Photo: Ben Hejkal

Going back to Clarksdale. Where the Blues was born.

In an earlier interview, I spoke with Krystal Wilkerson about how a legacy is passed down from generation to generation in a dance community. In this interview, I speak with her husband, Adam Wilkerson about returning to the roots of where Blues music was born.

Greg Austin So even though we’re here in Zürich, Switzerland, Adam Wilkenson and I are going to talk about a really fantastic research project that he’s working on back America, in the Mississippi Delta specifically. Tell us about it.

Adam Wilkerson Sure thing.

In the Delta of Mississippi, there’s this town called Clarksdale, which is where the Blues was supposedly born. There’s legends around the place. It’s really cool. I’m originally from Tupelo, which is about 2 hours east of there. I’m very proud of the fact that Blues comes from my home state of Mississippi, and I decided to use the fact that I’m from Mississippi to be able to dive into Clarksdale and talk with the people there. Definitely ends up being advantageous when I talk to folks, that I go there and I have a bit of a Mississippi accent and I can chat with the people there about, you know, local stuff that’s happened.

So Clarksdale, being the heart of where Blues was born, people go there to make music, and they’re a lot of locals at juke joints there that will actually dance to music.

I should explain a little about our dance scene. Our dance scene was born in the 2000’s, kind of a subset of the Lindy Hop scene, maybe at the beginning, but the point is that for a long time there were debates in our scene as to what is or is not “Blues” music? What is and what is not “Blues” dancing? And as we have uncovered more historical references to what Blues dancing is, and as we have come to a better understanding of what Blues music is, we feel that we’re trying to do a better job of honoring the Blues at this point, even if we still have a ways to go.

We’ve… I want to make sure… it’s not that I want to “catch” our scene up with what what is going on in the Delta exactly. I want to link the people in the Delta with our Blues dance scene, to help bridge that appreciation gap, so to speak. And help people to realize that these are still living traditions, and there are people who doing this living traditions outside of our scene, and the more we can connect, the more unified we can be in terms of propagating Blues and Blues dance.

Greg So to discover where the Blues was born, what it is today, and how it connects with your dancing scene?

Adam That’s correct.

Greg How many times have you made made the trip to Clarksdale?

Adam My first trip was in February of 2018. My second trip was in November of 2018. And we’re going to be going back again this summer. I’ve made some good contacts among musicians there. People like Lucious Spiller and Watermelon Slim, good folks who I’m really excited to have made contact with and be on a first name basis with, in some cases.

But this last trip that I went on, we got to meet a local journalist, whose name is Panny Mayfield and she’s been dancing in Delta juke joints since the 1960’s and so not only was she able to identify some of the dances that we do, she also said the names of one dance that we had never heard of, which was really cool.

She’s also friends with a guy named Ellis Coleman and everybody in town knows him. Everybody describes him using the word “elegant.” It’s a universal term for him. I’m really excited about the fact that next time we go, we’re likely to have an interview set up with him. So this guy has been dancing and recognized as a dancer to Blues music in the Delta for the last 50 years. And so, trying to sync up what our Blues dance scene is doing, with what people who have been immersed in the culture developing the music, is really important to me. That’s the ultimate goal of this. To see where we stand. Hopefully we make a tie there, where maybe we can bring Ellis out to teach. Or bring musicians in. Or whatever.

Greg And why is it so important to do this project now?

Adam Basically because we in a place in our dance scene where we’ve started to be able to move past… well we still have to have the appropriation vs. appreciation conversation because we aren’t exactly in a place where a lot of people in the scene have gone out to try and make these accesses. We get more questions like, “How can we get people of color into our scene?” and things like that.

Greg By “accesses,” you mean dancers going to the musicians?

Adam Yeah, dancers actually going to musicians, going to places where the music is still being organically produced, in a sense. That’s kind of a shifty subject in itself, but as far as the reason for why, “why now?” it’s because I have this deep passion for, that I started developing a real passion for Blues music, and dancing to it. I started dancing in 2010, but I started really diving in deep in 2014, and I kind of just got this idea that I’d be able to go out and do this in 2017. When I dive into something, I dive in very deep. I was like, “You know, I can actually go and access these people and talk with folks, and really try to make these connections happen.”

