The [Memphis Country] Blues Festival [was] an occasion unto itself, quite unlike any other. The aging troubadours of the first truly American music converge to unfold the eternal story once again. Their audience, happily disregarding the erosions the years have wrought upon these performers, hears what it needs to hear—especially the echoes of an earlier, rougher, more joyous, simpler era. (Choose your own fantasy of the American South during this century’s opening decades.) Two of the most important blues festivals in recent memory were the Memphis [Country] Blues Festival and the  Ann Arbor Blues Festival…Stanley Booth’s article on the memorable Memphis festival gets inside that event to the meaning of the blues, while Bert Stratton tells what it’s like to be 19, totally inexperienced as a promoter/festival organizer, and suddenly to find a full-scale blues festival growing out of your daydreams.
At about five o’clock in the afternoon on the second day of the Memphis Country Blues Festival, the old blues artists Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods were huddled together on folding chairs at the front of the stage at the Overton Park Shell, just getting into “Shake ‘Em On Down,” when a gang of men began moving a long series of big black amplifier crates from one side of the rear stage to the other. Hearing the clatter, Woods stopped playing harmonica and cast a worried glance backwards over his shoulder. “I thought it was a big ole train a-comin’,” he said. The crates were stamped WINTER, because they contained the many amplifiers of Johnny Winter, the Columbia Recording Company’s $300,000 cross-eyed albino Texas electric blues bonus baby, and I mention them because they will serve adequately as a symbol of what nearly killed the Memphis Country Blues Festival in its fourth year.
|The Levitt Shell is an outdoor amphitheater and live music venue in Memphis, TN.|
On the scene at about this time was a New Yorker named Bill Barth, one of the strange breed of northern musicologists, like Charters and the Lomaxes, who spend their lives looking for the blues without ever quite finding it. Barth did unearth several lost blues artists, however, and in 1966 he and Charlie Brown produced the first Memphis Country Blues Festival, though it was not called that. It was just the blues show then, and it was rained out, but everyone came back a week later and the show went on, with Bukka White, B.B. King’s cousin and teacher; Nathan Beauregard, who is supposed to be, at 106, the world’s oldest blues singer; Rev. Robert Wilkins, a converted blues man who became one of the finest gospel singers, and Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis.
Perhaps that is why the second blues show was such a disappointment 1967 was the year of the hippie tidal wave; the world was awash with dope and flowers. Charlie Brown, after a difference of opinion with the Memphis Vice Squad, had gone to Miami. The blues show took place, but somehow things were not the same. The Lee Baker Blues Band had become Funky Down-Home and the Electric Blue Watermelon; Lee/Funky, one of the young musicians who supposedly cared about the blues, played while seated on a motorcycle, wearing a dress, with flowers in his hair. The bizarre atmosphere affected even the old blue men. Generally unaccustomed to playing cold sober, this year several of them became falling-down drunk. A large audience, prompted by enthusiastic reports of the first concert, came to witness what was, with minimal exceptions, an embarrassment.
A few musicians refused to play the second blues show, because it was such a circus, but by 1968 things had settled down somewhat, and most of them were back. The third blues show, the Funky Down-Home Memorial Concert (Funky was a guest of Uncle Sam at the Federal Narcotics Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky), included newly discovered Mississippi blues man Joe Callicott and attracted a good amount of outside interest. Billboard and AFM paper Musician carried stores; London Records cut an album, of semi-professional quality, on the old blues players.
As it happens, 1969 marked the 150th birthday of the City of Memphis, if you forget the years when, following a series of yellow fever plagues, the city’s charter was revoked so naturally the Chamber of Commerce made plans for a Sesquicentennial Celebration. Bill Barth, who in his well-meaning but slipshod way had remained the blues show’s prime mover, suggested that the celebration include an expanded version of the blues show, and the city, fairly desperate for good publicity since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., agreed. An office in city hall was made available so that a representative of Barth’s Memphis Country Blues Society and a Chamber of Commerce promotion man could coordinate the event.
