Payin’ Some Dues — Blues at Ann Arbor

“I’d like for them to hear the real things. I don’t think yet that most of the white people like my music because it’s blues. I don’t know if the people that have heard my music would sit down and buy Muddy Waters’ records and say, Yeah, man, that really is nice. Like some of them like it cause I’m a fast guitar player and they’re into good musicianship and that part of it. Actual love for the music, I don’t think that most people have it. I know that a whole lot of them really do have a love for the blues but not most, I don’t think. I hope it’ll change and they really will start likin’ it, likin’ the music for what it is instead of just the guitar playing… cause the music really isn’t the main thing. It was just a background for things that they wanted to say feelings that you have. And the music was there as a way to put it across.”
From an interview of Johnny Winter (see Rat, July 9-23, 1969)

THE 1969 ANN Arbor Blues Festival of August 1-3 may mark the beginning of an interest by young white people in the relationship between black music and the experience of black people in America. The past and present situations involve imitation, dilution and exploitation of black musical forms with little if any attempt to understand the origin of those forms — “blues” is a household word among teen agers who may never have heard of Robert Johnson although they may be quite familiar with his music through recordings and live performances by Eric Clapton. Now, however, it appears that a market glutted with British blues and ever more bleached out Johnny Winters and Canned Heats, themselves diluted from Muddy Waters, Johnson, B.B. King, etc. does in fact have room for “the real things” as Winter himself calls black blues. B.B. King now appears to screaming, ecstatic audiences at pop festivals, Big Mama Thornton has a new recording due for release, and even some old-timers like Lightnin’ Hopkins can play for appreciative audiences at ballrooms and clubs conceived to sell music as a commodity. A very unusual cultural situation exists here in this country in that some of the very men and women who created the blues are still alive and practicing their art. The blues in its darkest, strongest hues is readily accessible to a growing audience perhaps experiencing a surfeit of young white superstars.

Many of these elements were latent in the successes of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Over ten thousand hippies, freaks, students, White Panthers, bikers, politicos and blues lovers listened enraptured through three days of country and urban, vocal and instrumental, electric and acoustic blues — performed not by blues musicians but by blues people. None of the freshmen white rock groups who spoiled the Memphis Blues Festival were scheduled. That such a young white blues audience still has the major portion of its dues to pay was evident — it hung over the festival like a beacon: “I don’t think you’re ready for the blues,” Luther Allison affectionately taunted the audience. Whether or not it was “ready” was evidently uppermost in the minds of the performers, for the entire weekend was filled with acts of “education” in the blues experience — B.B. King telling “why I sing the blues” (“I’ve been around for a long, long time/People, I really have paid my dues!”); Allison, Cotton and Wells prodding the listeners into soul-clap; the two Kings demanding that the audience get up off its ass and dance; Son House rapping about where it all came from. “Help me, baby,” sang more than one performer, “I can’t do it all by myself.” Growing like a seed within the modest (in numbers, by “pop” festival standards) but substantial (in the strength of its vibrations) success of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is the real, non-racist (i.e., exclusively black-oriented) experience by white people of a particularly powerful form of black culture.

There are, of course, many extramusical reasons for Ann Arbor’s triumph. The sponsorship was predominantly hip white students, with almost none of the racist white liberal blues cultist attitudes — we really have come a long way in our perspectives (compare the Ann Arbor festival program with old — and some new — literary articles on blues “lyrics” in stodgy old Downbeat magazine; one critic, John Sinclair, has come from its musty pages to behind the bars of jail as a political prisoner). The festival program was in most respects cooly and accurately hip, with few middle class axes to grind and exhibiting genuine desire to communicate the connection between white racism (or the situation of blacks during the peak of industrialism in this country) and black culture (the victorious response made to that later form of slavery). The Argus put out a special revolutionary culture supplement devoted to the Ann Arbor performers. The personnel chosen for the festival could not, with one exception, be slighted, only added to. Someone evidently felt that an excellent sound system was a prerequisite. More than adequate food and drink facilities were provided, and a beautiful green field adjacent to the festival site was available free for camping. The size of the crowd — though modest compared with three-ring circuses like Atlanta — exceeded expectations and yet left breathing, dancing space for everyone. Cops were there but under wraps. Dope wasn’t central to the experience, but it was there and not too much hid. Prices were lower than at most music festivals and for the first time, money went where it should go — to the men and women who did the work.

