Now in it’s 30th year, the internationally recognized Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival is a major event to see authentic Mississippi talent perform live on stage. This Festival, along with The Sunflower Blues Association and the Delta Blues Museum, was the launching point for Clarksdale’s evolution into the widespread birthplace of the blues and rock and roll attraction that it has become. It has core support from the City of Clarksdale and Coahoma County, and it is attended by enthusiastic fans, visitors and the news media from all over the world.
The Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival was originally created and funded in 1988 by downtown merchants as an event to bring shoppers into Clarksdale. In 1992the North Delta Academy of Gospel Music became involved, which added “gospel” into the festival’s title.
First organized by blues scholar, Jim O’Neal and blues and overall music enthusiast, Dr. Patricia Johnson, the Festival is held the second weekend in August each year. Spread across three days, the festival is free to the public. It has a primary focus on blues, soul and gospel music, and inspiring acoustic, rock and other performances can be on the bill too.
Each year, this art and cultural music celebration event honors the music and culture that came out of the Mississippi Delta. This includes world known artists, national and regional professionals, today’s Clarksdale acts and student performers from the Delta Blues Museum Education Program and other Clarkdale youth enrichment programs as well. The Festival is primarily held on the main stage at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale’s historic downtown Arts & Culture District, and most all Clarksdale music venues and nightclubs come alive in support of the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel festival too.
Festival Performers: Every Festival line-up is somewhat different, and each year terrific surprises fill out the Festival line up. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant has played here. Clarksdale’s own Big Jack Johnson was a regular for years. So has been Grammy Award Winner, Bobby Rush. Famed blues harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite is a regular repeat headliner. So are current Clarksdale guitar wonders, Super Chikan’ and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Denise La Salle has graced the Festival stage, and so have Lonnie Shields and Lonnie Pitchford. Down home country blues fans have marveled at Robert Bilbo Walker, who still performs, and T-Model Ford and Sam Carr when they were still with us. Local favorites Jimbo Mathus, of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Foster “Mr. Tater” Wiley, Lightening Malcom play here, as does rising hill country blues star, Cedric Burnside. (Do come see for yourself, the list goes on and on and on.)
To recognize the efforts of those who have worked on behalf of blues and gospel, the festival began presenting an annual Early Wright Award in 1991 in honor of the legendary Clarksdale deejay, followed by the Julius Guy Award, named for the co-founder of the gospel festival.