nonworking electrical outlets and the bathrooms became a sorry sight two days day before the festival even started, but the price was right and the neighbors friendly. If you plan ahead you can find all kinds of great accommodations in the area, you don’t have to camp in a field.

What was the highlight of your trip?

We covered a lot of miles during our road trip but the Juke Joint Festival was definitely one of the highlights. The low key festival is officially only one day but the days leading up to and following were just overflowing with talent. Over the course of the weekend we got to see and meet a lot of great musicians on a variety of stages from the sidewalk outside local businesses to a full on stage at Ground Zero.

The highlight was hanging out at the Rock & Blues Museum. This is where I met up with a long-time friend, Liz Mandeville, Chicago Blues Hall of Fame recording artist who played several sets over the course of the festival. The Rock & Blues Museum is a non-profit museum, a huge labor of love and holds an incredible collection of rock and blues memorabilia. This is where I got to meet Rip Lee Pryor, the son of the great Snooky Pryor, Chicago blues harmonica player. You probably can’t find a nicer guy around. He invited me up to sing along in the Saturday night jam at The Den. This was such a great experience for me. I also got to spend a little time with Cash McCall who was telling great stories from back in the day. I felt honoured by all of it.

Postcard From Clarksdale Mississippi

Strolling around town people were selling chitlins, cigar box guitars, stomp boxes, all kinds of art, crafts, food vendors up and down the main streets in town and music on most every block in front of local businesses. Saturday night the clubs filled with yet more talent and everyone played their hearts out.

What’s the food like in Clarksdale?

There’s plenty of places and food choices for eating in this town but you can’t come to Clarksdale without having a tamale, strange as that may sound, or some BBQ. I’d head for Reds if I had to pick one place but it’s all good.

Did you meet anyone interesting at the festival?

We met a contingent of folks from Australia who absolutely love American Blues music and Clarksdale. They were honoured at one of the venues which was decorated with Australian flags. The contingent of Australians were having a great time and I had a chance to talk with a few of them. One of the men told me he has been to America 18 times and 15 of those to Clarksdale!

Festivals in England are known for being very muddy and wet, even in summer. What was the weather like in Clarksdale?

The weather was just perfect, a tiny bit windy but not a spot of rain that I remember.

And finally, Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a similar trip?

Following the Mississippi Blues Trail, there are historic markers on the roadside and many blues-related museums and areas of interest along the way. Here is a short list but do your research this list is not inclusive.
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, Indianola
Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Store, Clarksdale
Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale
Highway 61 Blues Museum, Leland
Robert Johnson Heritage and Blues Museum, Crystal Springs
Rock & Blues Museum, Clarksdale

As for lodging there are some great places with incredible historic value. Rooms are hard to come by during festival times but plan ahead to stay at the Shack Up Inn. I can’t say enough about these friendly folks and their amazingly restored shotgun shacks.

NB – all photographs are owned by Betsy Steichen

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