Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Day The Music Died

[UPDATED  8/14/12]
Clarksdale, Mississippi, August 10, 2012, The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. Or as I can't help thinking of it now, the Day the Music Died.  I've been going to the Sunflower for years, and it's never been anything but a source of joy until yesterday, and yesterday it brought tears to my eyes for what was and will likely never be again.  
Let me say ahead of my complaints, that I know there are people who have worked hard for this for little reward over the years, and that  it has been a struggle to keep it free.  I salute them, but being free is not worth it if everyone is separated into well-to-do mostly white and others (with a fence between).  Shades of  Hunger Games. Look at that big bare space in front of the stage!
This year, the VIP area ate up most of the festival area.  There was a fence around the whole festival, and since security seemed to be a problem, even though it was irritating not being able to park in places that used to be parking, and not being able to move as freely to outside businesses such as Ground Zero, Sarah's Kitchen, Cathead, etc., it is probably necessary.  I concede that.  Fencing off the whole area in front of the stage for a block back, though.....that's just crazy. Have we all forgotten what the blues has always been about?'s the complaint of the disenfranchised, the have-nots making something from nothing.

One of the most attractive things about blues festivals in general, and this one in particular, is the ambiance, the air of unification among people from all classes, races, ethnicities, countries, wealth level. That was all gone at the Sunflower this year.  I wish I hadn't been so bothered and repelled that I didn't think to take a photo of the whole thing, but this to the right is just back from the stage, and hits only about 1/2 of the fenced off area beyond.  Someone had written on the fence "1%" with an arrow pointing in.  That about said it all. 

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I don't mind paying to get in a blues festival, and I don't mind (too much) a slice right at the front of the stage for VIP's, but all of the area in front of the stage for a block back?  You gotta be kidding me! A large area in front of the stage was empty, there there were tables all the way back.  To the left side (facing the stage) were tents and chairs. The free part was confined to the right side from the platform on the side of the museum back, and in the very far back behind the VIP area; there  was a little space people could stand between that and the small vendor's area confined to what used to be a parking lot along (I think) Yazoo.

It felt so wrong, most of the joy was wrung out the festival, at least for me.  I felt sorry for the performers - there was no one in front of the stage for most of their shows - and until late, the VIP area was very very sparsely populated by people who merely sat. The dancing and clapping was mostly off to the side (where us po' folks were) and the audience feedback must have felt very cold and sparse to the performers.

Major props to OB Buchana, who asked that everyone be allowed in front of the stage (where there were no tables, no chairs, no people, no dancing, no fun). Security let in some people and let them stay til OB got thru, then hustled them out.  Not blaming them, they were only doing their job. It was pitiful, though.

Won't be any photo album from the Sunflower Blues Festival this year, but if you're interested, click Photo Albums in the right column for a lot of past blues events, including several Sunflower Blues Festivals.  I was so far  from the stage and at such an angle, there aren't enough even semi-lousy photos, but that's not such a big thing (as I am not a talented photographer, nor do I have a great camera with a great lens).  These two are the best of the lot, as poor as they are The other ramifications of the reason for the distance and the angle are another matter, though.
All my petty complaints aside, I'm very sad to see the passing of the great blues festivals, and I think that's what I saw the real beginning of last night.  The writing has been on the wall for some time, but it's no longer fuzzy and hard to read. Some folks say that the blues was really born in Clarksdale, MS, so maybe it's fitting that Clarksdale is where it begins it's final days. I hope that I am wrong, and I hope that things change for the better there.

I'm not there today and I won't be there for Robert Plant (as much as I had looked forward to that).  I couldn't bear to witness what happens to the parade from the train station stage to the main stage with the Rising Star Fife and Drum, and the inevitable separation of the hoi polloi from uptown folks while the blues became, once again (at least partially) about black and white, and totally about the haves and have-nots. No point in any t-shirts saying "No Black, No White, Jes' The Blues.

Speaking of separating the sheep from the goats, I look forward to the Turner Family Annual Goat BBQ on August 31, 2012 at 985 OB McClinton Rd., Senatobia, MS, where I have no doubt there will be something real and everybody hollering GOAT!

I know I'm going to get a lot of people mad with these comments, but  lot more who saw it firsthand are going to agree with me (at least on one side of the fence).  I asked a lot of people what they thought last night, and it was so overwhelmingly negative, I think that's valid, in spite of my bias in the matter.  Of course, I only asked on one side of the fence. There's that to be considered. And those were the people who really mattered, right?

