Sunflower Scrapbook '97

I was lucky enough to go to the Mississippi Delta's Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival early this August with my good friend Dick Waterman. I can't think of a better host and guide. The journey started off with a stop in the town of Oxford, where Dick lives. After settling in my room we went out to dinner on the square.

Blind Jim's in Oxford After dinner we visited Blind Jim's, a small club just next door and upstairs from dinner. There I met Blues-Ler Steamin' Stan Ruffo, and his partner and guitar player Jim Pugh. In this photograph, Blind Jim's is indicated by the round red and yellow sign in the center of the photo. As with all of the photos in this "scrapbook" clicking on it will reveal a larger version for closer inspection. I had intended on taking lots of pictures inside during the second set, but Dick got called away and I followed him to a Book Fair down the street and never made it back to Blind Jim's.

Delta Blues Museum Stan and Jim were there playing with Robert "Bilbo" Walker. They were all scheduled to appear at the festival as well. Friday morning after breakfast we drove to Clarksdale. After quickly checking into our hotel rooms we were off to our first stop The Delta Blues Museum. We got there just too late to see the debut of some new Sonny Boy Williamson performance footage, but just in time to sit in on the age old discussion "Can (& Should) Whites Play The Blues" moderated by Larry Hoffman.

'Philadelphia' Jerry Ricks The next scheduled event at the museum was a Blues Workshop by "Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks. Jerry, who learned the Blues first hand from such masters as Lightnin' Hopkins, "Mississippi" John Hurt, and Brownie McGhee, took us on a fascinating "tour" of acoustic Blues styles and periods. The museum sessions were wonderful and I really wish I could have attended all of them, but many of them ran concurrent with the festival which was going on several blocks away. It was always a tough choice, but the cold beer at the festival site helped me to decide. If the museum had served cold beer I don't know what I might have done.

View from behind stage. So off I went wandering down Yazoo Avenue to the stage area. Lucky for me the festival was running on what they called "Delta Time" so I didn't miss any of the first act, which was the unexpected highlight of the whole festival for me. It was a collection of young kids who are all being schooled in the Blues by Mr. Johnny Billington. They were simply referred to as Johnny Billington's Kids. Boy, were they great. I was just knocked out by the quality of their music. I'd be happy to play with any of them.

Antrale Newsome (age 7) I was particularly impressed with a SEVEN YEAR OLD drummer named Antrale Newsome. His playing was nothing short of excellent. This kid had more rock solid groove in him than many drummers I've played with. I chatted with Antrale after his set, and told him how much I enjoyed his playing. Antrale's beaming dad joined us and told me he has been learning to play for two years now, and didn't really like it at first. Dad kept him going to his lessons though, and now Antrale loves it. I came away wondering if perhaps I had met one of the superstars of the next millenium. Honestly, if the festival had ended right there, I would have been satisfied. This is what I came to see. This was the Blues, still very much alive, in the land of its birth. However the day was not over, and I had a marvelous time to come hobnobbing with, and enjoying the performances of, a long parade of Delta Blues artists. The atmosphere at this very small and very friendly festival is unlike any I've been to. Absolutely anyone is allowed to wander through the performers in the backstage area. Many festival goers simply sat backstage and watched the show from behind simply because it offered a little shade from the hot August sun. It became a very personal affair. Many times I had the unique experience of chatting with a stranger sitting next to me on the railroad tracks behind the stage who later got up and, much to my surprise, went up on the stage to perform.

John Weston One of those artists was Mr. John Weston. An inspiration to all of us "late bloomers", John entered the Blues scene rather dramatically in 1984. He won the Blues Foundation's AMATEUR talent contest at age 62! I'll never again whine about starting in my forties.

Lonnie Pitchford borrows a guitar cord from Jerry Ricks While John was busy playing I headed back to my perch in the shade, only to bump into Jerry Ricks who I had met back at the museum. He was there with Lonnie Pitchford who was trying to hustle up some gear he had forgotten to bring with him.

Lonnie Pitchford Lonnie was next up and put on a wonderful show, performing in true "Bluesman" style, playing electric guitar with no other accompaniment. Lonnie has been the recipient of a prestigious Mississippi Arts Commission Folk Arts Fellowship, and has been a winner of the Living Blues Critic's Poll.

Eddie Cusic enjoys a sip during his performance In the early '50s Eddie Cusic lead a band in Leland Mississippi called "The Rhythm Aces". Eddie recruited a young man name Milton Campbell to play second guitar in that group. Today, Little Milton still credits Eddie as his mentor. Eddie proved he still knows how to get it done during his festival appearance.

Foster Wiley a.k.a. Tater As I said, there was a very comfortable, homey, atmosphere surrounding the festival that I really enjoyed. A tall, slender, and kind of goofy looking man riding a bicycle all around the festival caught my eye. He was just an interesting looking character. Everyone appeared to know him, so I asked a woman next to me if she knew who he was. She replied "On the bicycle? Oh that's just Tater. He's always around somewhere. He's harmless." Indeed, he was everywhere, and seemed to function as a kind of town mascot. Much to my surprise the following day he showed up in a dapper looking suit and matching fedora to fill in for a missing performer, singing and playing in a sort of Junior Kimbrough droning style.

Sam Carr backstage in the shade I had the good fortune to meet one of the masters of Blues drumming, Sam Carr. The festival, still running on "Delta Time" was way behind and Sam had arrived when he should have on a "real time" stage schedule. So he just hung out with the rest of us, relaxing and enjoying the show.

Willie Foster on stage When his set finally began the sun had gone down and we all enjoyed the cool breeze. He was, of course, joined on stage by the legendary Frank Frost. It was a thrill to finally see him in person. He was supposed to be at Helena last year but couldn't make it because of health problems. They were joined by Willie Foster on harp. Despite Willie being in a wheelchair his playing was strong and vital.

For Part 2, click here.

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