For the second straight year, the Deep Blues Festival will be going down in the dusty Delta town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, a region where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil and is now known as “Ground Zero” for blues lovers from every corner of the world.
The festival will take place from Thursday, October 15th through Sunday, October 18th with legions of supremely talented but often unheralded musicians converging on Clarksdale for 4 days of blues and busking on downtown stages, street corners and the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn.
Located at the old Hopson Plantation, scoring a room at the Shack Up Inn is a tough ticket—especially during a festival weekend. Ironically, it was the introduction of a mechanized cotton picking machine at Hopson that helped set off the massive “Great Migration” of African-Americans to northern cities like Chicago and beyond.
Before this, Clarksdale had a population of about 12,000 with African-Americans making up about 10,000 of the populace. Most were sharecroppers on the cotton-rich farms and plantations who looked forward to a Saturday night on the town in the “New World District.”
During Clarksdale’s heyday, this area was jumping with juke joints, retail shops, restaurants and the Roxy Theatre, a white-owned business that ran Westerns and other fare for its black patrons. It’s also rumored that the Roxy hosted live music that featured performances by Muddy Waters and other blues musicians of that era.
Of course, the majority of those musicians made the move north and Clarksdale’s fortunes subsequently went south. But, the town has been experiencing resurgence of late, led by a band of dedicated individuals from far-flung places who came to Clarksdale hoping to preserve and protect its musical heritage.
Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head blues store and all-around Renaissance man is one of those individuals. After finding his life “forever altered” following a memorable night at Junior’s Juke Joint, he eventually left “the warm comfortable arms of corporate America” and made the move to Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Like many others, Stolle discovered that, “You can take the blues out of Mississippi but you can’t make it feel the same” so his goal was to “promote this uniquely American art form from within—and by all means necessary. “
Now, thirteen years later, Stolle says that, “not only have we succeeded in getting the word out about Clarksdale, we have also succeeded in giving our sleepy Southern town a shot in the arm. Clarksdale is THE spot in the world to visit for an honest-to-Muddy Mississippi blues experience.”
Stolle added that, “we’ve done this as a grassroots level, based around Mississippi’s blues and culture—not just a desire to turn blues into green.” He continued by saying, “consequently, we have successfully avoided the trap of Bourbon-Beale-Branson type recreations or over-commercialization” as the visitor is sure to encounter “real Clarksdale characters running juke joints, music stores and BBQ shops” as well as “interesting entrepreneurs, musicians and artists who moved here to be part of the Clarksdale comeback.”
When it comes to the upcoming Deep Blues event, Stolle said that the festival’s founder, Chris Johnson, “is a long-time fan of Clarksdale and our blues efforts here, he’s got great taste in music and he’s truly a nice guy.”
To underscore his point, Stolle said that Johnson could have brought the festival to Clarksdale and eschewed any local competition. Instead, “he talked with all of us in the music scene here and said, “Hey, if you guys want to host some music and events during Deep Blues Fest, then I’ll help market them for you!”
While Deep Blues will represent a coming-home weekend for many attendees, Stolle also imparted some advice for first-timers. He said, “He or she should plan to relax, explore and enjoy. Don’t plan on a lot of sleep though. We already have live blues every night of the week here, so whenever you toss a festival like Deep Blues on top of the regular scene, it just becomes this “all you can eat buffet” of music. Your sleep diet just goes out the window.”
What’s even better news for Clarksdale is the fact that “99.9 % of those first-timers will start making plans to return in the future before they even leave town.”
Many musicians also relish the return trip to Clarksdale. Mississippi Gabe Carter played Deep Blues at its original Twin Cities location and looks forward to performing in Clarksdale. He said he is “excited to see all of the friends I know who will be there. He added that, “I will also be nostalgic about the Clarksdale I saw years before my Internet days when I showed up in town and I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me…. And I saw the real Clarksdale.”
Carter will also have the opportunity to play at a real Clarksdale institution as he has a CD release party scheduled at the New Roxy Theatre on October 16th. This local landmark had laid vacant for years until being purchased by Robin Colonas and a partner in 2008.
A Seattle native, Colonas became the New Roxy’s sole owner in 2009 and faced the daunting task of removing a quarter century worth of debris and replacing rotting structures as “working to restore the theater is a labor of love for the music, the local culture and the way the two come together.”
The slow, but steady revitalization of the New Roxy Theatre mirrors what is being done throughout the town of Clarksdale. Stolle said that, “during my first couple years here, this really could have gone either way. It was a dire situation in the downtown business district. Today, I couldn’t be happier with our slow, methodical, entrepreneurial progress. We have reached a certain critical mass where I feel like we’ll only move forward. We had a second couple from Australia move here last week, and I was just talking with a local business leader yesterday about a building he’s turning into a funky new hotel. This past week, we also had CMT in town filming, and I did two interviews with travel writers. We continue to “promote from within,’ but now have partners from outside who seem just as determined to do the same. It’s pretty awesome, really.”