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A Flash in the Sunset: The American Folk Blues Festivals 1962-69

Article by Graeme Hobbs

Stills from A Flash in the Sunset: The American Folk Blues Festivals 1962-69

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For anyone with even the remotest interest in the blues, the four volumes that make up The American Folk Blues Festivals, 1962-1969 are indispensable. In fact, the latest release in the series – The British Tours 1963-66 – has, in the form of a bonus feature, given me one of the unexpected highlights of my dvd year so far. Picture the scene. The year is 1964, the place is Manchester. We are at a disused suburban railway station renamed ‘Chorltonville’, that has been got up to look like a railroad station in the American deep south, complete with baskets, barrels, trunks and sacks strewn around the platform, a rocking chair and even 'Reward' posters on the walls. Across the tracks – quite literally – the audience is sitting on raised seating on the opposite platform. Only the weather refuses to join in the make-believe, remaining resolutely Manchester and bucketing down with rain.

At the piano, Cousin Joe Pleasant announces, ‘Ladies and gennelmens, at this time, I take great pleasure in bringing to you, one of the greatest, one of the world’s greatest gospel singers, and guitar virtuoso, the inimitable Sister Rosetta Tharpe.’

Then, through the rain, a horse and trap arrives and draws up next to the platform, whereupon Sister Rosetta Tharpe alights, resplendent in white fur coat with glittering collars and silver strapped heels. She walks centre platform, picks up her white Gibson electric guitar and launches into a storming version of the song ‘Didn’t It Rain?’. Over the next few minutes she shows just what a great performer she was, strutting the platform, striking heroic poses while delivering a guitar solo, after which she proclaims, ‘pretty good for a woman, ain’t it?’ and refusing to let the atrocious conditions dampen her act. The audience, in spite of the rain, is absolutely delighted, and claps along with gusto.

If you’ve never seen Sister Rosetta Tharpe in action before (though unbeknownst you may have done as she appears briefly about an hour in in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie in a snippet taken from an episode of the 1962 show TV Gospel Time in which she delivers an invigorating version of the song Up Above My Head) your reaction may well be like mine, a mixture of bemused shock, exhilaration and wonderment at this fantastically charged performance taking place on a wet afternoon in Manchester as the traffic hurries by on a busy road in the distance. I found myself going back to check later on in the evening that I actually had seen what I thought I had.

Also in the same extras is Muddy Waters performing two songs from the very same show, which was Granada Television’s Blues and Gospel Train, produced by Johnny Hamp. ‘You can’t lose what you ain’t never had’ sees him walking along the railway tracks, the trees bustled in the wind in the background, and singing to himself before mounting the platform to pick up a guitar and sing the remainder of the song. He is a commandingly assured presence in his raincoat and fedora, even if his guitar is a bit of tune – which is unsurprising as it has been sitting on a bit of sacking on the platform in the damp. We also get a brief glimpse during his performance of the doubtless bemused goat that was brought in, along with some chickens, to provide some southern authenticity to the staging of the concert.

This extraordinary footage is included as an extra on The American Folk-Blues Festival, The British Tours 1963-66, which is the fourth volume in the series. So what was the ‘American Folk Blues’ festival? Well, between 1962-69, two German promoters, Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, brought across a number of blues musicians – some recently rediscovered and whose recording career was in the 1920s-30s, people such as Skip James, Bukka White, Son House, Sippie Wallace, Roosevelt Sykes, and some of a new generation of blues and r‘n’b artists such as Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Little Walter and Magic Sam – and toured with them around Europe. The bassist and producer Willie Dixon generally organised the personnel on these tours, which could be gruelling; in 1963 it was 29 days in nine different countries. However, the blues writer Paul Oliver, in the December 1963 issue of Jazz Monthly, wrote that the musicians ‘were buoyant with the extraordinarily enthusiastic receptions that they had received in each city they visited’.

Horst Lippmann was also the director of a bi-monthly television show in Germany called Jazz Gehört und Gesehen (Jazz Heard and Seen) and so got the musicians on his tour into the studio to record their music for his programmes. The television programme money served to underwrite the expenses of the European tour. Thus it was that this priceless footage of major blues artists exists before they were being given similar treatment and respect in America. Both Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker confirmed this, the latter saying that the first time he went to Europe in 1962, ‘it was just like the president or Jesus comin’ in…every night a sell-out’ Dixon talks of making $15-20 dollars on a good night back home, but $100 a night in Europe. This difference in tratment could be bewildering to some of the artists involved who, coming from a still segregated America, suspected some kind of scam. Lippmann reassured them with cash payments.

Another disquieting aspect for some of the artists was the way their songs were received on the tours. For an artist more used to playing a noisy club or dance, then the silence in which their songs were heard, followed by deafening applause and then complete silence again, must have been unnerving. It was certainly a disconcerting experience for Skip James, one of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic of all bluesmen, who said of the impassive white faces staring at him that they were regarding him ‘like I was…I don’t know what, a bear or something’.

