Words and Images by: Terry Mullins

Saturday, April 19, 2008

While there's no shortage of different ways to enjoy your eggs at breakfast, for the patrons packed inside Sarah's Kitchen in Clarksdale early on the morning of April 19, their eggs came with a raunchy good helpin' of greasy blues, courtesy of the Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band.

  Washboard Jackson and KM Williams playing their instruments while sitting outside
Washboard Jackson & KM Williams - 04/19
As has become tradition over the course of the past half-decade, Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band served as official kick-off ambassadors for Clarksdale's fifth annual Juke Joint Festival, rattling the windows, dishes and anything else that wasn't nailed down, while playing to an overflow crowd that spilled from inside the quaint confines of Sarah's Kitchen out onto Sunflower Avenue on a beautiful spring morning. Any sluggishness from hitting the clubs the night before was quickly wiped away seconds after the Reverend plugged in and commenced to abusing his well-worn acoustic guitar, joined in by his whirlwind wife Breezy on washboard and jack-hammering brother Jayme on drums. Stoked with a stomach full of biscuits and gravy, head buzzing with the Ramones-meets-Charley Patton buzz saw blues of the good Rev., the Juke Joint Festival was off to a perfect start – and the clock had yet to strike 9 a.m.

For a good number of roots music enthusiasts, Clarksdale is the very Mecca of the blues, and for good reason. After all, Clarksdale is not only where Son House learned to play guitar, it was also the one-time stomping grounds of W.C. Handy and home of Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke and John Lee Hooker, to name just a few. The Clarksdale Station is where a young McKinley Morganfield left his home on the Stovall Plantation in 1943, catching a train to Chicago to find the fame and fortune that would await him there as Muddy Waters. A couple of streets removed from the downtown area sits the Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith passed away in the early morning hours of September 26, 1937, after being in an auto accident while traveling from Memphis to Clarksdale. So, to say that the very heart and soul of the blues can be felt in every crack and crevice in Clarksdale would be a major understatement.

Billed as "half small town fair, half blues festival," by its organizers, the Juke Joint Festival, run by the Clarksdale Downtown Development Association and staffed entirely by volunteers, was started five years ago to educate and enlighten through a series of performances, exhibits and presentations involving music, art, storytelling, film and children's events. In other words, a great way to celebrate all things Delta while partying with blues fans from all across the globe.

The afternoon was filled with pig races, dog shows, parades and a trip through the world famous Delta Blues Museum. But, the true heart of the Juke Joint Festival starts beating as the sun sets on the Sunflower River and the revelry moves inside to the still-thriving juke joints that dot the landscape of downtown Clarksdale. Places like Ground Zero Blues Club, Messenger's Pool Hall, Club 2000 and the venerable Reds Lounge - places that still host real-deal live blues year round, helping to preserve the art in its native form, long after the festival crowds are gone.

Delivered by characters with colorful names like Duck, T-Model, Cadillac, Bilbo and Super Chikan, most of the performers at the Juke Joint Festival had some kind of bond with the city of Clarksdale, either past or present. But, none of the blues men at this year's celebration were any more colorful or could claim any longer link to the city than 93-year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards. One of the last living running buddies of the legendary Robert Johnson, Edwards is still every bit the road warrior he was some seven decades ago when he tramped all across the United States with a guitar strapped to his back. And despite the warm temperatures that engulfed the festival's late afternoon hours, Edwards was still in fine form, turning in a set heavy with numbers from his fourth release on Earwig Music, Roamin' and Ramblin'. Watching Edwards is very much like viewing a Technicolor news reel from an era long ago, an oral history lesson in every single note he coaxes from his acoustic guitar.

David 'Honeyboy' Edwards outside playing his guitar on stage  
David "Honeyboy" Edwards - 04/19 - Clarksdale, MS
Though its forefathers are naturally in rapid decline, the blues continue to evolve and press on thanks to a new generation intent on not just rehashing the past but rather on building off the foundation left from those before them. Jimbo Mathus and Knockdown South - Elam McKnight, KM Williams and Washboard Jackson - did yeoman's work at keeping the blues alive and fresh. They all kept joints rockin' well into the Delta night at various spots around town.

Just like any event worth its salt, legendary stories have already began to work their way into Juke Joint Festival lore. Like last year when My Brother's Sports Bar was so jam-packed with dancers strutting their stuff that they accidentally shoved guitarist Lightnin' Malcom out the plate glass front window, headfirst onto the sidewalk running along Third Street. But, like any band worth its salt, drummer Cedric Burnside (grandson of the late Hill County patriarch R.L. Burnside) kept four-on-the-floor through it all, while Lightnin' picked himself up, brushed the shards of broken glass out of his hair, climbed back through the remains of the window and onto the bandstand, all seemingly without missing a lick.

While that may not exactly be on par with Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil (which also supposedly happened near Clarksdale), this is how legends are sometimes built, and it's certainly how good times are born.

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