The festival format itself, of course, leaves a lot to be desired — how can anyone really dig Muddy Waters after six hours of Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, and other “heavies” (in sound, not money-making ability). An entire weekend of blues may be designed to drench you in it, baptize you in the name of an initially foreign yet ultimately assimilable musical experience. Yet after the first day, your sensibilities begin to crave variety. (Why, just for the hell of it, couldn’t we get the Jefferson Airplane, Waylon Jennings, and B.B. King together for an evening’s music? — pick your own choices.) It is simply impossible to sustain an adequate level of receptivity throughout the drain of a three-day period. Thus there is here a tendency to be perhaps unduly impressed by any sound which includes an element of uniqueness or variety — J.B. Hutto’s stinging slide guitar excited me more than the solid professionalism of the James Cotton Blues Band. There are always a number of “festival casualties” — those performances you know would have wiped you out had you not been passing out on the green, standing in line to take a shit, or limping over to the coke stand. Magic Sam, Otis Rush and even to some degree Freddy King fall into this category at Ann Arbor. Also Big Joe Williams and Fred McDowell. In addition, there is a tendency to expect fantastic performances by names you are familiar with, and those by lesser known artists seem to have more weight: J.B. Hutto turned me on more than Junior Wells. Luther Allison’s bravura set of crowd-pleasers I remember more vividly than Muddy Waters’ abbreviated run-through (though brilliant) of three of his most famous numbers. In urban and country fields, B.B. King and Lightnin’ Hopkins emerged as the big events of the weekend because they did both — (1) lived up to their incredible reputations, and (2) played more and better than anyone else on the program in their respective fields.

Another problem of limitations concerns the inability of some of the older country blues performers — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams, etc. to overcome both the severe depreciation of their skills over the years and also the more powerful electric thrust of the more contemporary bands. Crudup’s long set had its moments, including the first of many performances of ‘Rock Me, Mama’, and a ‘Got My Questionnaire’ blues about the draft that immediately connected with the experience of the young audience. Yank Rachel played with Sleepy John Estes as he did at the dismal Memphis Blues Festival and once again contributed some lovely electric mandolin blues to Estes’ salty vocal and guitar styles. ‘Key to the Highway’ was a highlight. Pianist Roosevelt Sykes opened the festival with his own ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and overcame any age limitations with the good humor in his shouting vocals and boogie woogie tremolo extravaganzas. Sykes, whose recording career dates back to 1929, set the tone for all that was to come.

But only Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins from Texas really triumphed over age and physical wear and tear, partly because of the solid foundation of Sam Lay’s electric band backing him up. Dressed in what looked like a floral tux, white shirt, black bow tie, and shades, Lightnin’, ego freak non pareil, obviously grooving on his position of importance, immediately laid claim to being “the man that went down to Louisiana and got a mojo hand.” “I don’t understand,” he laughed, “why all these folks been messin’ roun’ with my stuff!” A cooking ‘Mojo Hand’ followed, highlighted by the interaction between Lightnin’ on acoustic guitar and Lay, obviously knocked out by the old master, on drums. Lightnin’ emphasized the usual elements of his style — boogie woogie low register accompaniment, strummed chords, and one of the most relaxed, restrained, and uniquely styled voices in the blues idiom. His guitar seems preoccupied with rhythm even in solo interludes. Lightnin’ did ‘Trouble in Mind’ with nice piano fills behind his vocal, and a brilliant ‘Come Go With Me’.

At various points Lightnin’ would stop and chat with the audience, Lay & Co., all smiles and good vibes on stage. “The Man went to the moon,” he said slyly, then improvised a bit of verse to the effect that “If a man go to the moon, just look aroun’ for Lightnin’, cause he’ll be there soon.”

“I been born by the devil, old Lightnin’ don’t wanna be baptized,” he sang over funky drums and cymbals from Lay. Lightnin’ would strike a string on his guitar and his hand would dart quickly out in an ominous gesture at the audience, his hand trembling — as if he were flinging the chord out — while his other hand would vibrate the tone, a demonic, mesmerizing way of relating to a guitar and an audience.

“These boys think they can play, but they behind Lightnin’!” was the challenge. “Catch me if you can!” led into an instrumental boogie workout. Lightnin’ would stand up and play guitar rock style, one leg up, guitar sideways. “Wasn’t that nice?” he said, and led into a reprise.

The crowd loved him and brought him back for ‘Black Cadillac’, demanded another, but the D.J. from Chicago, “Big Bill” Hill, who served as emcee, rushed another act on. It was unbelievable that second sets by Clifton Chenier, Luther Allison and two sets by Charley Musselwhite could preclude a second encore by the Texas bluesman who had obviously scored so well with the audience. Such inflexible scheduling brought some of the few downs of the weekend.

Of the next generation of blues people, the ones who stood out were Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker and a surprise “hit” Clifton Chenier. Chenier sings well and plays a strangely appealing form of French cajun-derived blues called “zydeco” on the accordion. He did a couple of Ray Charles tunes (one in French), ‘Pine Top Boogie Woogie, ‘Five Long Years’, and a rocking ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ that blew everyone’s minds. At sunset on the night of the second day, Chenier, his processed hair, glistening face, accordion, and flashing teeth in the red glow of the spotlights, made a romantic blues figure against the sky and the blackening tree branches.

