Photography by Euphus Ruth and Bill Steber
It seems everyone has a story about the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival … I’m talking about deep experiences that somehow altered life courses and inspired and encouraged people in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
I’m one such person. In a couple of months, thousands of blues aficionados will converge at the Delta Blues Festival Park in Greenville, Mississippi, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of this beloved event, billed as the world’s oldest blues festival.
I got my first taste of it in 1984, long before I had ever dreamed of being the publisher of a magazine dedicated to music and culture. I was 20, old enough to have been exposed to some really good hometown blues, but not old enough to have seen the masters. In Meridian, some three hours southeast of Greenville, Steve Forbert had prepared for the trip. The musician (“Alive on Arrival,” Jack Rabbit Slim,” “Little Stevie Orbit,”) had borrowed a passenger van, loaded up his group of eclectic friends and headed to Freedom Village, where the Delta Blues Fest was held in those days.
Back then, there were few hotel choices, so we all piled into a few rooms at a small roadside motel.
At Freedom Village, we sat atop a school bus and took in the sounds of Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. It had been rumored that Vaughan would make an appearance, and so he did, shortly before midnight. The wind kicked up that night, blowing his scarf gently behind him as he ripped out those licks. A writer from the Rolling Stone climbed on top of the school bus to interview Forbert, who had all day been jumping off the bus for a quick way down. Not long after the interview, Forbert broke his ankle on one of those dismounts and refused to go to the hospital until we all had our photo made with Albert King.
He hobbled to Albert’s bus with the help of his then girlfriend, Jill, and the four of us made history for a minute. “Some of us don’t look entirely sober in that photo,” he joked recently. (I’m still trying to get my copy of that picture).
Year’s later I married the guy whose band owned the school bus (although I didn’t know him at the time). The festival had made an impression on each of us … most continued refining their music careers. Forbert now hails from Nashville, still writing, producing and recording. Sadly, some are no longer with us.
Vasti Jackson, a renown blues artist currently on tour in Italy, was also present for that 1984 concert. He took the stage with his band, The Original Down Home Blues Band, just before Robert Cray’s slot.
“I was 24 years old and the musical director and guitarist for Z.Z. Hilll, who had died in April,” Jackson says. “The performance set we did was an homage to Z.Z. with band members Glenn Holmes, Dwight Ross, Melvin Hendrix and Nathaniel Scott. Albert, Stevie and Robert were so generous with their time, and the vibe was relaxed. It felt like a family reunion. There was great excitement and anticipation in the air.”
Before the show was over, Jackson made a photograph with his son, Arsadia Harris, and Vaughan. After the show, Cray drove to Jackson, where he played at Hal and Mal’s. After that show, Cray joined Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets and Sam Myers at the George Street Grocery.
These days, Libby Rae Watson is on tour with the Jerhico Road Show, featuring Rambling Steve Gardner, Bill Steber and Wes Lee, but she still has the two 78 rpm records signed by Muddy Waters a year after our brushes with greatness.
“It was the year Muddy Waters and Johnny Winters played,” she says. “I went there with two 78s and was going to see if I could get Muddy to sign them. He was about 20 feet from me, so I gave them to a guy back stage. I was watching him sign them, and all of a sudden they jumped. Muddy had broken one of them with his hand trying to sign his name. He was real upset about it.
“I figured, if he made it, he can break it,” Watson says. “So now the broken one says Mudd Waters. I still have that guy’s business card. And I got the 78s, both of them, and I got a great story, so I got a lot, actually.”
The Delta Blues Festival was created by Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), says Mable Starks, current president and CEO of the festival. In 1967, civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, the Rev. J.C. Killingsworth, Ralphus Hayes and Eunita Blackwell, had founded the organization with the sole purpose of empowering and enriching communities, specifically in economic development, job training and promoting the culture of communities. The festival, begun in 1977, was their creation, she says.
“The first festival was held at Freedom Village on the back of a flatbed trailer,” says Starks. “It was a community celebration of heritage, and what they found is that the music, the heritage and the education was embraced by the entire community. There were more than 3,000 people out there in that country field for the first festival – all races, all colors.”
Starks recalls some of the other greats who have played the fest – B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Issac Hayes. “On one really hot day, Bobby Blue Bland was standing out there in a white t-shirt, sweating and talking about all the reasons why preserving the legacy of this festival is important.”
Starks says she’s been attending the festival since she moved to Mississippi in 2008.
Last year, some 12,000 people were in attendance. This year, the event features Bobby Rush, Willie Clayton, Eden Brent, Kingfish, the B.B. King Blues Band, Denise LaSalle and more. Four stages will run continuously – the Heritage Stage, the Gospel Stage, the Juke Stage and the Youth Stage.
On its 40th Anniversary, slated for September 16, Starks says festival volunteers are still driven to promote and preserve authentic blues, heritage and education. “It looks like an easy thing to do, but it can be a little hairy at times.
“I talk about it everywhere I go,” Starks says. “I was in New Mexico about four years ago and met this young man who told me his mother and her friend took him and the friend’s son to it. I videotaped him. He told me about how they had such a good time and how at one point they were separated from their mothers. He went to the police and it was discovered their moms had been smoking pot in the woods. They detained them, but they didn’t arrest them. They said it was the best time of their lives.”
Yet another story in the life of this festival.
“The blues brings people together in a way I have never seen,” Starks says. “Maybe it’s the answer to world peace.”