A trip to the Sunflower River Blues Fest and the new Grammy museum in the Delta, drive home the point that "the heart is where it's at."
- story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I went last month to the 29th Sunflower River Blues Fest in Clarksdale, my eighth time to go, if memory serves. I could check my old calendars – Who can throw away a beautiful calendar? – but that would take the rest of the day.
Suffice to say, I think it’s the most authentic of all the hundreds of blues festivals that are held across the nation, at least the ones I’ve attended. The geography is right, it’s not over-crowded, and people seem happy – singing and sweating and eating and drinking things that aren’t good for them.
For gutbucket blues, hard to go wrong at Clarksdale. Organizers promised big things for next August and the 30th Clarksville festival. I hope to be there, sitting on the same green-and-white checks. Next time I’ll try to stay awake long enough for the entertainment at Red’s juke joint two blocks from the festival site.
Red’s has the best slogan, bar none, of any bar I know: A cemetery is across the street, and the Sunflower River runs behind. Not a bad slogan for life, either, if you’re lucky enough not to be landlocked.
On the way to Clarksdale, I stopped in Cleveland at the new Grammy Museum Mississippi (http://www.grammymuseum.org/explore/grammy-museummississippi), part of Delta State University Delta Music Institute. It says it is “bringing the story of the GRAMMY Awards to the Birthplace of American Music.”
An antiques dealer in Greenwood, yet another stop on my meandering Delta tour, had bragged on the museum, saying recent Los Angeles visitors had seen Mississippi’s version and thought they should hurry home and spruce up the sister GRAMMY museum in LA.
“And folks in Mississippi don’t even know about it,” the shop owner said. In fairness, it has only been open since March. The museum is a beautiful new sleek building with high-tech exhibits and what museum people now call “interactives,” which means something to keep the young people from having to read too much.
But I love words and read quite a few, including a Marty Stuart quote that was exceedingly wise: There’s the chart, and there’s the heart. And it’s great when they both line up. But you better follow your heart, ‘cause that’s where it’s at.
Amen, Brother Stuart.
A young friend, 21-year-old Annie Hall from Utah, was traveling with me, and she said the museum speakers that let us hear the voices of famous singers were the best she’d ever used. High praise coming from youth.
The best thing in the museum, for my money, wasn’t high tech at all. It was an old and battered upright piano painted white with its floral embellishments highlighted in red and green. “The Million Dollar Piano” once belonged to the late Ben Peters, a Hollandale native and struggling songwriter who in 1960 needed a piano but didn’t have the money to buy one. A local church gave him the one now on display, “which he patched together with paper clips and string.”
Peters, who picked cotton as a youth, put the instrument to good use, eventually writing 14number one hits, including Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and FreddieFender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”
The piano is the first thing you see when you walk into the slick building with its looping sound stage and high-tech bells and whistles. I almost could hear my Grandma Lucille playing stride piano, causing the knickknacks on the top to dance while she made every song in the hymnal sound like boogie-woogie.
Technology is wonderful, I supposed, but nothing without talent riding tandem. Red’s – It is What It Is. Backed by the River, Fronted by the Grave.
There’s the chart, and there’s the heart. And it’s great when they both line up. But you better follow your heart, ‘cause that’s where it’s at.