So, the timing actually has more to do with my maturation and my understanding, than it does with any bigger concept.

Greg But you’ve also found that a lot of these places where musicians are producing music are actually going away, right?

Adam Yeah, it’s true. In retrospect, I think it’s good that we’re starting to try and make these contacts now. Everybody, from Willie Seaberry, who was proprietor of Poor Monkey’s Lounge, to the owners of the Dew Drop Inn in Shelby, have either passed away, in Poor Monkey’s case, or have sold their places. And so there are not a lot of juke joints left in the Delta, specifically.

There are some left in other places throughout the country, sure, but the ones in the Delta are all kind of dying. The ones that are left I think are really worth preserving and going to make those connections while there are still people to make connections with.

Greg Do you have a story of connecting to one of these old musicians in Clarkesdale?

Adam There’s a few. The musician that we’ve made the closest contact with is Luscious Spiller. He’s a hoot. The very first time that he saw us we had just paid our cover to go into Red’s Juke Joint and he stopped playing his music, cause there was like 12 people in the juke that night, it was a Thursday night. We were looking for a seat and he says, “Hey you can just sit over here,” he pointed at a seat right next to him. As he walked by he started playing “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins and he pointed at my bald, white head and went, “Hehe, Smashing Pumpkins,” as I walked by.

Since then we’ve visited again and he recognized us and came over to me and Krystal and said, “Hey, the Blues dancers, I looked y’all up on Youtube!” and started really chatting with us about what’s happening with him locally now.

That’s when we able to really connect with him. Ever since then… he’s a hoot. He’s a really, really funny guy.

We’ve got a few others stories, but that’s one of my favorites.

Greg And the general sense you get from musicians, what do they think about young dancers coming to find them?

Adam Oh yeah, sure, there have been mixed reactions. One guy, Deek Harp, did have a bad experience with the Blues dance community, because he was hired to perform at a venue that ended up reneging on the contract, and that was really, really problematic. But even then, the second time we visited him, he was happy to hear that people were appreciating and trying to propagate Blues music. Clarksdale thrives on Blues music. And I say “thrives,” but they’re “surviving” on Blues music is more accurate. The people we have spoken to have been very enthusiastic that young folks with means actually are excited about their music, and about the music that they’re creating.

Luscious in particular, he made something pretty clear one time when we were dancing. He goes, “These people are a new type of dance, called Blues dancing.”

We hadn’t properly conveyed to him how we are trying to historically frame what we’re doing.

At the same time, that’s pretty telling in and of itself. He actually introduced us to all of the people at Red’s one day as the Blues Dancers, and as we were dancing, he said, “Let me tell ya, these kids, they’re trying to actually keep the Blues alive.” That was the phrase that he uses a lot.

So, by and large, it’s been a positive reaction, just through the joint love of the music.

Greg Awesome, and if people want to help and get involved, what’s the next step? What’s coming up in the project?

Adam We have a few upcoming trips. We haven’t planned the date for our next one, but it will be sometime in the summer.

Greg To go back to Clarksdale?

Adam Yep, that’s right. Right now, we’re not funded by the Ujima Blues Foundation, but I will say that we are happy to go do this research on our means. If you want to help out with research projects like this one, the Ujima Blues Foundation has a head of research that is directing various people to do similar research in different parts of the country. I definitely would advocate giving a donation to the Ujima Blues Foundation in order to expand on this research.

The other thing you can do is go to the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale. If you have time off in April and can make it on that weekend. Or, just go to Clarksdale some other time, and buy their music. They don’t have a lot of means, they don’t have a lot of money as a city, so just go there and buy music and listen to them play.

Greg Wonderful, thank you so much for all you and Krystal are doing for the Blues community, both the musicians and the dancers of this world.

Adam and Krystal can be reached through their website Wilkerson Blues Dance. They organize, teach, and carry on the Blues dancing tradition.