UPDATE:  Great post on this from a musician's perspective at: My Southern Life.


  1. YYR. It was a sad sight. But on a good note, when the awards ceremony was taking place saturday night, Mr. Melville Tillis, sunflower director said, I'm sorry. I was trying to do the best thing for the festival. I hope you will be back next year to give us another chance." He didn't have to say what he was sorry for. we all knew. So fingers crossed for a good year next year!

  2. I'm glad he recognized that they had gone too far. I'm sure they were trying to solve a problem and the solution just grew into that monster, and I'm also glad that he was a big enough man to apologize for it! I'm hoping for a better year for the Sunflower and praying that this isn't a portent of things to come (I'm kinda seeing signs of problems in our society as a whole coming out in that venue). It was a very sad sight, and, as I said, it brought tears to my eyes for the musicians and for the people held out.

  3. P.S. Thanks for your comments!

  4. You know your article is just as much a problem as the festival was as you say. now i was only there for sat. and what i saw in the vip section was just as many blacks as their was whites. i dont know why everything has to be made about race. and from my understanding just by listening to the people on stage it was black people who organized this event. so bitch about the fence i get that it was very piss poor, but dont make this out to be some kind of white vs black issue.

  5. You have a right to your opinion, as I do to mine. I'm quite aware that a black man organizes the festival (although I hardly put all the blame on his shoulders). He acknowledged my concerns (thru the fence) although he wasn't able to apologize for it until a lot of other people complained. The issue is wealth vs lack of it, and I suppose it is just a happy coincidence to you that most of the local wealth has a white face. I don't "make" it about race, I just observe it. Where the heck do you think the blues came from? Not out of some rich white landowner or merchant's pocket, for sure.

  6. never questioned where the blues came from, what i questioned is why it has to be a white black issue. is it the white faces fault they are able to afford the seats that were put there by the organizers. should they be ashamed for making a good living. what about morgan freeman he was all up in the middle of the vip section, along with several other black men. why werent they mentioned in you piece. is it ok that a black man is wealthy. and im calling it like i see it the prejudice in this country will never go away as long as people like you live for it. and as i recall 90 percent of that crowd was white. so heres where will have to agree to disagree on the matter.

    1. Good grief, I didn't mention anyone by name or complain that some people make a better living than others. When you get thru with your pity party for the wealthy, you might want to actually read what I wrote. SOMETHING hit you in the gut the first time thru, though, or you wouldn't be so darn defensive.

      90% of what crowd was white, you say? Was that the free side on Saturday? If so, then that's not the way it usually is in Clarksdale (which is one of the reasons I enjoy it - I like a little diversity around me - monotone in ANYTHING is boring). I can understand why the local folks might not show up Saturday, though, and if so, I think it's a damn shame they felt left out.

      As long as "people like" me step up to the plate and speak when they see something as tasteless as this huge fenced off area was, and point out the disparities in our society, "people like you" are going to get indignant and defensive. I'm trying not to yawn, but I've heard this all before, and I'm no more impressed with it than I was the last 20 times. We will, for sure, have to agree to disagree.

  7. I for one was shocked at the police state that was set up overnight. My reply to the organizers who say "Added expenses for Plant", I say screw that..."We (sorry, I'm not a MS resident) don't need no stinkin' Robert Plant"! All the good music was on the street corners, Reds, Ground Zero, Petes, etc. I hope the organizers recognize they don't need a high profile name in the future in order to attract people to their festival. For those of you who witnessed the open mics at Ground Zero and Reds, you know what I'm talking about. I would pay a NOMINAL fee as a non-Mississippi resident to get in, but MS residents should be let in free. I home the gov't leaders take this debacle as a wake-up call.

  8. Was this your first trip to the Sunflower? If so, let me say that you missed something great, not having been there before this time. And, really, part of the fun was going in and out, visiting Cathead, eating at Sarah's, dropping into Ground Zero, shopping here and there around the edges. Too much walking to get around the fence this time.

    The best, though, was dancing in the crowd in front of the stage to people like Bobby Rush, OB Buchana, Koko Taylor, Betty LaVette, Big T, Super Chikan, etc. etc. etc.

    The goverment is not in charge of this (Homeland Security was a little much, though, wasn't it)? Write a letter to the editor of the Clarksdale Press Register if you want to be heard!