By David John Smith
Clarksdale is town in northwest Mississippi on the banks of the Sunflower River. Located on the Mississippi Delta, often called "The Most Southern Place on Earth".
Located just over 100 kilometers south of Memphis, located along the mighty Mississippi River, Clarksdale has long been important in the history of the Blues, and the town reputation as the birthplace of the Blues is a strong one.
Through the 30 years of the Notodden Blues Festival, there are have many highlights, but the lasting relationship with the sister city of Clarksdale stands as one of the most creative and unique sister city relationships found anywhere.
How did "The Most Southern Place on Earth" become sister city with Notodden, the town known as the "Birthplace of the Second Industrial Revolution" located in the remote mountains of Telemark, Norway?
It is a fascinating story – and this story of the sisterhood saga between Notodden, Norway and Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Naturally there is the legend around Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the Crossroads. This legend is engrained as part of Blues legend in story, film, song and tradition.
It is a legend that just will not die despite close friends such as Johnny Shines saying that he never heard Johnson mention the devil and their midnight meeting near the Dockery Plantation, now the crossroads Route 61 and Route 49 and marked by three unmistakable guitars.
Blues artists such as Muddy Waters have lived in Clarksdale. Muddy, who lived in a house on Stovall Farm just outside Clarksdale, first recorded there in 1941. Others such as Pinetop Perkins, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker and many others have called the town home at one time or another.
Bessie Smith was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Her well-deserved nickname was "Empress of the Blues",and was one of the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s.
Regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists, she died in the Clarksdale G.T Thomas Afro-American Hospital (now the Riverside Hotel) after an auto accident on Route 61 between Clarksdale and Memphis.
Bessie was buried the week afterwards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a memorial attended by over 10,000 people.
The legend of the Blues and Clarksdale is strong, and continues to this day.
This is a perfect fit with Notodden and its lasting Blues love affair had begun long again with places afar when post-war generation youth from Notodden and the region heard the call of adventure and sailed to America and beyond.
Working as crew on mighty Norwegian ships, these young men travelled the world, and some such as Kård Virud brought back guitars and strange music from far away places such as Chicago, Memphis and the state of Mississippi.
Many years later, the sister city saga took a giant step forward in February 1996 when local Notodden journalist Tore Hval took the initiative to travel to Clarksdale and meet with Mayor Henry Espy.
Then on August 4, 1997, the sister city relationship between Clarksdale and Notodden was officially established, with Mayor Espy and his wife accompanied by Commissioner Grady Palmer and his wife Maxine representing Clarksdale.
Lasting to this Day
Thus began a decades-long sister city relationship that stands strong to this day. Each year, Notodden makes a pilgrimage to their Mississippi sister, and in return musicians and friends from Clarkdale often travel to Notodden Blues Festival, which regularly invites Clarksdale artists.
The 30th Anniversary 2017 Notodden Blues Festival marked a highlight in the long sister city relationship as the Clarksdale Mississippi Blues Caravan with Super Chikan" Johnson, Heather Crosse (photo below), Anthony "Big A" Sherrod, Lala & Lee Williams rolled into town.
The much-loved Clarksdale-based musician Heather Crosse
Clarksdale was honored in 2017 with a star on the Notodden Blues Walk of Fame – only fitting in this year where both the Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale and the Notodden Blues Festival marked their 30th anniversary.
This lasting Blues love affair between the sister cities of Notodden and Clarksdale has only just begun.
James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Lee Williams and Notodden Blues Festival Jostein Forsberg