The attempt to please all possible tastes in the audience sometimes meant that artists who shared little in terms of skill sometimes had to make the best of what they were given – as with Little Walter who was paired with Hound Dog Taylor who only played in the key of E, much to Walter’s disgust. (Paul Oliver talks of him ‘suffering second-line musicians with barely concealed impatience.’) What the musicians wanted to play could sometimes be at cross-purposes with what the audiences wanted to hear – as with Buddy Guy in 1965 who played James Brown’s Out of Sight, working in a bit of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag too, which is the performance recorded here on Volume 3. Guy soon picked up on what the audiences wanted though and thereafter played straight 12-bar blues. Sonny Boy Williamson had no such worries. In a 1964 interview he said, ‘I sing some songs a little faster these days, but there is not much difference. They are still the same songs I learned as a boy back home in the Delta.’

The footage of the musicians in the tv studio is sometimes undeniably hokey – they play in sets made up to resemble houses, rooms, porches and parlours of the American south, while at other times they play in front of large photographs of the same. The introductions can be awkward too, as each musician introduces the next on set, but for all that, this is a goldmine. Here are just a selected few of the highlights.

- Big Mama Thornton from 1965 walking on stage with her flowery handbag after an introduction from Buddy Guy and then belting out Hound Dog, with which she had a hit in 1953, three years before Presley’s version unjustly eclipsed her own. This is stirring, exciting music with Buddy Guy accompanying her on the guitar – the first time they had played the song together apparently.

- John Lee Hooker, also in 1965 singing Hobo Blues and already looking like an ageless god, his face an inscrutable ebony mask.

- The two Skip James recordings from 1967, All Night Long and Crow Jane, in which his voice is strong and his fingers agile.

- Son House playing Death Letter Blues from 1967. It was often said of him that he played as if his life depended on it, and this rendition sends a thrilling shiver down the spine. Paul Oliver wrote that his hands shook from ague and many in the audience feared that he wouldn’t be able to play, but as soon as he did, he – and they – were utterly transported.

- Anything with Sonny Boy Williamson is a highlight as he is such an amazing presence (Paul Oliver described him as looking like ‘the Grand Vizier in a pantomime’), with his laconic delivery poised between humour and an edge of danger. However, his tracks with Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slim on Vol 2 and his performance at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, where he appears with briefcase, bowler hat and umbrella, are priceless.

- Howlin’ Wolf singing Smokestack Lightnin’ on stage in England in 1964.

- The nimble-fingered guitar playing of Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy in 1963, and Earl Hooker (playing with his teeth) and Magic Sam, both in 1969.

- Junior Wells carrying along a whole clapping audience in London with a jitterbugging performance of Ray Charles’s What I’d Say.

- Lastly, seeing Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Willie Dixon, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Slim and Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy all on the same stage together singing the finale to the 1963 show is quite a sight.

These films are valuable too in providing footage of artists who were not to live much longer. There is what is, thus far, the only extant footage of mouth harp player Little Walter, who on Volume 3 accompanies first Hound Dog Taylor and then Koko Taylor on the tour of 1967. Within six months he had died of injuries sustained in a street fight after returning to America. The footage of Earl Hooker is from the 1969 tour. He was suffering from TB and died six months later at the age of just 41. Magic Sam died of a heart attack at the age of just 32 a few weeks after being filmed. Skip James was recorded in 1967, two years before his death, and we should be extremely thankful for all the footage of Sonny Boy Williamson, who died in May 1965, after his great success on the 1964 tour.

The influence of these shows on the course of music in Britain is incalculable. The solitary British date in 1962, at the Free Hall in Manchester, apparently saw Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Paul Jones among others, travelling north to see these then near mythical musicians.

The phrase ‘a flash in the sunset’ comes from music producer Joe Boyd in his book, White Bicycles, Making Music in the 1960s. Boyd, at the age of 21, was the tour manager of the Blues and Gospel Caravan in 1964 – the tour which featured Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters on that rain-sodden railway platform in Manchester – and so had the remarkable experience of seeing these great musicians when, as he says, ‘they were not yet savvy enough to be anything other than real’. He contrasts this to the more prevalant situation today in which, on heritage tours and reunions throughout the world, musicians resemble ‘actors portraying characters who happened to be their younger selves’ with the music falling lifeless, caught between the contrary expectations of both performers and audience. He says of the 1964 tour, ‘an era in American culture was passing and I had only the barest idea of how lucky I was to have witnessed the flash in the sunset … the blues boom of the sixties marked the end of the natural life of the form.’ How fortunate we are that some of these great performances were recorded on film.

Photographs top to bottom: Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Muddy Waters; Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy; Sonny Boy Williamson; Otis Rush, Jack Myers and Fred Below; Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, Cousin Joe Pleasant.



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