Finally, here is the report from . . .

The four Norwegians at the 1995 Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi . . . The Great Norwegian US Blues Trip '95! For those of you who don't know the story, once upon a time there were four Norwegian friends and blues fanatics dreaming about the ultimate blues holiday in the US.... and in the summer of '95, it all came true! After a year of planning, including some good advice from blues-l'ers, we decided upon a four-week schedule which took us from Houston, Texas to Austin, Texas, then by plane to New Orleans, Louisiana, followed by two weeks all over Mississippi -- also including Memphis, Tennessee -- in a hired Mazda van (with The Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale being the only "pre-scheduled" stop), then finally a long drive up to Chicago for our final stop.


PART 2: The Mississippi Delta

July 31: Driving off from New Orleans in extremely heavy rainfall, this was a travel-and-clothes-washing day with JACKSON, MS as our final stop point. There was no music to be found here, but we had the best meal of the trip -- hot tamales ("Robert's Red Hots" read the menu) and barbecued grilled chicken breast -- at HAL'S & MAL'S, a restaurant and club down by the railroad tracks which has seen a lot of big music names come through. The walls were filled with nice memorabilia, signed photos of blues and rock'n'roll legends (BB, John Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Musselwhite, Warren Zevon, Albert King,...), autographs, posters etc -- wonderfully atmospheric.

August 1: Driving north from Jackson, we stopped almost immediately to visit the tiny community (pop. 300?) of BENTONIA, MS, birthplace of famed bluesman SKIP JAMES and still home to his contemporary, JACK OWENS, and harp player BUD SPIRES. Stopping in front of Ms. T's CAFE at the square, the first thing we saw was a cement mixer with BUD written in white paint on it! Talking to the very friendly cafe owners, Randy and Teresa, we found out that it actually was Bud Spires'! Upon hearing that we had stopped by in a faint hope that we could meet Jack Owens (who is now 90 years old), Randy's response was: "Well, I don't see his truck out here right now... but we could direct you to his house?"...!!! Of course we jumped on this, so, after being treated to a sample of Randy's blues guitar playing, we set out on small, dusty country roads until we reached a small, run-down shack of a house, with a frail-looking old man standing on the front porch.... JACK OWENS. We went out to greet Jack, who immediately demanded to have his playing partner Bud delivered at the house -- upon which Randy drove off again to find him.

Meanwhile we chatted with, and had our pictures taken with Jack, who seemed happy that we came to see him, smiling, reminiscing about Skip James ("my cousin"), David Evans ("I taught him to play") and his trip with Evans to the North to receive his 10,000 dollar government grant about one year ago. Then Randy, Teresa, Bud and some beer arrived, Jack got some moonshine, a jam jar full of guitar picks, and his guitar, and we were treated to a 30-minute front porch concert of Bentonia blues classics ("Devil Blues", "Hard Times", "Can't See Baby", "Cherry Ball",...), interspersed with Bud's famous -- but somewhat unintelligible -- jokes. A magical experience in the 110 F-heat and overwhelming humidity, out in the Mississippi backwoods! We ended up driving Bud back to Bentonia -- he may be blind, but he could still direct us back!

After this, the deepest of blues experiences, we drove to Indianola, hometown of BB KING, where we ended up staying two nights...

August 2: This was the first real "blues sightseeing" day: With Indianola as our base, we drove first to MOORHEAD, to see the place and historical marker at the railroad tracks "where The Southern cross The Dog", as sung in 1903 by the unknown guitarist WC Handy first heard play the blues. Here we also visited the friendly, overfilled, and wonderfully atmospheric MOORHEAD COUNTRY STORE. Then we sought out (with some difficulty) the two ROBERT JOHNSON memorial headstones, one in MORGAN CITY at Mt. Zion Baptist Church (really moving atmosphere, beautiful location) and one in QUITO at the Payne Baptist Chapel. Following that, we went on to DREW, birthplace of POPS STAPLES, to visit the small but renowned music store MUSIC MART, run by blues enthusiast (and organizer of the annual Pops Staples Festival) MARVIN FLEMMONS. We stayed there for a long time talking both to him and his even more enthusiastic co-worker JAMES SEGREST, currently at work on his doctoral thesis on HOWLIN' WOLF -- one of our own favorites!

