Fried steak and pork shops. Field peas. Barbecue chicken tenders. Lima beans. Turnip greens. Baked beans with hamburger and barbecue sauce. Corn bread. Sweet tea and peach cobbler. Filling-up on the Ranchero’s lunch buffet on Rt. 161 at the edge of town, I’m now ready to commune with Clarksdale, Mississippi. This is the day when one teen from the Delta Blues Museum will be called to the stage to accept a summer scholarship, and when the town rolls out the annual Juke Joint Festival.
The day is overcast. Rain is threatening a visit. Bands have been performing since 10 a.m. in front of Miss Del’s General Store and the Wade Walton Barber Shop, and in the Delta Amusement club, among many other spaces. People crowd around an oval track to see pigs race. Two blocks away, others are gathering to get the best view to see monkeys riding sheep dogs. There is lemonade and crawfish for sale, folk art and blues CDs at Cat Head, and a canoe-carving workshop.
Over at the Delta Blues Museum, PJ Walker, who auditioned for the scholarship on Thursday and also works there, is taking admission out front. He’s demonstrating a knack for business, now, hoping for rain, so that more people will come to the museum and take home items from the gift shop.
Rain ultimately does come, stopping the monkey and dog show in under 60 seconds. It’s unclear if the late-afternoon outdoor performance by the Delta Blues Museum’s Arts and Education ensemble will take place. It does, and slowly people gather in front of the stage under umbrellas until the rain subsides. Teachers Daddy Rich and Bill Perry are center stage, leading the group through blues classics. The student ensemble includes, perhaps, 10 students at any one time, and most will yield their seat so that others can play and solo. Clancy Pullen and Sarah Metcalf are among the players. PJ is working inside the gift shop.
We’re waiting for enough people to fill the area in front of the stage so that the scholarship presentation will have the most impact for the winner and the community. I’ve met one hopeful’s mom. She and her daughter ask about the Music Therapy major. This was a touch choice, that we could award the scholarship to only one of four students.
Shelley Ritter and I are called to the stage to join Rich and Travis Calvin, who also performed with the group. I ask a museum employee to get PJ out of the gift shop so that he can hear the announcement.
Reading a brief bio of the winner to the crowd, I planned to keep the recipient’s identity a secret until announcing the name, but I slipped and made a reference to “his” accomplishments. There was only one young man who auditioned. The cat was out of the bag – it will be PJ who comes to Berklee on scholarship this summer. He’s dressed in a white shirt and short necktie. He bounds to the stage and takes his certificate. I pass Clancy and Sarah, telling them that the decision was tough. There was one pair of red eyes.
An hour later, PJ was interviewed by reporter Nathan Duff for the Clarksdale Blues Star. The energetic teen who is most serious about his music and full of humor about many other things, holds court at the gift shop counter, joking about how the place won’t be the same without him this summer. One of his coworkers threatens to award him a scholarship for not returning from Boston. PJ and I plan for the live radio interview he will give on state-wide Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s (MPB) Mississippi Edition program this Tuesday morning (April 21), at 8:45 a.m., along with the winner from the Robert Johnson Blues Museum.
I ask what he thinks about the day. He gets serious again. “I feel unworthy because of the high standard the Berklee name has,” he shares. “But, I’m going to keep working on reading music and study more in my music theory books so that when I get to Berklee, I can be ready to learn as much as I can.”
And, he’s planning to be back after the summer, to enter in the spring with his best friend, Travis Calvin.
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