Madison Monday: 10th Annual Madison Ribberfest

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I confess that I haven’t actually been to every Ribberfest since this blues and barbecue festival began in Madison 10 years ago, but this year was certainly the best weather I’ve ever experienced.  The fact that it was a mere high of 80, with temperatures once the sun went down dipping into the 50s, probably accounts for what must have been record-setting attendance.  I base this on the fact that by about 8:00 on Saturday night, they’d run out of the good beer (i.e., any beer that didn’t have a “Bud” in front of it).  They did still have ice cream, which was just fine for me at that point.

Robert Cray
Photo courtesy of inMadisonIN.com

This year’s headliner was Robert Cray, another impressive feat for the festival organizers and another reason for the considerable size of the crowd.  Ribberfest is another kind of Madison event that makes you feel very lucky to live in such a town, especially when, like me, you can walk home to use your own bathroom and take a rest on the couch.  One of the biggest differences between Ribberfest in August and the RiverRoots festival in May is the line at the bathroom–much longer at Ribberfest.

Being a vegetarian, I usually can’t really tell you much about the barbecue.  This year some friends shared a tent with us, and we were treated to an in-house barbecue spread, with pulled pork and a choice of sauces.  Having sampled the sauces, I can tell you that it was quite delicious.

Of course the best barbecue I’ve ever had (pre-vegetarian) and the best blues I’ve ever heard were in Mississippi.  The best barbecue I had in Mississippi was at a place called Gridley’s in Jackson, though I know many folks will disagree.  I may be biased because Gridley’s is also the place where I first tasted fried pickles, the culinary culmination of the Southern tendency to fry damn near everything.  At Gridleys, the barbecue is served on french bread, thus making it into a po’ boy.  And with cole slaw on top, which sounds unappealing, but is really so good.  It’s hard writing this not to get in the car and head for Jackson right now.

The best blues I ever heard was at the mother of all blues festivals, the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Mississippi.  Some folks may think Memphis is the home of the blues, but I believe the music traveled up river from Greenville.  It is, at its core, a music that is rural in origins, and you don’t get much more rural than the middle of a field in Greenville, Mississippi.  In Mississippi, the festival in Greenville is simply called the blues festival, as in THE blues festival, and it’s quite a different scene from Madison.

I last went to blues festival when I was in college, so the mid 90s, and like many things in Mississippi, the festival was still somewhat segregated.  There were white people there, but they largely stayed together in a ring around the stage, with a whole bunch of black folks in front of them, and a whole bunch of black folks behind them.  The people who were from Greenville and had been going to the blues festival their whole lives all told us that you shouldn’t stay after dark.  They didn’t spell it out, but the implication was that it would be dangerous for white people once the sun went down, an interesting inversion from previous centuries, when it was black people who had good reason to fear the Mississippi nights.

We did not stay after dark, so I can’t tell you how dangerous it actually was, though I suspect their beliefs were half-truth and half-lie.  During the civil rights movement, Mississippi generally, and the Delta specifically, were immovable in their desperate hold on segregation.  The plantation culture there kept a firm grip on slaves pre-Civil War and their black sharecroppers post-Civil War.  There’s a reason it was as person from Mississippi who said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  As a black person with centuries of violent oppression at your back, you might very well want white people to feel a little scared of the dark after getting drunk listening to the music born partly of your suffering at their hands.

Here in Madison on the banks of a different river, it seemed quite safe once the sun went down, if a little chilly.  You might conclude from this that we have somehow escaped the legacy of racism that a place like Greenville lives with, but I think you’d be wrong.  Racism is not one thing.  It morphs and changes as it travels across time and place.  Madison has its own racial history, and it’s definitely not all pretty.  I will say this, though.  The blues sound different here, bouncing off the walls of this river valley, than they do in the flat, wide spaces of the Delta.

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