ARTIST PAINTS CLARKDALE’S VIBRANT BLUES HISTORY
CLARKSDALE – Although Henry Dorsey’s artistic talents need no introduction, his strong links to Clarksdale’s blues heritage may be surprising to many viewing his t-shirt design for the 18th Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.
Announcing the festival’s 2005 theme: Double Date: Blues Divas and Musselwhite, the t-shirt features Dorsey?s sketches of Shirley Brown, Geneva Red, Barbara Looney, and Charlie Musselwhite inside a bright blue oval frame.
“Henry?s art is rich in history; there?s a tremendous background behind his interest in being part of our festival,” says Melville Tillis, co-chairman. “We are indebted to him.”
For decades the chairman emeritus of Coahoma Community College’s art department has loved blues, has known scores of blues musicians and enjoyed their music.
He continues close personal ties with many as long-time booking chairman for one of the liveliest music venues in Clarksdale today, V.F.W. 8590 on U.S. 49 where bluesman Bobby Rush frequently packs in a crowd of 700.
“Muddy Waters, Junior Parker, and Lightning Hopkins played in Clarksdale every weekend at the Red Top, Mary’s Cafe and Black’s Cafe on Yazoo Ave, next to Sharp’s Cleaners,” says Dorsey.
As a youngster the artist lived across the alley at 123 Snowball Court where he watched the traffic and lively action taking place.
“The Three Sisters next door was mainly a café where the musicians ate,” said Dorsey.
But a virtual litany of blues who’s who played in the three Yazoo Avenue clubs, Dorsey says and lists Ray Charles, Etta James, Bo Diddley, W.C. Handy, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Ike Turner, Tina Turner, Sam Cook, C.V. Veal, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Gatemouth Moore, and Raymond Hill.
“When W.C. Handy came back to visit, he stayed at Mary’s Boarding House in the same neighborhood,” Dorsey said.
“There was a lot happening; Sam Cook’s home was in the neighborhood, and Raymond Hill’s father ran a service station on Fourth ” he said.
Hill, Jackie Brentson, and Ike Turner were part of the Rocket 88 gang who recorded the first rock n? roll record at Sun Studios.
“Muddy was a self-taught person,” he said and confirmed the legendary Stovall tractor driver”s sideline of selling moonshine whiskey.
“He was playing in the clubs, but he had his people selling whiskey from a lot filled with debris and brush near the Snowball Court,” he continued.
Dorsey, who was born on Hopson Plantation but moved to Clarksdale as an infant with his family, said most of the stores where plantation labor shopped on Saturday were on Issaquena.
“It was so crowded, you had to get out in the street to walk especially before the midnight curfew,” he said.
“My granddaddy walked three miles from Hopson every Saturday to give me 50 ” said Dorsey who usually spent it all on candy.
According to the artist, curfew cut down on fights and killings among late night partying folks from surrounding plantations.
Music fans wanting to hear blues after midnight drove to Winstonville to the Harlem Inn and remained there til the curfew lifted at 5 a.m., says Dorsey.
Dorsey, who has taught hundreds of artists from Thomas Eloby to Andrew Lark at Coahoma Community College, also attended CJC as a student.
Asked if he ever considered playing music, he replied, “I thought about getting a guitar, but I didn?t have the money to buy one; I just like to draw what I see.”
His portrait of President John Kennedy painted while attending Coahoma, earned him a full two-year scholarship at Jackson State University.
During the Vietnam War he served in Special Services, and afterward earned masters and specialist degrees at the University of Mississippi and 45 hours above the master’s level degree.
Dorsey says he has always loved blues. He will be welcomed, honored and introduced on stage at the Sunflower Festival Saturday night, Aug. 13.
The free two-day, Aug. 12-13 festival, is staged by volunteers to celebrate Clarksdale’s heritage and to showcase musicians who continue enriching the community, says John Sherman, co-chairman.
Blues Association members are considered keepers of the torch, says Sherman, and many have rich personal histories with the music.
“Our co-chairman Melville Tillis, who serves as chairman of Clarksdale?s Public Service Commission, is a retired educator,” says Sherman. “However, he once played trumpet in Ike Turner’s hometown band, and owned the Rivermont Lounge, a favorite venue for Little Milton, Clayton Love, and Bobby Rush.”
Sherman says 25,000 are expected to attend the event.
“We are pleased that many businesses are taking advantage of the crowds coming here and scheduling activities; this is heritage tourism at work,” he said.
“However, we still are seeking tax-deductible donations to produce the main event and requesting contributions at Box 1562, Clarksdale,” continued Sherman.