I encountered a group of blues tourists-cum-entrepreneurs today as I bought a soda in the local gardening shop. As “The Delta Blues” gains cache with middle America and blues tourism increases, a number of investment bankers and real estate moguls have been buying chunks of Clarksdale for tourism development. One heavy investor from California has reportedly expressed interest in transforming Clarksdale into “the Branson of the blues.” What worries me is that these wealthy people are functioning on and perpetuating ideas of Blues authenticity that do not reflect the Afrocentric identity of the expressive form. This results in a fetishization of the poor, old bluesman in the cotton field and the disenfranchisement of those who fall outside of this romantic definition; namely the young black cultural practitioners, such as Top Notch and his friends, who are the creative lifeblood of the Mississippi Delta.
These investors asked me what I was doing here in town, unaware that I have been living and working here for two and a half years. I gave them one of many short answers I have tailored to escape such situations: I am working on a documentary about local hip-hop artists.
“Oh!” said the shaggy white-haired Floridian. “You won’t find any hip-hop here.” His shirt was covered in patches from commercial blues festivals across the South and Midwest.
“That’s right,” said his wife, her swingy ponytail bouncing. “Not one i-ota. This is a blues town.”
“People are blues-oriented in this town,” he reiterated, slightly hurt, almost as if I had slapped him in the face.
I’m hoping that my work will open a discourse about ideas of blues authenticity and contemporary expressive culture in the Mississippi Delta. Some writers and researchers are starting to take notice:
Hillary Rhodes’ excellent recent AP article about misguided ideas of authenticity and blues tourism in Clarksdale, and
Stephen A.King’s survey on the impact of tourism in the Mississippi Delta.