Despite sizzling triple-digit temps, 25,000 celebrate Sunflower Fest
International music fans hail from Egypt, China, Australia, France, Italy, Mexico, England
CLARKSDALE – Despite triple-digit, sizzling weekend temperatures, an international crowd of 25,000 music fans flocked to the 20th anniversary celebration of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, says co-chairman John Sherman.
“We estimate 10,000 to 12,000 turning out for the Bobby Rush show Friday night, and a slightly smaller crowd for the Denise LaSalle Saturday,” commented Sherman.
Away from the main stage traffic on John Lee Hooker Lane, the acoustic stages at the Depot Blues Club in Clarksdale Station and the Riverwalk Stage on Sunflower and Third also were packed.
Drawing equal attention were the education panels at Ground Zero featuring Norwegian musicians addressing the global influence of blues and bluesman Jimmy Burns talking about his career at the Delta Blues Museum.
A brief sampling of visitors turned up hometowns in Egypt, China, Mexico, Italy, France, Australia, the UK, Norway, Columbia, South America, and Hawaii, says co-chairman Melville Tillis.
American addresses peppering the hospitality register included San Diego and Hollywood, Andover, Maine, New Orleans, Durham, Orlando, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Oak Grove, Oregon, Boise, Idaho, Tucson, and many others.
“This event compares with what the Greeks did,” commented Terence Cody of Santa Fe.
On their American musical pilgrimage from Austin to Nashville, UK residents Clive and Barbara Hepworth said Clarksdale was the top spot in their travels.
“Everyone is so friendly,” commented the Hepworths.
“My wife Leslie and I have been attending the Sunflower Festival for some years now even though we live way out in Utah,” says Truman Wold, a volunteer for Community Radio of Utah.
“Leslie’s family lives in Arkansas, so we combine an annual trip with a visit to Clarksdale on the best weekend of the year. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for keeping this wonderful event alive year after year,” he continues.
Enjoying her participation on the Ground Zero educational panel and the main stage performance with Spoonful of Blues, Norwegian Grammy winner Rita Engedalen, called the gospel festival an amazing experience.
“I have never before heard music like this; I am going to share this with my friends at home,” she said.
Co-chairman Melville Tillis, a co-founder of the gospel festival, said he was pleased with the Sunday gospel audience sitting beneath tents and umbrellas that easily doubled in size when the sun went down.
The finale performance by Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith motivated emotional responses and dancing from the crowd.
Honored with the festivals coveted top awards were John Sherman, winner of the Early Wright Blues Heritage Award, and the Rev. Nathaniel Johnson of the Jonestown Crusaders, winner of the Julius Guy Gospel Heritage Award.