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JUNE 25-29 & JULY 2-6
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Two scenes from a Mississippi Delta odyssey last December: On an unseasonably balmy Memphis evening, a family blues band played for tips in W.C. Handy Park, which a longtime Memphian, with only slight exaggeration, described as the city’s only integrated block. Unlike the Disneyfied experience inside Beale Street’s upscale blues clubs, the outdoor concert was free, casual, filled with unfamiliar tunes, and intently listened to. Blacks and whites shared park benches, nodding to the beat; lovers danced to the music as if entranced. A few days later, in Clarksdale, Miss., home of the thriving Delta Blues Museum, I visited WROX disc jockey Early Wright, who has hosted blues and gospel shows since 1947 and who, according to blues writer Christiane Bird in 1994, gladly welcomes visitors. The recent blues revival must have changed all that, because after Mr. Wright seated himself at the controls, he asked, with minimal subtlety, for a little something first to provide for his family. What I offered—dinner—was not enough, so we agreed to part, in time for his show to begin, and as amicably as possible under the circumstances. As I drove back to Memphis on the misty, arrow-straight Highway 61, I mentally replayed the unsettling experience, until I realized that Wright had inadvertently expressed the pain of the blues more eloquently than anything he could have been paid to say. Experience the transcendence of the blues at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife; this year it features the Mississippi Delta, African Immigrant Folklife, and Sacred Sounds from various cultures. Listen to the blues, jazz, rockabilly, and gospel; sample catfish and barbecue; and watch craftspeople in action. Best of all, no one will ask you for money—it’s all free. Activities and musical performances from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, except July 4, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., on the National Mall Grounds; see Music & Event listings for details. FREE. (202) 357-4574. (Louis Jacobson)