THROUGH THE LENS: A Personal Journey into the Blues
Tierinii Jackson of Southern Avenue - Briggs Farm Blues Festival - Photo by Jim Gavenus
This week I thought I’d do something a bit different. Earlier this month, Peter Dervin covered two blues festivals (the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, and the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival in Winthrop, Washington), and Jim Gavenus covered the Briggs Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania. But instead of straight reviews of those festivals, I thought I’d share some thoughts — some random, some personal — on the blues and let the photos speak for themselves. What follows is not a history lesson.
Growing up in rural Appalachia, I do not remember when I first heard anyone sing or play the blues. The closest I got was hearing rhythm and blues on the radio: James Brown, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson.
I also do not recall what led me to add two blues albums to my record collection that numbered, in high school, no more than two dozen. They were B.B. King’s Live at the Regal and The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt. Moreover, the record store where I bought them sold records at list price, $4.79, records on the Vanguard label being a dollar more. As my after-school job only paid $1 an hour, there must have been something about that steep-feeling markup that intrigued me.
Later, in college, I saw quite a few of the greats, the first being Muddy Waters. A couple years after that, when blues artists realized that playing college campuses could help them make a living, I put together a college tour for Waters. I also booked other blues musicians, such as John Jackson, who introduced me to the Piedmont style. It was my time with Jackson that solidified my attraction to the acoustic side of the blues. All this was during my short “career” as a music impresario which, save for Waters, was all solo/duo acoustic music (including a very young Townes Van Zandt).
I also began learning more about the blues and how early on it was marketed as “race records.” The records were at odds with what blues artists played live in the ’20s and ’30s — often the popular hits of the day. We tend to forget that blues musicians were entertainers first and foremost. Southern Black audiences who came to hear them in the juke joints did not want to hear about the troubles they faced, and lived, everyday. They, like any audience, wanted to be entertained, to dance, and have a good time.
So it is certainly ironic that the commercial interests (invariably white) that spurred Black musicians to primarily record the “blues” are also the ones that are responsible for its recorded legacy, arguably the most unique American art form. This, in turn, influenced folk music and begat jazz, R&B, soul, rock, and hip-hop. Without those “race records,” American roots music, and popular music in general, would be a lot different today.
One blues artist perhaps stands above all others: Robert Johnson. Or, rather, his re-discovery does. Johnson, unlike far more popular blues artists in their time such as Leroy Carr, was relatively unknown in his day. Dying at the age of 27 did not help. His 78 rpm recordings pretty much lay dormant until 1961, when music archivist Frank Diggs and Johnson’s original producer Don Law compiled 16 of those recordings and released them as the album King of the Delta Blues Players. It was, as Mojo magazine noted in 2007, one of the “100 Records That Changed the World.” A second volume was issued in 1970, and together they have been reissued many times, never going out of print.
Speaking of recordings, original blues records, 78s as well as albums, sell for outrageous sums of money these days, and their reissues have become extremely popular. This has led to discussions on who should be compensated for those recordings. As was the norm, blues artists, like many other roots musicians, were paid a flat fee for recording a song. While documents were signed to make it all legal, many, including me, have thought that there should be a “public policy” exception. This would permit the heirs of those musicians to receive royalties, rather than the “heirs” of the record companies.
That idea hit home with me years ago when I first saw photos of The Rolling Stones, long after they had become famous, playing gigs with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Sure, Waters and Berry got paid for those live performances, but why should they also not receive some of the ridiculous money the Stones have made over the years? Without them The Rolling Stones would not exist.
Today, the blues are alive and well, and while many of the questions surrounding the genre remain unanswered, its history and role in American culture are firmly established. Now, enjoy Jim and Peter’s photos of just some of the blues musicians plying their trade today.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.