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With the Juke Joint Festival, a Mississippi city aims to lose its economic blues

In Mississippi’s Clarksdale, the heart of the rural Delta, a celebration of the blues has been drawing thousands of fans to the area for the past 16 years. The Juke Joint Festival, named for bars and informal music venues scattered throughout the African American South in part as a response to whites-only clubs, has helped revitalize a city whose economy was struggling. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now: a music festival attempting to keep the blues alive in the Mississippi Delta and revive a struggling town.

    Jeffrey Brown reports.

    It's part two of our — or part, I should say, of our arts and culture series, Canvas, and our look at American creators.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A rainy Saturday night in Clarksdale, in the heart of the rural Mississippi Delta.

    At the new seed and supply company, Anthony "Big A" Sherrod is holding court. It was just one act in a town-like celebration of the blues that, for 16 years, has been bring thousands of fans here, rain or shine, each spring.

  • Anthony Sherrod:

    It's wonderful, man. It's lovely, lovely. They love the blues, just like I do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They came from all around the country and all over the world, including this contingent from Australia. This year, the festival featured more than 100 performances. For the kids, there were racing pigs and a monkey riding a dog herding goats.

    The festival takes its name from juke joints, informal bars and music venues once scattered throughout the African-American South as an answer, in part, to whites-only clubs, a rich history now in danger of being lost.

    Red's Lounge is said to be one of the last true juke joints in Clarksdale and on a Friday night was packed, as Frank Rimmer dazzled on guitar.

  • Red Paden:

    See, I was keeping it a secret. I don't know. Somehow, it got out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Red Paden has been running this place for more than 40 years.

    So why do you think people are coming here from all over the world? They keep coming.

  • Red Paden:

    They heard I was a mean son of a bitch. That's what that is.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No, really, why are they coming to Clarksdale? Why are they coming to Red's?

  • Red Paden:

    Well, it tells a story, man. And a lot of them have gone through certain things, you know, but didn't know how to express themselves. So, in that music, they have learned how to express themselves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Clarksdale sits at a very famous crossroads of blues history, where Route 61, which runs from New Orleans to Memphis, St. Louis and beyond, meets Route 49, which runs across Mississippi.

    And it's where, according to lore, blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn the guitar. It's home to the Riverside Hotel, on the south side of town, where singer Bessie Smith died after a car accident. And it was once home to legends like Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and many more.

    Juke Joint Festival co-founder Roger Stolle grew up in Ohio as a fan of the music, and moved here in 2002 to open Cat Head, a record store. He says the downtown was dead, and live music was struggling to be heard.

  • Roger Stolle:

    It was just really winding down. You could almost just see it winding down. So it's kind of like, well, you make it reliable, I can bring you tourists, blues fans. But they're not going to spend the night in Clarksdale if I can't promise them you have got music tonight.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, there are new cafes, restaurants, hotels and live music across town, including at many new venues like Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman.

    Economic challenges remain, but cultural tourism has been a major factor in the growth.

  • John Henshall:

    You could fire a cannon down the street and not hit anyone.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    John Henshall is an economist based in Melbourne, Australia. He first came here in 2001 by accident, and has since returned 22 times. Now he's written a book about its downtown redevelopment, and lessons for other small cities.

  • John Henshall:

    Well, to have something you can authentically promote, in this case, it's the blues.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Something real.

  • John Henshall:

    Something real. And it's not just the music, but certainly the blues. That's one of the lessons. You got to promote it. You have got to get people engaged. And increasingly the Clarksdalians themselves are now recognizing what they have here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean they didn't before?

  • John Henshall:

    They grew up with it. They didn't realize that it's something could be so appealing to people beyond the city limits.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In a majority-black area, those visitors are overwhelmingly white, as are many of the new businesses. And the challenge here is to make sure the benefits are spread evenly.

  • Archie Buford:

    A lot of people depend on the festival, you know, in Clarksdale, because of the economy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Archie Buford is owner of Our Grandma's House of Pancakes, one of a number of new downtown establishments, but one of the few black-owned.

  • Archie Buford:

    What we got to work on is making sure what we do inside the fence gets outside to better the community. The better the community, the better the city.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Festival co-founder Roger Stolle.

  • Roger Stolle:

    You know what it is? It's the first puzzle piece on that empty table. And it was absolutely an empty table.

    And the thing about puzzle pieces is, you can build off of that. So now you look at it, there's the obvious things, like, OK, well, we have got live blues 365 nights a year, which we do. We have a dozen festivals a year, which we do. And it just — it reverberates.

    It may not save the town, obviously, on its own, but it's sort of the foundation of what we're doing, at least for downtown revitalization.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a hope for the music, and for the economic benefits it can bring.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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