Developments soon became impenetrably scrambled, but in outline several basic trends could be discerned. First, while Barth was expecting money from the city for his festival, the city intended to have its own festival and created a philanthropic organization, the W. C. Handy Foundation, to camouflage the show’s Babbit-like Boost Memphis advertising purpose. (Barth’s shows, good or bad, always had one purpose: to earn a little money for the old blues men. All earnings over expenses were split between the musicians. At the 1968 show, each man had received S150, which might equal five years of sharecropper’s wages.) Endowed with $20,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, the city’s man began negotiations to contract such noted blues artists as Louis Armstrong and Marguerite Piazza.
Meanwhile, anticipating money from the city, from nebulous recording deals, and from mysterious “backers,” the Country Blues Society’s man sent contracts to practically everyone who owns a guitar. The Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, the Flying Burrito Bros., Johnny Winter, Blind Faith, George Harrison’s protege Jackie Lomax, Jo-Ann Kelly—the list could go on almost forever—were invited to appear for expenses and $50 a day, and a surprising number agreed. National Educational Television made plans to tape an afternoon’s concert for its musical series, Sounds of Summer.
The Memphis Blues Festival had become a very hip thing to do.
Spectators were admitted, at a dollar a head, to the Shell’s weathered wooden benches. There were many good things on the program for them to enjoy, but the delays caused by technical difficulties the NET people encountered made waiting under the hot, empty, blue sky for the next thing to happen fairly excruciating. During a particularly long delay, I went to the back of the Shell, heard music across the park, and walked over the road through a formal flower garden to look out over a wide green sweep of playground. Hundreds of kids, all colors, boys and girls together, led by a lady in a blue-and-white Park Commission uni-form, were singing and dancing, whirling in two or three great circles, then in dozens of tiny, tightly spinning ones. It was like wandering into a Brueghel painting.
|(L to R) Nathan Beauregard, Unidentified Woman,
Marvin Beauregard, and Verlina Woods.
The attention the old blues have received lately seems to have a revivifying effect on the players, even those who have not been directly touched by it. They sounded, on this night, better than ever. Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods Opened the show with a set of blues, breakdowns, shuffles and boogies, many of which were old at the time of the First World War. McDowell, probably the best living bottleneck guitarist, has recorded more than most of the old blues men, but Woods has only recently cut his first tapes. To call Woods’ playing funky is to be guilty of gross understatement; he is the funkiest harmonica player who ever came up from the farm. He sounds like Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Terry, Howlin’ Wolf, and a large dying animal, all at once.
It is interesting to know how old much of Woods’ and McDowell’s material is, but you do not have to know its age to enjoy it. One of the pleasanter things about the Memphis blues shows is that none of the old players is presented for his historical value. All of them, even 106-year-old Nathan Beauregard (skeptics grant him a decade less) can still play blues.
Bukka White, at 59 the youngest of the old blues men, followed Beauregard. When B.B. King first came to Memphis, he lived with his cousin Bukka, whose bottleneck playing motivated B.B. to achieve the sustained ascending tones that in part characterize his style. Bukka vigorously plays a big National Steel Standard and sings, talks and growls magnificently incomprehensible songs. Part song, part reminiscence, part tall-story, Bukka just makes them up out of the sky. Down Beat gave two stars, its highest rating, to a two-volume collection of Bukka’s sky songs on the Arhoolie label.
The surprising thing about Lum Guffin, who was also making his first Memphis blues show appearance, is that no one has recorded him. Though he is supposed to have played on Beak Street in the Twenties, his present style is patterned closely after that of Elmore James. Of the many guitarists working this vein, Griffin has to be among the very best. He is adept at finger-picking, but his slide work is outstanding.