In the evening we couldn't find any live music (which happens mainly on weekends in the delta), but we drove to The CLUB EBONY, located across the railroad tracks in the "black" part of Indianola, the place where BB KING got his start and where he still plays an annual homecoming show. Here the motherly and lovely owner Mrs. MARY SHEPARD treated us to her great fried catfish, a juke box filled with mainly modern soul blues hits (many of which she insisted on playing us for free), and free posters from old BB King homecoming concerts, which she signed herself with her wise motto "It's nice to be important and important to be nice"!

August 3: After stopping by in HOLLY RIDGE to visit the tombstone of CHARLEY PATTON, we arrived in CLARKSDALE, where the SUNFLOWER RIVER BLUES FESTIVAL was to be held for the next three days. We visited the STACKHOUSE DELTA RECORD MART and said hello to owner and festival arranger JIM O'NEAL (also author of our invaluable DELTA BLUES MAP KIT) before strolling two blocks up to the DELTA BLUES MUSEUM. Here, we sampled BOSS HOG's superb barbecue ("Tender as a mother's love" according to the ads) at the food demonstration outside, before taking a stroll through the nice museum exhibition,... and its small book/record store of course!

August 4: Due to heavy rainfall, the festival program was delayed before the show eventually was moved inside. We therefore had time to go to TUTWILER to visit SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II's grave, to donate a harmonica there, and then go see the marker at the railroad station where WC Handy first heard the blues in 1903... At the grave we also met CURTIS HEWSTON of "Blue Highway" WWW fame, with two friends whose names I never did catch. Curtis, we still owe you and your friends some beers!

The early show of the festival was held inside the Delta Blues Museum and included the unknown MONROE JONES (pure anarchy, quite awful to my ears), JOHNNIE BILLINGTON & THE MIDNIGHTERS (wonderful BB-like guitar from Mr. Billington, and great enthusiasm from the kid band he has been tutoring), and JOHN 'SO BLUE' WESTON (fine, though unspectacular, original country blues). After Weston we went to (the front row of) the THOMPSON THEATRE to catch the main part of the day's program. The show started with a fine set by the authoritative, Albert King-influenced BIG MACK ORR and his Chicago band. Then we were treated to a solo set by CLAYTON LOVE (who sang his jazzy blues very Ray Charles-like and soulful, but should have had a proper-sounding piano, not that synthetic clavinet sound he favored). Next came a tight and funky soul blues set by THE WESLEY JEFFERSON BAND with local favorite JAMES "SUPER CHIKAN" JOHNSON, followed by great traditional 50s Chicago blues from the one-legged veteran harp player WILLIE FOSTER, who was backed by the ultra-tight Indianola band LADIES' CHOICE and featured a guest appearance by LITTLE BILL WALLACE -- a powerful blues shouter, although an extremely simplistic guitarist.

Of course, the best was saved for last, and CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE and his top-flight band (including excellent guitarist Andrew Jones) presented their usual superb set -- tight, tasteful, exciting, heartfelt, varied. The highlight was the long version of his beautiful signature instrumental "Christo Redemptor" from his debut Vanguard album.

After the "official" show, the RIVERMOUNT LOUNGE on Sunflower Avenue presented, once again, WILLIE FOSTER -- blues incarnate -- backed by LADIES' CHOICE, for an even better and more intense set than their first -- partly because of the more suitable club atmosphere of course. He even made "Got my mojo workin'" sound great! There was also a young white -- and quite good -- female singer dueting with Mr. Foster, but her name escaped us. Then, when what seemed like a very drunk LITTLE BILL WALLACE once again was brought on stage, things deteroriated completely, with a lot of sound problems and fumbling about.

