- "Life Gets Heavy"Blues Tourism in Clarksdale, Mississippi
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 78]
If you are not from Mississippi and you have heard of Clarks-dale, then it is probably because of blues music. Perhaps no other American city is as singularly linked to its music history as Clarksdale, and certainly no other city is so thoroughly connected to the blues. This is partially because Clarksdale, a gritty town of seventeen thousand people in the Mississippi Delta, has as rich a music history as any city in America, but also because no other city has so fully staked its current identity and economic future to its music. Memphis, Chicago, and St. Louis are all well known for their blues, but they are major metropolitan centers where the blues is an enjoyable diversion for a few. In true blues fashion, the much smaller Clarksdale is improvising with the main thing it has going for it. Clarks-dale is not only the hometown of such seminal musicians as Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and John Lee Hooker, but annually it attracts thousands of tourists and their badly needed dollars through numerous music festivals and live blues music seven nights a week. Many other cities have blues clubs or museums, but Clarks-dale is a blues city.
Although Clarksdale today declares itself—with more than a bit of marketing hyperbole—to be "Birthplace of the Blues" and "Home of the Crossroads"—the city's embrace of its blues history and attendant tourism is largely a twenty-first-century phenomenon. In fact, while Clarksdale played a key role in the development of popular American music for much of the twentieth century, it did so largely without the recognition or encouragement of its politically powerful, native white community, which variously ignored, denigrated, and opposed the blues and related African American music. However, following the lead of numerous (primarily white) transplant residents with a passion for the blues, Clarksdale's (again, primarily white) business and political leaders have recently realized the value of music tourism, a process fraught with economic, cultural, and racial complexities. Clarksdale's embrace of its own blues history is a story of the intertwined dynamics of race, memory, cultural commodification, and, oddly enough, country music star Conway Twitty.1
Without knowing what to expect, I first visited Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta in 2010 to attend the annual Juke Joint Festival. Billed as "half blues festival and half small-town fair," the festival started in 2003 and quickly grew to be Clarksdale's key weekend for tourism, now attracting over ten thousand visitors and filling every hotel room within an hour of the city. As I drove into Clarksdale early Saturday afternoon, I saw grass sprouting thick from shattered pavement, and iron bars protecting sagging window air conditioners. Bright Sesame Street stickers on a seemingly abandoned house indicated a working day care center. [End Page 79] I joined the slow line of newly arrived cars of tourists and wondered with some trepidation where the festival was.2
The scene changed dramatically when I arrived in Clarksdale's small downtown. There were still plenty of closed businesses, but thousands of revelers filled streets with names such as Yazoo, Issaquena, Sunflower, and Delta avenues, dancing along to musicians playing live blues music on each block. True to its name, the Juke Joint Festival was no place for folkies to hear plaintive acoustic blues. Rather, dozens of musicians, ranging from then-eleven-year-old prodigy "King-fish" Ingram to ninety-year-old "T-Model" Ford, played thumping electric blues, locating the blues firmly in its early role as Saturday night party music. Black and white tourists...