The first US blues festivals emerged not in Mississippi but in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and California during the mid- to late 1960s. Not until 1978 did Mississippi stage its first such event, the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival (MDBHF) in Freedom Village, located near the port city of Greenville. Organized by Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), the MDBHF is recognized as the first major blues festival in the South and the second-oldest ongoing blues festival in the United States. During the early years of the festival, the MDBHF featured local Delta blues musicians such as James “Son” Thomas playing traditional “down-home” Delta blues music in front of a few thousand spectators. Nearly forty years later the festival has grown significantly to include local blues musicians and international stars as well as a variety of blues styles from Delta blues to soul blues (or southern soul music). The MDBHF and many of the state’s other blues festivals also feature a number of gospel performers. Depending on the size of the event, a blues festival may include as many as three stages—typically an acoustic or heritage stage, a gospel stage, and a main stage.
Festival organizers argue that blues festivals preserve and promote the music, honor local musicians’ contributions to the development of the art form, provide financial assistance to destitute musicians, and insert a much-needed economic boost into the local communities. MACE claims that the MDBHF pumps approximately three million dollars per year into the local economy. Attendance at blues festivals ranges from approximately twenty-five thousand to fewer than one hundred, although these figures are often unreliable: attendance figures for the 2006 MDBHF, for example, have been reported as twenty thousand and as fifty-five hundred. Although audience members typically possess a degree of ethnic and racial diversity, an increasing number of tourists, primarily white baby boomers, are attending the festivals, and whites have largely replaced the music’s traditional African American audience. To attract tourists, promoters market Mississippi and particularly the Delta region as the legitimate home of the blues and make frequent claims regarding the festivals’ “authenticity.” For example, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, held annually in August in Clarksdale, has long claimed to be “America’s purest blues festival.” Conversely, some festivals, including the Cotton Capital Blues Festival in Greenwood and the Tri-State Blues Festival in Southaven, feature almost exclusively soul blues artists to attract members of the local African American population. Soul blues, a subgenre that blends the blues with R & B and soul, is the most popular form of blues within the African American community. Some blues festivals are free to the public (Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival), while other events charge an admission fee typically ranging from three dollars (Rosedale Heritage and Blues Festival) to twenty dollars (MDBHF). Virtually all of the festivals rely on financial support from local and state governments, corporate sponsors, local businesses, and private citizens, among other contributors.
Until recently, Mississippi’s blues festival season lasted approximately five months, from mid-May to mid-October, and included only a handful of events, mostly located in the Delta region. Yet, reflecting increasing interest in capturing blues tourism as an alternative source of revenue, the blues festival season now lasts almost ten months, from February to November, with new events staged in virtually every part of the state. At present, approximately fifty different blues festivals are held annually in Mississippi.
- Stephen A. King, I’m Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta (2011)
- Mississippi Action for Community Education website, http://www.deltamace.org
- Jim O’Neal, in Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, ed. Lawrence Cohn (1993)