A new year, still Live From Clarksdale
Who knew Live From Clarksdale would live til 2021?
Not us! We thought this thing would help keep musicians on their feet for a few weeks... SO many weeks later, a new year dawns to find we're still here -- and so is the blues, alive and well in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Big A just played a helluva show with Preston & Lee to celebrate the new! year! Yesterday we timed NYE with our European Blues Union friends, starting with Lucious Spiller and Roger Stolle at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Arts, then walking the broadcast back behind the alley to the flag-draped Bluesberry CAFE, where Watermelon Slim led a countdown in Italian and wished everyone a happy new year in French and Spanish too.
Today a Finnish blues reporter came, curious to see how Clarksdale has fared in the pandemic. It made me reflect on how we started this whole Live From Clarksdale project as Shared Experiences' other plans pivoted, in that exact space so many months ago:
I pointed to the table where I sat with a couple musicians who'd just lost their jobs, not only as touring musicians but as teachers of the next generation in the Delta Blues Museum's education program (and I pointed to Big A and Lee onstage, both former students of and teachers in the program, who should've been on stage in Europe now). That Monday night turned out to be their last public gig. It was also the day Juke Joint officially cancelled. That Tuesday at Hambone Art Gallery, Lala Craig, Mississippi Marshall & Stan Street harmonized Louisiana 1927, a song about resilience along the Mississippi.
Wednesday, Red's closed. We haven't had "normal" live music or public gatherings since. That Wednesday, Lucious went live online. And we worked with a handful of other musicians to follow, setting up PayPals and learning to keep old phones from accidentally broadcasting sideways and keeping Clarksdale's tradition of "Live Blues, 7 Nights a Week" alive. 4wks later, we hosted one of the first major music festivals to attempt a single live stream, 9hrs and 27 acts in a Virtual Juke Joint. 10,000+ people watched live. That's more than half the size of our town.
This reporter asked about numbers: the number of people we reach (~40,000+ monthly) and musicians and venues #LiveFromClarksdale has broadcast (12+ local musicians regularly, 40+ throughout the year, 20+ venues), including non-traditional venues like the Clark House Inn front porch and Meraki Roasting Company (we're doing a Beans, Bagels & Blues experience with Terry Harmonica Bean tomorrow/Sat at noon!)...all to keep musicians playing and local business going. And to bring glimmers of Clarksdale to people who can't travel now and so, so wish they could.
This isn't the kind of travel startup I'd envisioned; instead of connecting people here, we've been bringing Clarksdale to the world. Today people tuned in to listen and celebrate and wish each other and us in Clarksdale a Happy New Year from Istanbul, the Virgin Islands, Australia, Bolivia, Canada, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Portugal. Also Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and so many states and towns in between. For a small town in the Mississippi Delta, we've got a downright cosmopolitan group of friends.
It's been a strange year, dancing behind the camera as a live audience of 1 in an otherwise empty venue. The musicians give heroic performances every night, keeping energy up to play to otherwise invisible audiences (my dancing definitely doesn't count) -- who tune in nightly from Australia, Switzerland, Nepal... Blues musicians aren't new to adversity in the Delta. They're resilient. The blues is resilient. But it's lonely, these rooms that echo with the audiences no longer physically here. Everyone's lonely. Some people in the audience are too, wherever they may be.
Some nights, I look up at those flags. Each one representing a person, a whole country, who loved Clarksdale and that venue and its people so well, they brought that flag for us to fly proudly. I think less about the patriotism of it all, than how all that color makes the room less empty, how each flag is actually a person in the room, or many. And while we connect through the ether with what Slim and Stan sometimes call the Invisible People, these flags are in fact very visible people in the room. And through the flags or that little online connection, we all feel a little less alone.
Beneath the flags, toward the end of today's show at Hopson Commissary, someone requested Muddy Waters. Big A indulged, then before transitioning into his own We Juke Up in Here, paid an extended homage to our history -- everyone now gone from Clarksdale, from his goddad Big Jack Johnson to his mentor Razorblade, Son House, Sam Carr, Frank Frost, Wesley Junebug Jefferson, Willie Butler, Johnny Billington, Bilbo Walker, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and of course the great McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters...
And Pinetop Perkins. Pinetop was Muddy's pianist for many years. They both left Clarksdale for Chicago, part of the Great Migration that took so many musicians and families from plantations and the Jim Crow South to a better life far away -- bringing and electrifying and spreading the gospel of the blues with them.
Pinetop broadcast on the famed King Biscuit Hour across the river in Helena -- and drove the tractor right here, where we broadcast today, the former Hopson Plantation. Hopson Commissary has been transformed into one of the coolest bars and performance spaces you've ever seen. (Perhaps not coincidentally, we have a few of those in town.) And yes, it still has the original triple-doored safe, and you pass a wall of antique mailboxes when entering through the front door.
You might think that after escaping North, someone like Pinetop wouldn't set foot in a commissary again. But Pinetop lived a long life, and returned for many years to celebrate the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming here at Hopson, the day after the King Biscuit Festival every October. (He lived to be 97, and the Pinetop Perkins Foundation now supports both blues education and elder musicians.)
We've been thinking about these things a lot this past year, and are working on a project with Visit Clarksdale to explore and share our history. It's complicated! The legacy of the blues, and this place from which it sprang, is complicated. How can something born alongside such strife be so beautiful? How is this a birthplace of civil rights in ways still so hard to talk about? We're still exploring and moving forward -- and yes, singing the blues -- together. Here. Right here.
And man, did Big A sing his heart out today. On the Hopson Commissary stage that so strongly supports the musicians and the community who now gather here. Outdoors, and distanced these days!
Hopson has an awesome courtyard stage, too; Terry Harmonica Bean played there #LiveFromClarksdale on what would've been Pinetop's 2020 Homecoming. We chose to play inside today; it was too. dang. cold. Apparently even guitars complain and warp when it's that cold (talk about resilience: last week Lee & Big T learned the hard way!).
So today we debuted some exciting new equipment, so stealth you didn't even hear it: air purifiers! Yup, that sleek gizmo photobombing below Preston is one of a couple we just bought to keep the musicians and audience safe(r). It's no substitute for masking up, distancing, and sanitizing but-- every bit helps, right? We're doing what we can.
How's Clarksdale faring in the pandemic? We're aight. We're still here. Musicians' tips are down; many have lost someone; we all miss everyone. But we've also welcomed a couple musicians who chose to move here, yes even mid-pandemic, and are thrilled Clarksdale has actually seen new businesses open. We're hopeful y'all will come visit Clarksdale and share a heckuva experience when the world does open...and hopeful that we'll all still be here, singing the blues together -- in a good way -- when you do.
We're planning some fun things in the new year... Looking forward to sharing them with you soon.
In the meantime, keep Clarksdale, Mississippi on your bucket list. When it's safe to #VisitMSresponsibly, come see us. Til then, we'll keep keeping the blues alive, Live From Clarksdale.
Or, to answer more succinctly:
Yes, we still Juke Up In Here.
Thanks for juking with us, wherever you may be. Happy New Year, y'all.
Colleen & team.
Celebrating a New Year, Live From Clarksdale: Watermelon Slim, Art Crivaro & Colleen Buyers at the Bluesberry Cafe; Lucious Spiller at Cat Head; Anthony "Big A" Sherrod, Preston Rumbaugh & Lee Williams at Hopson Commissary. (c) Shared Experiences USA