T-Bone Walker also cut quite a figure visually in a bright yellow Tom Jones-type blouse with an open V-neck. Historically the first bluesman to do it with an electric instrument, T-Bone plays the guitar sideways and turned up almost flat, and he concentrates on the lower and medium registers in his solos. The best stuff he did was in a dual improvisation with Luther Allison and his back-up job for Big Mama Thornton.

Unquestionably one of the biggest responses of the weekend was earned by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. She took over the stage from the very first moment, looking like a good-natured female Howlin’ Wolf in man’s shirt and pants, blowing blues harp into the mike. T-Bone played some gutsy guitar over a basically ragged band that did include an incredible bassist who hung his instrument so low that he had to play it around his knees! Big Mama danced and shook her way across the stage, hugging T-Bone, talking to the audience, at one point sitting in on drums, and singing the blues with some of the most carefully constructed dynamics you’ll hear anywhere. White blues singers — particularly Janis Joplin who has appropriated bits and pieces of Big Mama’s style — waste all their low intensity work in trying to reach the high levels, and once they get up in the high intensity areas they can neither sustain the energy nor get back down with ease. Black blues singers have free-floating dynamics — travelling up and down with grace and style — and this freedom characterized Big Mama’s shouting vocals (and also the instrumental offerings of all the black blues musicians throughout the weekend — this is perhaps the main difference between black and white blues). Two high points marked Big Mama’s set — ‘Ball and Chain’ which she introduced as a “surprise song” and a recreation of her recording of ‘My Heavy Load’ for which she was reunited with her original accompanist on slide guitar, Fred McDowell.

One of my very favorites among the younger generation of performers was blues freak, J.B. Hutto. A dirty, raunchy, grainy, unpolished music maker, Hutto and band (including bassist Abe Ware) did several numbers characterized by a disjointed, barely hanging together collective sound which features Hutto’s stinging, searing electric slide guitar solos and his primitive, often non-verbal vocals. ‘It’s All Right’ included words, but they were not a limitation to Hutto, and his vocal evolved into a mesh of words and pure sounds, including a primitive yodel sound incorporated into short screams and yelps. We got an interview with Hutto but couldn’t use it because we couldn’t understand anything he said!

The big “hit” of the festival was an unknown, who because of Ann Arbor may be on his road to stardom — Luther Allison. Young, handsome, cocksure, and in impish good spirits, Allison was not only fun to watch but produced some fine blues licks on guitar. A born crowd-pleaser, he paid great attention to dynamics, often “bringing it down” to a whisper, a clap, a shout, a scream, to a fine display of blues guitar technique that combined soul with genuine blues feeling. With the aid of bedrock bassist “Mojo” and a terrific organist, Allison strutted his stuff on stage, down the stairs into the press section (that’s obviously where he’s at!), down on his back, in postures forever a part of the modern blues tradition (not an invention of Jimi Hendrix). Guitar/band grooved into vocals, vocals into guitar a cappella, vocals a cappella, talk and jive with the audience and band. The crowd went wild. “I’m a soul man,” he sang, “and I’m a blues man, too.” Unfortunately, Allison’s overlong grand-standing caused the Muddy Waters blues band to have to cut its set down to three numbers that didn’t have time to really catch fire. But Allison redeemed himself the next day by playing a more restrained set, backing up several performers, and by getting into some exciting old vs. new jams with veteran T-Bone Walker which the latter, to Allison’s delight, won!

Many of the established blues stars at Ann Arbor lived up to their reputations and though lacking some of the extra excitement of some of the lesser knowns, produced the bulk of the consistently excellent blues of the festival. Muddy Waters, sadly cut off, came on in elegance and dignity — the undisputed ruler of his blues territory, exuding an urbanity and polish in appearance and music that was unmatched during all three days. ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ included a flashing, slippery, liquid solo on guitar equipped with a tastefully employed wah-wah pedal.

Howlin’ Wolf came on like the monster bluesman he is. Giving what was perhaps one of the heaviest sets of all, the Wolf paced back and forth across the stage, often freezing in terrifying poses in which his face would take on satanic, threatening expressions which he would exploit until they no longer interested him. “Work, work, work!” he shouted to his band, a totally functional group of musicians whose sound bears the personal stamp of this blues auteur. The Wolf’s gravelly vocal style is incredible (and underrated technically) — volcanic energy compressed into one human voice with more room for tonal inflections and varieties of sounds than is often recognized. Bad, evil, Howlin’ Wolf did phallic things with the microphone that make Jim Morrison’s antics look silly. The Wolf claimed ‘Smokestack Lightnin” and ‘Spoonful’ for all time.

