Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Two Festivals Compete in the Delta, but Clarksdale Wins

(Originally posted: Sept. 6, 2004)

The blues is when you organize a festival expecting 12,000 people and only about a dozen show up.

That's what happened a couple of weekends ago in Greenwood, Miss., where Robert Johnson's family put on a blues festival and no one showed up, except for some local residents and a few musicians, including the great Honeyboy Edwards, who says he played with Johnson before he died from alcohol poisoning outside Greenwood.

The blues is having a competing festival the same weekend up the highway in Clarksdale, where the 17th annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival attracted huge huge crowds, who heard a whole lot of music for three days – two days during the official festival as well as on Sunday in front of Cat Head, the blues shop that presented se-veral outstanding musicians, including Willie King, CeDell Davis, Floyd Lee, Big George Brock, James Mathus and others – and this was the unofficial festival, which gives you an idea what a great weekend it all was.

Brock and Lee also played on the main stage, while King appeared at the nearby Ground Zero, where, for $10, you could hear his group, the Liberators, play from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and eat some fine Southern cooking.

King is a great country bluesman from Alabama who has had a series of outstanding CDs out, including Handy Award winner Living in a New World (Rooster), which has one of the greatest blues CD covers of all time. It shows King playing behind a microphone in a juke joint as a couple of dancers really get down to the music.

Here's another definition of the blues: You play till 1 a.m. and drive 350 miles back to Alabama so you can sleep in your own bed, which is what King did after his gig.

The main stage area was crowded with thousands of visitors from all over the world who'd come to hear dozens of top-notch musicians. The festival is still free, and there's never a dull moment be-cause fans go from the main stage to two acoustic stages to a gospel stage, as well as nearby clubs, shaking their heads in amazement: This is where it all started and you can relive the old days.

Shardee Turner and Rising Star and Fife and Drum Band performed at one of the acoustic stages inside the old passenger depot where Muddy Waters recorded more than 60 years ago. He took the train from Clarksdale to Chicago not long after that, taking with him the Delta sound and sharing it with the world.

Big George Brock, above, is one of today's great harmonica players.

Shardee, the granddaughter of the late Othar Turner, and her band keep alive the patriarch's music, which is something between blues and what the slaves must have brought with them from Africa. Amazing stuff.

We missed Big Bill Morganfield, Muddy Waters' son, who played on the opening night, but we caught Latimore, the old soul singer who can still belt them out. Big George Brock is about as good a harmonica player as any of the blues greats, and he knew and played with most of them. He was great on the main stage and just as good in front of Cat Head.

T-Model Ford fortified himself with Jim Beam before and during his appearance, and he was obviously feeling good as he smiled throughout his performance, playing his amplified guitar so everyone in the Delta could hear his music.

Super Chicken, a local fixture, followed T-Model and played for laughs on oddball guitars that he built himself. Super Chicken is an entertainer – a songster more than a bluesman, but he's wonderful and a great ambassador for Clarksdale.

His cousin Big Jack Johnson, another local institution, closed out the proceedings with some hard-charging blues, playing past midnight with his band. They then headed for a nearby juke joint for a 1 a.m. gig. For all we know, they played all night long.

One of the pleasures of going to a blues festival is to hear country musicians whose style is as old as the music. Cadillac John from Rosedale, accompanied by Bill Abel, is one of those great old-timers who play unadorned music that the Delta is famous for.

Eddie Cusic did a terrific set at the old depot and the audience wouldn't let him leave before he did an encore

Willie King knows all about the blues because he lives it.

Robert Belfour, who hails from north Mississippi, is another terrific veteran whose genuine talent makes the music special. (Belfour was the walking musician during the breaks on last year's blues series on PBS.)

Other artists we enjoyed included Arkansans John Weston of Brinkley, a real old-timer accompanied by his daughter; drummer and Helena native Sam Carr, son of Delta legend Robert Nighthawk, and CeDell Davis of Pine Bluff, who plays his slide guitar in his wheelchair (he has polio). Davis put on two great shows with guitarist James Mathus.

We also enjoyed Floyd Lee, a Mississippi native who now lives in New York. He has a CD out called Full Moon Lightnin' (Amogla) that he recorded in Clarksdale with Carr. It's genuine down home music. A great find.

To top it all off, the Delta Blues Museum has an essential exhibition called Sweet Home Chicago, tracing the development of the music that was created by Delta musicians. It includes video, music, photographs, original instruments, clothing and more. The exhibition runs through Oct. 15, so catch it when you're in nearby Helena for King Biscuit on Oct. 7-9.


What we're listening to: The Best of Calvin Leavy (Red Clay), who is the most talented bluesman in America behind bars. Leavy, of North Little Rock, is serving life plus 20 years in Cummins Prison for drug dealing. He went to prison in 1992 and is eligible for parole in about 10 years.

His brother Hosea joins him on the CD, which consists of their singles from the 1970s and 1980s, al-though no recording dates or personnel are listed on the compilation.

There's something eerie about this hard-to-find CD (we stumbled on our copy in a bin outside Stackhouse Record Shop in Clarksdale during the festival). Although Leavy made these records some 15-20 years before he was busted, he sings about going to prison ("Cummins Prison Farm") and getting out some day ("Free from Cummins Prison"), almost as if he knew he'd wind up behind bars. He even wore a fake prison uniform in one of his publicity photos long before he was arrested.

Leavy is a gifted soul-blues singer who hasn't picked up a guitar since he went to Cummins. His subjects were grim. The song titles give you an idea: "Going to the Dogs, Part 1 and 2," "Born Unlucky," "Is It Worth All I'm Going Through," "I Want to Be the Last to Cry," etc.

It's depressing stuff, and so is Leavy's life, but his music is first-rate. If you can find "The Best of Calvin Leavy," grab it while you can.

I Can't Stop, Al Green (Blue Note), another soul gem from one of the best in the business – if not the best. The Arkansas native, now a minister in Memphis, has been doing gospel for a long time, but he returns to his soul roots on this record.

It's available on CD and on vinyl. Our copy is a two-LP set that we bought from Acoustic Sounds online for the bargain price of $14.95. It sounds great on vinyl. Green's back in his 70s soul groove with the help of his old producer, Willie Mitchell. Green's old Hi Records are back in circulation with their original covers. No soul fan should be without them.

The Best of Ann Peebles (Hi Records), Memphis soul at its best, female division. She and Green helped build Hi Records, which is now defunct, but the small label was as good as Stax in its heyday. Peebles is a great performer with a fine voice, and this is a good place to start listening to her music.

Jimmy Reed, Live at Carnegie Hall (VeeJay), is neither live nor from Carnegie Hall but a re-creation of the singer-harmonica player's New York concert in the 1960s which his record company probably couldn't afford to tape on location. The record is out on Super Audio CD, which might encourage reluctant music fans to buy the SACD equipment for the new format


Blogger Pep said...


I like your site a lot. I just learned about Calvin Leavy and I'm trying to find his cd but it seems to be out of print. While searching for a download on the internet I came across your site. And there you are talking about Calvin Leavy! Any chance of putting a link up of the album by this great bluesman? I'm really anxious for this album.

Greetz from a blues fan from Amsterdam

11:40 AM  

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