The first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival was held on October 21, 1978, here at Freedom Village, a rural community founded as a refuge for displaced agricultural workers. In 1987 the festival, organized by Greenville-based M.A.C.E. (Mississippi Action for Community Education), moved to a location closer to Greenville.
When the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival was founded in 1978, the concept of a blues festival was still a relative novelty, but by 2000 there were hundreds of such annual events held around the world. Although various folk and jazz events had included blues on their schedules as early as the 1930s, festivals focusing exclusively on blues (or blues and gospel) only took off with the blues revival of the 1960s; the first to gain national recognition was the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. The San Francisco Blues Festival and the John Henry Blues and Gospel Jubilee in West Virginia, the only continuous blues gatherings with greater life spans than the Delta Blues Festival at the time this marker was dedicated in 2008, both began in 1973.
The Mississippi Delta Blues Festival is unique in that its origins were in the Civil Rights movement. After two elderly African Americans were found frozen to death in their shack, activists formed the Poor People’s Conference and occupied an abandoned building on the Greenville Air Force Base to draw attention to local social conditions. They sought to create a self-sustaining community, and in 1966 a group of African American families moved to a 400-acre site here. Initially called “Freedom City,” the site was incorporated as “Freedom Village” in 1970.
The festival was offshoot of the Delta Arts Project initiated by M.A.C.E. (Mississippi Action for Community Education), which was founded in 1967. The brainchild of members Charles Bannerman and Kay Morgan, the festival was intended, in Bannerman’s words, to “honor an art form that was born in the Mississippi Delta cottonfields and was birthed by workers and a way of life whose hardships we must never forget.”
The initial event was staged on a flatbed trailer for a crowd of about 3,500, and featured mostly traditional artists including Big Joe Williams, Furry Lewis, James “Son” Thomas, Sam Chatmon, R.L. Burnside, Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Bud Spires, and Joe Willie Wilkins. Emcees were musician Bobby Ray Watson and folklorists Worth Long and Alan Lomax. Under the direction of Malcolm Walls and others, the festival soon drew tens of thousands of visitors from around the world. It expanded to include electric blues pioneers Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters, blues rockers Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and soul-blues stars such as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Rush, and Lynn White. The festival also provided a platform for many Greenville area artists, including those pictured here.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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