Lessons learned from the blues

Published 6:16 am Friday, September 23, 2016

I’m looking forward to the blues festival today.

This will be my first Bogalusa festival, though it certainly won’t be my first blues festival. For years, when I lived in Clarksdale, Miss., the highlight of every year was that city’s mid-April Juke Joint Festival, where all of the downtown was given over to musical artists of every stripe. Even more than most cities, Clarksdale has a deep blues legacy. The list of musicians who either grew up, lived or played in Clarksdale is too long to list here. But in part, due to this legacy, you could stand on a street corner in downtown Clarksdale any Saturday of the year and hear a German or Japanese or Portuguese or an Australian accent or … you get the idea.

This is an enviable attraction for a depressed little Delta city of 10,000 or so people, and there’s a lesson there for Bogalusa, because this city could do something similar. If you could bottle up and sell the essence of blues, someone would, but in the meantime, Clarksdale is doing the next best thing. The good news is, they haven’t got a patent on the stuff, but it takes vision and it takes determination.

Any city that hopes to attract tourists has to have something to see or do on any given day of the week throughout the year. This doesn’t have to be a music museum — though that helps — but historical markers are important, open and operating blues or music clubs are important, having a quirky local diner or café is important and, more generally, having tangible artifacts is important.

For instance, Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum has preserved, in its museum, Muddy Waters’ original wooden sharecrop cabin. But there are also sharecrop cabins available to rent for tourists (modified with A/C, running water and comfy beds) at a boutique inn just outside of town. Dare I say, the Shack Up Inn may well get more visitors on any given day than the museum.

Outside of the festival, Bogalusa may not have much blues tourism yet, but, 20 years ago, neither did Clarksdale.

What Clarksdale had is history and, an hour away, Memphis — a major destination for music tourists and an air hub. That sounds an awful lot like Bogalusa and its relation to New Orleans.

The difference is that Clarksdale had a few businessmen who had a common vision of creating a blues tourist destination and who purposely set out to create that vision. Clarksdale was lucky in that a few native sons were wealthy enough to invest (at a loss at first) into downtown businesses geared toward tourists until, after years, enough tourists turned up to turn a profit.

But even that work, vision and sacrifice isn’t unique to Clarksdale. That, too, can be duplicated as can the city’s successful transformation as a tourist destination. In 2002, downtown Clarksdale was closed at 5 p.m. Today, no matter what day of the week you go, there will be live music and, no matter the month, there will be at least one or two handfuls or tourists taking photos, buying drinks and chatting in Dutch, Spanish or some other remote language about what can only be found in our corner of the world.

Jesse Wright is the managing editor for The Daily News. You can email him at jesse.wright@bogalusadailynews.com or call him at 985-732-2565, ext. 301.