Freddie King was so good he could only be compared with B.B. Each number contained strong, electrifying solo work on “the baby” (as he calls his guitar) and also showed off his smooth, mellow blues vocalizing. “Your groove out there is so good,” he said, “you’re gonna give me a groove!” — everybody got up and danced during an encore that lasted longer than some complete sets.

Magic Sam was almost another “casualty,” but his set did define the groove for the final evening — some lovely blues through the twilight blue-grey clouds outlined in color by the sunset, the stage backed by green pines and overhead a darkening sky, the crowd growing larger as the last night’s customers swelled the ranks, and soon giant soap bubbles floating above the heads of the audience, while Magic Sam — his music tight and swinging — cut a beautiful figure in a purple and violet outfit. The connection between sound and feeling was made.

There were other good things to hear — Sam Lay’s band did a song by the late Mississippi John Hurt in which the harp player offered lyrical, rippling, gentle blues behind Lay’s subdued, singing vocal. This number demonstrated the lines through which the blues crosses into white country music — Lay’s arrangement conjuring up the close, tight, clean country band sound of a Buck Owens.

Charley Musselwhite, who did two sets, was the only real down of the festival; it is inconceivable why he was even placed on the program. Those who argue that the color of one’s skin is not relevant to the blues one plays cannot deny that what Musselwhite did — though solid, efficient, technically adequate, correct — was also bland, uninspired, and hopelessly dull after what preceded it. His performances proved nothing about the creativity of a Charley Musselwhite, but did prove everything about the power and resilience of the blues form. There was almost no response from the audience who, unaccountably, were subjected to him twice.

The big event of the festival was an appearance by the master, B.B. King. A man with commanding presence on stage, King combines professionalism with roots, and his guitar playing and vocals were the strongest, most authoritative of the weekend. He is really a one man band, and the only guitarist who can be said to use a band for accompaniment. His soloes build and build in a progression of intensity, then suddenly shift into another whole realm unexpectedly, the energy level intact. B.B. starts off where most guitarists end up. The sound of his guitar, and the way he controls it, crosses the pain/pleasure threshold, forcing a positive response from the listener. “I been downhearted, baby, ever since the day we met/You know our love is nothin’ but the blues, woman, tell me how blue can you get!” — vocal/trumpet coloration at the introduction after a fantastic, brilliant guitar solo. The variety of levels on which B.B. King operates — the single note/chord, high/low register juxtapositions within solos — are the most organic, yet carefully designed in the blues. The guitar often soloed to no accompaniment other than the audience’s handclaps (for the first time in my life I heard a white audience clap on the beat). “I’ve got a mind to give up living, And go shopping instead/To pick out a tombstone/And be pronounced dead!” The guitar/horn textures were against the grain, yet perfectly blended.

B.B. took a break to announce a jam session at the school and to introduce the personnel of his band. “And with all this beautiful talent, ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “I would still be lost if it wasn’t for the aid of my favorite girl — Lucille” and led into a terrific ‘Rock Me, Baby’.

“We’ve played so many festivals this year — more than I’ve ever played in my whole life,” said B.B. His final tune was ‘Everybody Wanna Know Why I Sing The Blues’ — telling it like it is and getting right down into the origins of this musical idiom: a line about the slave ship tells of the whip, a line about the ghetto flat speaks of rats. Yesterday and today… “I’ve been around for a long, long time/People, I tell you, I really have paid my dues.” An audience of thousands was up on its feet dancing, delirious with the sounds. The two dominant strains in the blues — eroticism uninhibited and victorious response to oppression — had been defined by the master. The reception B.B. King got on Friday night set the standard by which every other performance would have to be measured. The King of the Blues.

The decision to end the festival with Son House was a gamble that turned out to be a stroke of genius. In an attempt to get out of the electric bands and back down into the country roots, the final set assigned to veteran House was one of the most meaningful, most emotionally affecting performances heard. A turned on audience that had danced through James Cotton and Freddy King sat entranced, in almost a religious mood, as the ancient, decrepit House played guitar and sang. ‘Death Letter’ was hypnotic in the spell it cast. Referring to the split between blues and gospel, House mentioned a line from a religious song about obtaining salvation through death; he cast his lot with a generation of young people when he said simply and eloquently, “I want the Lord to have mercy on me before I die!” Son House rapped about the blues and told jokes, and sang a couple of gospel numbers with the help of his wife — spinning blues sounds we could still hear as we left the field and Ann Arbor on our way back down South to Atlanta.

© Miller Francis jr.The Great Speckled Bird, 18 August 1969

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