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Blues Music Brings Mississippi City Love and Money

Thousands of people around the world flock to the heart of the Delta in Clarksdale, Mississippi each spring to take part in the Juke Joint Festival. For 14 years, the city has been literally singing and celebrating the blues.

Delta Ave.
Numerous people strut down Delta Ave. during Clarksdale’s 14th Juke Joint Festival. Photo by Wes Cooper.

However, the festival might not have started at all without Roger Stolle, owner of Cathead Delta Blues and Folk Art. 
Stolle grew up in Dayton, Ohio and moved to Clarksdale 15 years ago. He says he initially got interested in the blues when he was 10 years old and learned of Elvis Presley’s death.
“I like the blues Elvis. He did a lot of, early in his career, just straight-up covers of blues songs,” said Stolle.
Fast forward a few years and Stolle had an idea.
“I sort of formulated over time this concept of, well, what if I took my crazy blues fandom and my marketing and advertising and PR experience, sort of combine all that?”
He embarked on a mission to organize and promote blues from within.
“Even before I moved to Clarksdale 15 years ago, I would visit a lot and often times I would get into discussions about both blues tourism and downtown revitalization,” noted Stolle.
Stolle’s discussions with Bubba O’Keefe, a local Clarksdale businessman and lover of the city, blossomed into the idea of the first Juke Joint Festival on Jan. 28, 2004. “He kind of burst through my door here at Cathead, very excited, marching towards the counter he says, ‘That idea we’ve been talking about let’s do it,’” said Stolle.
The first year they started small.
“We had somewhere between three to five daytime stages and probably at night the same number of nighttime venues. We started trying to have activities that would bring out locals who are not necessarily blues fans, who quite frankly back then, probably didn’t have a positive image of our downtown because it was really rundown.”
Stolle and company also booked pig races because he thought that might attract some who didn’t care about the music.
“We knew the blues would bring out tourists and the hope was sort of they intermingle and there’d be sort of an obvious connection.”
Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 7.57.37 PMFourteen years later, the festival has grown to feature about 100 acts along with 14 daytime stages, 22 nighttime venues, 26 indoor stages, over 30 acts at night and more than 100 street vendors.
For this year’s festival, the streets of Clarksdale were lined with numerous pop-up tents featuring the Delta’s best art, music, food and craftsmanship.
From pig racing to monkeys riding on sheep, there is nothing common about the Juke Joint Festival.
“You have all these venues you don’t really think about that are actually really unique venues and you know people all over the world come to see these places,” said Clarksdale native Randall Haley.
A customer enjoys one of Elizabeth Brewer’s Kibbie wraps at her booth. Photo by Wes Cooper.

There are even a few things that Mississippians may find unique — like Clarksdale citizen Elizabeth Brewer’s kibbie stand.
According to Brewer, “Kibbie is Lebanese. It’s meat, wheat, and onions. Some people eat it raw, and some people cook it. We fry it, and then we break it up in pieces and put it in the wrap. We put mayonnaise on the tortilla, and we put the meat, and then we put a mixture called tabbouleh. That’s Lebanese also. It’s got wheat and onions and parsley and lettuce and tomatoes and lemon and garlic in it. And then put a little hot sauce on it.”
Brewer has been making kibbie for hungry customers for the last five to six years and learned the recipe from a friend’s mother. “Even with the rain people were standing in line. That’s why we put this tent up. We felt bad.”
As one can imagine, Juke Joint Festival dramatically increases Clarksdale’s economy each year, bringing in thousands of visitors.
“There’s been some that come here from Australia. There’s some from England. For the last week, people have been here. You walk up and down the streets, and you’re going to meet somebody that’s from some other country or either state,” said Brewer.
Haley says it’s a big benefit to the city.
“The hotels and the shack up inns that everybody wants to see and stay in, all those things are booked like a year in advance. So it’s a huge economy boost for us because otherwise those hotels probably sit empty most of the year, but they’re able to operate and stay open all year round just because of what comes in for the festival.”
Ultimately, Stolle says the goal of the Juke Joint Festival is for people to unite and enjoy the city’s charm.
“By having the sub-genres of blues, having these non-blues things, they’re almost small-town fair-ish. It just mixes people up, and I always find people, in general, are good. People, in general, want to know other people and there’s real Southern hospitality, here so it just seems to open a lot of doors and I feel like it’s helped to contribute to some of the new business downtown that are black and white owned. Music is just a powerful force,” said Stolle.
He continued, “It’s just a cool thing. It sort of brings people together without telling them they have to be together. To me the music is always the secret.”
Check out Randall Haley’s full Juke Joint Festival story.

This story was produced by Wes Cooper, a student at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

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