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Cedric Burnside Project at 2016 Juke Joint Festival

C. Michael Bailey By

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Cedric Burnside Project
Delta Theater
Juke Joint Festival
Clarksdale, MS
April 16, 2016

The Mississippi River Delta is an imperfect song played perfectly by an old woman losing her mind...

It occurred to me, as the bus in which I was riding, passed through what approximates downtown Des Arc, Arkansas, that when most scholars address blues music, it is always from the Mississippi Delta. I suspect that this more appropriately should be referred to as the Mississippi River Delta, an area of fecund flatland figuratively poured out the front door of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and flowing into the surrounding bottomlands of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The geopolitical area we refer to as "The Delta" is as socially and culturally conflicted as any 18th-Century British colonial conquest, replete with the beauty of indigenous art and the scourge of hatred and bigotry. The Mississippi Delta region is the United States' contribution to Mother Earth's third world countries. Once peppered with thriving communities and commerce, the delta is now a collection of mostly meticulously clean towns with main streets filled with empty storefronts like missing teeth smiling out of a still-proud and friendly face.

This is how Des Arc looked, a lot of Brinkley, Marvell, and Helena-West Helena on the Arkansas side and Lula, Friar's Point, Jonestown, Lyon, and, finally, Clarksdale, my final destination, on the Mississippi side looks today. Socially and culturally, these places are preserved like the surroundings of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, static, frozen in time. One can find people drinking coffee at the favored cafe and buying carp, gar, and paddle fish out of the back of a pickup truck, netted just that morning, and eating Sno-cones outside the Tastee-Freeze. Save for the automobiles and clothing, it could still be 1950 in the Delta, and for our purposes the weekend of April 16, 2016, the 13th Annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, this is just fine. Despite its current social slumber, the Della remains richly creative ground.

Clarksdale, Mississippi is a cultural artifact that illustrates that one can only become a part of a place in time by taking it for granted. Thirty-years ago, while in graduate school, I practiced pharmacy over a good bit of the Mississippi Delta region, including Clarksdale. Among my patients were the families-of-origin of Mose Allison (Tippo, Tallahatchie County) and Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs (Rich, Coahoma County) as well as more locally known artists and writers. I was exposed to (often in the same breath) the humblest and most hospitable people, as well as, the most bigoted and backward individuals I ever met. It might be easy to dismiss this as being true anywhere, but this is not just anywhere, this is the American South, the most culturally-fertile and socially- conflicted region of the country. Where these two characteristics meet is what provided the grist that would become Rock 'n Roll.

While my Delta experience had a profound impact on my life and thinking, it was easy for me to assimilate into and become a part of an historical space-time and forget the cultural importance of Clarksdale to American Culture and cultural history. Clarksdale is notable for several reasons. It is the county seat of Coahoma County. Derived from the Choctaw Indian word for "red panther," Coahoma County, in addition to Clarksdale, had within its boundaries the cities of Coahoma, Friars Point Jonestown, Lula, and Lyon, all of which loom large in the Mississippi River Delta blues music historiography. Coahoma County was logically also the home to several notable American musicians, including John Lee Hooker (County), Rick Ross (County), Ike Turner (Clarksdale), James Carr (Coahoma), Conway Twitty (Friars Point), WC Clay (Jonestown), Bertha Lee Pate and Sam Carr (Lula) and Eddie "Son" House (Lyon).

Clarksdale is also where the great blues songstress Bessie Smith perished following an auto accident on the fabled Highway 61 on September 26, 1937. Smith's boyfriend, Richard Morgan, was driving the car when he underestimated the slow speed of a truck ahead of him. Morgan swerved, hitting the rear of the truck high speed. The tailgate of the truck clipped the roof of Smith's Packard. Smith, almost amputating Smith's right arm. Smith was ultimately taken to Clarksdale's G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. Bessie Smith died without regaining consciousness.

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