Sam Students Celebrate Life Of Delta Blues Legend
Feb. 5, 2024
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
For years, Sam Houston State University geography professor John Strait has guided students through the Mississippi Delta on field courses in an effort to witness firsthand the geographical significance of blues culture and the historical role it has played in giving a voice to social change.
“I’m fortunate enough to be with a university and department that really values these field experiences for the students,” Strait said. “It fits in with doing what higher education should be doing: offering students experiences outside of the classroom.”
This particular year, the passing of a worldwide icon and Strait’s longtime friend days before the trip would alter the itinerary and result in a new perspective for his 16 GEOG 4360 students. Red Paden, a Mississippi blues legend and owner of the famed Clarksdale juke joint Red’s Lounge, passed away on Dec. 30. The news of his departure and ensuing celebration of life would garner international attention.
“Juke joints, such as Red’s Lounge, serve as critical incubators to the development of this musical culture,” Strait said. “They essentially function as the scene for vital community gatherings.”
During the civil rights movement, these establishments would serve as a place where attendees could be themselves and escape from the hardships, and sometimes horrific realities, of everyday life in the American South. Red’s stands today as one of the last remaining authentic establishments of its kind.
“Juke joints were so impactful at the heart of civil rights and still are today,” said SHSU history major Katherine Shaver, who attended the trip and is authoring an honors thesis focused on the role of music during this time period. “Clarksdale native, Sam Cooke sung about a truly magical place where the young and old, the rich and poor and both Black and White individuals could fraternize with anyone they chose to, while “Twistin’ the Night Away.” The song’s lyrics talk about a place, “somewhere up a New York way,” but I know now that he was singing about juke joints in the South – especially Red’s, because I witnessed it.”
Typically, thanks to the tight-knit relationship Strait cultivated over the years with Paden and others in Clarksdale, his class visits were a cause for local celebrations at the juke joint. Paden’s main mission was one of cultural preservation and education, which aligned perfectly with Strait’s pedagogical intentions.
“This course grew up in there. It became a big event for the town because I had been taking groups there for so long,” Strait said. “This joint is a business, but Red’s main motivation was preserving the music and heritage. My goal was to do the same thing but share it with my students.”
This year’s visit, however, was no typical trip. While the students got to experience the historic club’s cramped atmosphere, with its reddish glow, low-hanging lights, handful of tables, constant music and dancing that encompassed all who gathered, the memorial blues jam served as a celebration of life and included other visitors from around the world.
“I was not sure what to expect going in, but after leaving I knew I got to experience something truly special,” said SHSU geology major Nathan Atterberry. “I didn’t know a single person outside of my classmates, but it felt like I had known everyone there forever. The locals, who I thought should be in there, were standing outside talking to each other saying that the visitors should be the ones to experience what goes on inside. The spirit of Red was still in that building, it was permeating through the walls themselves and through the people who truly cared about him.”
“The significance of Red’s Lounge is that it does not abide by the same rules of the universe, because it is a universe in itself,” said SHSU criminal justice major and honors student Uriel Acevedo. “Strangers should not immediately be able to become family, music should not be a formal language, and all colors should not be a shade of red but, at Red’s Lounge, all this is possible and more.”
Strait stressed that Red’s Lounge essentially encapsulates the whole idea in which his field course was built, showcasing the true meaning of music, how it relates to a culture and its intricate connections to the world as a whole.
“I always say that music is never just entirely about music, especially in places such as that,” Strait said. “It’s not just entertainment, it’s celebrating life.”
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