|Booker Washington White in the 1960s|
The Insect Trust, Bill Barth’s eight-piece blues rock jazz band (Barth plays blues, the rhythm section plays rock, the horns play jazz), seemed at times neither to know nor to care where they were going, but were almost always fun to listen to, and once in a while were really impressive, especially when Trevor Koehler, a rifle young baritone saxophonist, was featured. Koehler played interesting, energetic, coherent solos, and even when he dipped into the post-Coltrane piggy-noise hag, never lost his sense of humor. The Insect Trust do not exactly play blues, hue they have roots, and besides, it’s Barth’s show. Robert Wilkins made souse very good blues records in the Twenties, but in the Thirties be was “sanctified,” and since then Rev. Wilkins has sung only for the Lord. Its blues show appearances have been consistently excellent, and each has revealed a new development in his music. At the first blues show, Rev. Wilkins played acoustic guitar, accompanied only by his “baby son,” who must be six feet tall, on tambourine. “Big son” joined the next year, on electric bass. Then Rev. Wilkins started playing electric guitar. This year there were two additions: Another, non-family, electric guitarist. and Rev. Wilkins’ niece, whose looks and voice added fuel to the rumor that the Wilkins’ family carries an extra gene which produces attractive, talented gospel artists. Rev. Wilkins’ present group must be regarded as one of the best gospel bands, the equal of the Staple Singers, with better material than the Staples*, much of it original. Their “Soldiers in the Army of the Lord” was one of the highlights of the Festival. Rev. Wilkins says that he does not know who the Rolling Stones are, but he is pleased that they have recorded one of his songs.
This year marked the return of Lee-Baker/Funky Down-Home, who appeared with his new band, Moloch. Baker’s past lapses of taste have not prevented him from hearing an electric blues guitarist in the very front of the second rank. (In the first rank there are a few black men and no white boys at all). Moloch is a tight, grooving, blues band. They accompanied, oddly enough, Sid &bridge, a singer in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff, though his roots go back to white country hoots and hollers. No other singer in Selvidge’s field has such a powerfully precise voice, In fact, Selvidge’s singing may be too good for to-day’s taste; you can understand every word lee sings. He does not sacrifice any feeling, however; he has a fine, passion-ate falsetto, and is the best yodeler since Dale Evans.
Fahey played forever and was replaced by Jo-Ann Kelly, a pretty blonde girl from England, who did a brilliant impersonation of Charlie Patton. She was accompanied by Backwards Sam Firk, though Festival rumor had it that the man with her was an imposter and not the real Firk. Jo Ann Kelly’s impersonation of an old bluesman is quite accurate, and she must be among the funkier items in England. Bringing her to Memphis, however, was like bringing coals to Newcastle.
|George “Wild Child” Butler in 1968|
John D. Loudermilk, a Nashville songwriter (“A Rose and a Baby Ruth”), who happened to be in town, sang a few songs, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. George “Wild Child” Butler, from Montgomery, Alabama, was perhaps the Festival’s most unusual performer. He looks, talks, and behaves just like a blues singer, and might even be a blues singer, except that he is apparently tone deaf. Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods played toward the end of the show. Their set was interrupted briefly by the movement of Johnny Winter’s amplifiers across the stage. Winter himself was, as he had been since the day before, at a Memphis hotel, watching television.
But as night fell, the unsavory atmosphere that had hovered like a cloud over this year’s blues show drew near and, before the morning came, drenched the Overton Park Shell. Groups on the make, attracted by the hype, crawled out from under God knows what distant rocks and slithered up to Bill Barth, “We’re the Jefferson Street Jug Band/Crazy Horse/the Permanent Brain Damage,” they said. “We’ve come from five hundred/a thousand/nine million light-years to be on your show. You gotta let US play.” Barth, assailed by a vision of himself in Ed Sullivan’s clothes, naturally said yes to all of them. The show was not completely bad. An electric blues band from New Orleans called Nectar halted momentarily the downward musical trend. A few of the older musicians played, but no one paid them much attention.
By now there must be in the world at least a million guitar virtuosos, but there are very few real blues players. The reason for this is that the blues—not the form, but the blues— demands such dedication. This dedication lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible. Johnny Winter can play rings around Furry Lewis; the comparison is ludicrous. But when Furry Lewis, at Winter’s age, sang, “My mother’s dead, my father just as well to be.” He was singing his life, and that is blues. When Bukka White sings a song he wrote during his years on Parchman Prison Farm, “I wonder how long, till I can change my clothes,” he is celebrating, honestly and humbly. his life. Most of the young guitar virtuosos do not have lives; they have record collections, Of course, they do have lives, if they would look inside and discover them.
That is what might happen. But neither the city of Memphis nor the pop-music industry has ever really cared for old n—er, and their music, and they are not likely to change now. The blues fad may have died away by next year, in which case Memphis will probably have its ordinary neighborhood blues get-together. On the other hand, next year the blues may be bigger than ever. In that case, the old men and the few who kale them and their songs may have even less to look forward to…