Every year the small town of Clarksdale turns into a mecca of Blues fans, performers and vendors. The city’s annual Juke Joint Festival brings in people from around the world to hear and enjoy the authentic sounds of the Mississippi Delta Blues and experience some of the best food in the South.
Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, and Clarksdale native and businessman, Bubba O’Keefe, founded the Juke Joint Festival eleven years ago. Described by Stolle as half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta; the event is 100 percent positive for the city of Clarksdale and its downtown area.
“We’re coming up on our eleventh edition of the Festival,” Stolle said. “It started out as a conversation between the two of us on how we could bring more business activity and entertainment to downtown Clarksdale. And when you look back on it, almost a dozen years later, it seems like the most natural and practical thing in the world. Let’s put on a Blues festival and promote Clarksdale.”
But Stolle said that wasn’t necessarily the case when they first began talking about it. The landscape of Clarksdale was much different back then, especially downtown. And trying to talk other people into the concept of this half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta event wasn’t easy.
“It’s not a main stage event,” Stolle said. “We have multiple daytime stages; we use the juke joints and clubs at night. We line the streets of Clarksdale with vendors and it all seems great now, but back then it just seemed like a huge challenge.”
Back in the earlier days of the Festival, Stolle said they probably only had around three daytime stages and today they have at least a dozen. Eleven years ago they had around five juke joint, Blues club venues and today they have over twenty.
“We probably attracted folks from just a few foreign countries and maybe five or ten states,” Stolle said. “But this past Juke Joint Festival, with what we could track anyway, we brought in visitors from at least twenty-eight foreign countries, as well as forty-six U.S. states and D.C, and also something around 54 Mississippi counties. So it has definitely grown over the years.”
Stolle said their tracking system right now consists of volunteers just asking people and, of course, wristband sales.
“For example, people come to one of our booths for information,” he said, “and we try to get them to sign in. Or when they buy their wristbands we also try to get their info. And we have sign-in sheets all over town those days, at the museums, restaurants…places like that.”
Stolle said it was a challenge to get any definitive numbers on people who attend the Festival, due in part to the fact that the daytime activities are free and it’s a big, sprawling event.
“Guestimates for last year that most people toss out are somewhere around 7,000 people during the day,” he said. “And at night, I know we had something like 3,200 people because of wristband sales. Those we can track pretty accurately.”
As for the economic impact of the Juke Joint Festival, Stolle said there are definitely the short-term, immediate effects such as every single hotel within an hour from Clarksdale is booked.
“You know, that’s immediate,” he said. “People are making money that week. Also, everyone who is staying in those hotels are getting gas somewhere, eating, going to hear music, visit the museums and shopping. Those types of economical upswings are the obvious ones. Technically, it’s a one-day event, but we have from the beginning promoted it as the Juke Joint Festival and related events. That way local businessman, museums and vendors can pull in related events, spanning beyond the weekend.”
Stolle added that by doing that, they have people who come in the week before the event and stay the entire week. It starts with a Thursday night kickoff and wraps up with Sunday events like his own Cat Head Mini Blues Fest, the Rock and Blues Museum’s party and Red’s Jam at night.
The long term effect is that you get locals interested in their downtown area and in the Blues and their cultural heritage, teach them how important it is to the economics of Clarksdale and it’s great.
The Juke Joint Festival is put on through the Clarksdale Downtown Development Association, he said. So part of the mission is to put business into the businesses, trying to involve as many downtown entities as possible.
“We try to assist or facilitate anyone who wants to be opened and involved in the Festival,” Stolle said. “If they want to come to us, we’ll suggest something or help them with whatever they have in mind, so that everyone can be involved in the economic benefits of this Festival.”
The current mayor, Bill Luckett, is a big supporter of the Festival and always has been.
“Through Ground Zero Blues Club, Bill has been a supporter since day one,” Stolle said. “In terms of being a venue and businessman himself, and now as mayor, he has an even bigger way of assisting us, in that city government works with the council, making sure everything is safe, secure and organized. The past administration was also wonderful to work with, but moving forward the new administration, since Bill Luckett is in a unique position to have had tourists almost every day over the years visit his club, even more so. Because he knows exactly what this type of event can do economically for Clarksdale.
“Basically all the true Blues performers from ‘We Juke Up in Here’ and ‘M is for Mississippi’ who are still alive,” Stolle said. “We’re a festival that books locals first and then spreads out from there. Our priority is having the real deal guys, the authentic culturally-connected Blues performers who are still with us, because they get lost a lot of times in festivals that specialize in headliners.”
The 12th annual Juke Joint Festival will be held on Saturday, April 11, but related events will start Thursday, April 9 and carry through the night of Sunday, April 12. (Related events on that Sunday include the always free and fabulous Cat Head Mini Blues Fest at 10 a.m. as well as the Second Street Blues Party in front of the Rock & Blues Museum.)
Angela Rogalski is a HottyToddy.com staff reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first appeared in the Delta Business Journal, a publication owned by Scott Coopwood, a HottyToddy.com contributor.