Spring arrives in the Mississippi Delta where rich, green grass along Highway 6 West welcomes visitors who drive the flat, two-lane country road to Clarksdale for the 10th annual Juke Joint Festival held every April.
Founded in 1848, Clarksdale has been the county seat of Coahoma County for the past 150 years. The town’s African-American community helped create a large blues culture, serving as home to blues musicians Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.
At the intersection of Routes 61 and 49 in Clarksdale lies “The Crossroads,” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to play the guitar, a location that lives in blues folklore. If not for the three oversized blue guitars, the intersection would be unrecognizable in today’s modern Clarksdale.
Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett opened Ground Zero Blues Club in 2001 with friend and actor Morgan Freeman. Located on Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale, the venue provides live music and crispy, fried catfish to visiting blues tourists.
Like much of the Delta, Clarksdale suffers from declining population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there was a 13 percent decrease from 20,645 in 2000 to 17,962 in 2010. Luckett said that agriculture will always be the number one industry in the Delta, but the return of blues tourism has made large strides in bringing more revenue to Clarksdale in the form of occupied hotel rooms and busy blues clubs.
Luckett noted that it is common to have tourists come as far away as England and Italy to hear authentic Delta blues.
“We started with music just two nights a week,” Luckett said. “We wanted to provide a constant, count-on type of venue, every Friday night and Saturday you could hear blues music here in Clarksdale.”
Ground Zero offers more than just a concert venue for visitors. The apartments above the club can be used as a home base for visitors who are looking to explore the region. The Art Deco flair of one room offers a retro retreat for visitors looking to extend their visit to Clarksdale.
Bill Jagitsch, of Little Rock, Ark., made the 150-mile trek to Clarksdale with his wife for the weekend’s blues music.
“It is really unique. It’s different than any other blues festival. You can walk up and down the street and walk into all the clubs. Check out the different clubs with the wristband,” Jagitsch said. “It’s not like one stage outside. It’s a lot of things going on and a lot of different styles of blues.”
University of Mississippi senior Kelly Psonak traveled from Oxford to Clarksdale to spend the weekend exploring the town’s juke joints and clubs. Psonak, who attended the festival once before, said that she enjoys the street vendors’ art and the rich flavor of fish tacos from local restaurant Oxbow.
“The blues influence is definitely a pull to go out there (Clarksdale),” Psonak said. “It is something that is so a part of the Delta.”