August 5: Finally, the sun broke through, and the acoustic early show could be held on the lawn outside the Delta Blues Museum. After a very tentative start by 81-year-old debutant (!) GEORGE WASHINGTON JR., who had a lot of tuning problems and seemed moody and nervous, the excellent SI PERRY came on with his intense, original, archaic-sounding blues, reminding us somewhat of Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Pete Williams. Then Son Thomas' son, PAT THOMAS, followed with a not-too-impressive, somewhat derivative and insecure set, before the next octagenarian, legend EUGENE POWELL (aka Sonny Boy Nelson) was introduced. Looking fit for his age, but understandably somewhat stiff-fingered, he performed a nice set in the relaxed, John Hurt-like fingerpickin'/songster tradition.

Following Powell was the extremely impressive EDDIE CUSIC, the man who gave Little Milton his first gig some 45 years ago. He boasted the most powerful, shiver-inducing voice of the day and played loud, rhythmic, hypnotic guitar on a great selection of Delta standards, including "Catfish Blues". Only a true virtuoso could follow this, and happily LONNIE PITCHFORD is just that. This "all around man" and Rooster recording artist has the technique, the enthusiasm (he was everywhere where there was music, it seemed, during the festival), the charm, and the charisma to make it big. His set included both original material and fine versions of Robert Johnson and Jimmy Reed tunes. Jimmy Reed, btw, seems like a "secret hero" of the delta -- so many are performing his songs! (The not-so-secret hero is of course ZZ Hill, whose "Down Home Blues" was delivered in what felt like about 20 versions during our stay in Mississippi...

The last acoustic performers of the day were our old friends from Bentonia, JACK OWENS & BUD SPIRES, who played and sang an intense hour-long set, musically in fact better than the "front porch" performance we witnessed. The years may have taken their toll on Jack's voice, but their music can still be extremely moving and the communication and inter-reliance between the two is a wonder to behold, as is Bud's rapport with the crowd and his intuitive understanding of when it's time to substitute for Jack on vocals when the old man gets worn out.

Finally, OTHAR TURNER's FIFE & DRUM BAND led us all in a procession off the lawn with their energetic, African-sounding dance rhythms, before entering the back of a truck and driving off, still playing.

Inbetween sets, we spoke to and had our pictures taken with CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE -- a great guy as well as a wonderful musician -- and legendary promoter/photographer/writer/etc. DICK WATERMAN, whom we were introduced to by our friend James Segrest from Drew. Mr. Waterman told anecdotes, pointed out notable blues people in the audience, and generally shared his vast blues knowledge with us -- it was a real treat!

In the evening, at the Railroad Depot Stage, we missed the acts prior to the much-awaited set by vocalist/harp player FRANK FROST & drummer SAM CARR and their band. These two veterans played a tight, swinging, satisfying set, with Frank looking fit, relaxed and happy and playing good harp, and Sam's simple, effective drumming driving the music relentlessly onwards. The closing act, after a brief intermission by LONNIE PITCHFORD once again, was the heroine of the chitlin' circuit, MS. DENISE LASALLE and her band. Hers was the only set during which the crowd was completely dominated by black people -- an interesting cultural phenomenon. Among today's southern blacks, the soul blues of Malaco and Ichiban seem to be THE blues -- and Denise was received as a true queen. She responded with a raunchy, humorous, energetic set filled with her usual "raps" on love and infidelity. Great entertainment!

After the official show we ended up once again at The Rivermount Lounge, where Johnnie Billington, Clayton Love, Sam Carr and various other musicians held court for a small crowd. Lonnie Pitchford, I'm told, was also there, and I think we even spoke to him. The memories from this night are, however, rather unclear for some of us at least... Btw, did I mention that the festival was co-sponsored by Colt 45 Malt Licquor?


For Part 3, click here.



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