Down in Mississippi, Up to Great Blues

You can hear the blues of every time period of the last century during Mississippi’s Juke Joint Festival.

He was killing it. I ate a chili dog, fried shrimp, French fries, pizza, grits, a biscuit with gravy, bacon and eggs, just today…

I texted this to a friend from Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I was with some other friends, including photographer Lindsay Morris, for four days of blues at the Juke Joint Festival, which, once it was in full swing, started at the breakfast hour and ran almost till the next breakfast hour. The “he” who was killing it was Cedric Burnside, whom I’d just seen perform as part of a trio in front of an old movie theater in the city’s downtown. I’d seen Burnside before, in New Orleans, but hearing him not in a club but on a sidewalk, in afternoon sunlight, in a small city in North Mississippi, was not the same. The amplifiers had a sharper edge, which like the heat and the overcast sky, added another timbre to Burnside’s deep, insistent drums and the keen of his voice. He was playing the trancelike electrified update of Delta blues made famous by his grandfather, R. L., along with others like Junior Kimbrough and T. Model Ford. The music that afternoon had a cubist quality in that you could hear other time periods swirling into 2017, though 2017 was just as resonant as those other time periods. Indeed, you could hear the blues of every time period of the last century during that long weekend—several Kimbroughs and Burnsides (my favorite was Gary Burnside), and also blues that sounded nothing like the blues that Cedric was playing in front of the movie theater. There was fife and drum music—this is not soldiers in redcoats from the Revolutionary War but African-Americans taking the same instrumentation and bringing it to life in a way you would find hard to believe if you’ve never heard it. There was the opposite of that kind of music: super clean electric guitarists backed by tight horn sections. There were acoustic players accompanying themselves on kick drums and tambourines. There were white guys from the Midwest playing punk blues, and a Belgian woman with hair like Gene Vincent playing rockabilly blues. At night, there were men in their seventies or eighties playing John Lee Hooker–style blues in bars in the center of town and also far away in Quonset huts in the farm fields. Lightnin’ Malcolm, who I must have seen play at least six times—day, night, two in the morning—seemed to play all of these styles. I remember thinking I should go to bed in the middle of his long set in the bar of our hotel, the Shack Up Inn, well after midnight after what had already been 10 hours of listening to blues, when Lightnin’ Malcolm switched to a Stratocaster and went psychedelic and there we were for another two hours, another beer, why not.

Another two hours, another beer, why not.

Chili dogs, chicken-on-a-stick, tamales, barbecue, crawfish—some of the food was great, some of it not great at all, and there were not many vegetables to speak of. The four days in Clarksdale were not about the food but about the music, but still, but still…