A Blues Festival Epic in 1960s Memphis
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.
Even the Birds Were Blue
By Stanley Booth - Rolling Stone - April 10, 1970
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.
To understand the Blues Festival, you must know that Fred McDowell, the best living Mississippi blues man, has been for most of his life a sharecropper, sometimes making a year's profit (after paying his bowman for rent and equipment) of as much as $30; and that Furry Lewis, who is virtually all that remains of Beale Street, worked for the City of Memphis 43 years, collecting garbage, sweeping the streets, and then retired without a pension. No matter how they could play and sing, they were still just a couple of [black men in the South]. They and others like them had been recorded on labels like Bluebird and Vocalion in the early days of race records; then, with the Depression and the WWII recording ban, they were forgotten. Through the days of the first electric blues bands, the Sun Records era of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the late Fifties rhythm-and-blues, and the rock revival of the Sixties, the old men whose music provided the foundation for it all were ignored. When they were not ignored, they were exploited.
Just about the only people who ever really cared for the old Delta blues men were a few vintage Southern beatniks. Although struggling for their own survival, they recognized a spiritual tie and responsibility and saw to it that the old men worked whenever possible. Charlie Brown, poet, hermit, actor, snake trapper, entrepreneur, was probably the first to hire the old men for public appearances, at the Bitter Lemon and O So coffee houses in Memphis in the early Sixties.
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.
There were also such white members of the Memphis musical underground as Lee Baker, a guitarist; Sid Selvidge, a country-folk singer; and Jim Dickinson, who is, among other things, a blues singer. The show started late, there were too many acts, most of whom stayed on too long; but the old men of the blues were given respect and more important, applause; and the young musicians who were there showed that they cared enough about the blues to really learn it, not just to ape the lifestyle and the licks. The first Memphis blues show was, in spite of its faults, a fine thing.
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.
This attention was generated partly by the cresting popularity of the Stax/Volt and American Studio's Memphis Sound and partly by a widespread renewal of interest in the blues. Such white halls as the Fillmore had begun to hire B. B, King and his imitators; groups like Canned Heat had blues hits; the Rolling Stones recorded "Prodigal Son," a song regularly performed at the Memphis blues shows by its author, Rev. Robert Wilkins. Before the next blues show took place, Rev. Wilkins, Furry Lewis, and Bukka White had played the Electric Circus. The old blues had become, on a larger scale than ever before, worthy of exploitation.
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.
But as time went on and Barth, who had been on the road with his band, the Insect Trust, returned to Memphis with no money, it became less attractive to most people. The roster changed daily as one act after another remembered pressing obligations elsewhere.
By the Festival weekend, the schedule of events had settled down into its final state of confusion. The city's First Annual W. C. Handy Memorial Concert was to take place Sunday evening, June 8th, at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum, a sports-and-entertainment arena, with such staple Memphis acts as Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the MG's, and such outside arts as the World's Greatest Jazz Band and, inexplicably, Johnny Winter, whom the city's promo man had picked, together with a couple of token old blues men, from the list of acts contacted by the Blues Society. (The Armstrong-Piazza negotiations had been halted, not by a sudden outbreak of taste and sensibility, but by the fees those performers demanded.) The Fourth Annual Memphis Country Blues Festival would begin Friday night, June 6th, at the Overton Park Shell, with a concert devoted primarily to the old blues artists; Saturday afternoon, National Educational Television would tape a special concert including acts from both the city and Blues Society Festivals; Saturday night, there would be a modern blues show, featuring Johnny Winter, who agreed to perform since he would be in town anyway. The Country Blues Festival would close with a concert of gospel music Sunday morning.
In some of the Blues Festival's advance publicity, a Friday afternoon concert had been promised. That time was given instead to a rehearsal of the NET concert. The show's acts, better than twenty of them (lucky that so many had dropped out, or there'd have been fifty), arrived late in the morning at the Shell, an open-air concrete theater, location of many free municipal events, children's plays, and charity concerts. Over the years, the Memphis blues show regulars have become a kind of family; they greet each other with candid warmth, sometimes, as Furry greeted Funky, old jive to young, "Lee! When you get out?" There were two great white vans full of television equipment behind the Shell, and strange men wearing khaki shorts, blue knit golf shirts, and little yellow canvas hats, waltzing around a forest of cameras and microphones, muttering to each other in alien accents. The musicians tacitly agreed that such was the price of success.
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.
Overton Park is a green oasis close to the center of Memphis, a city whose beautiful old trees and houses arc fast being destroyed by Progress in the guise of, among other things huge asphalt-paved shopping centers and hundreds of cleverly-named cheap food joints. (Example: Mahalia Jackson's Glori-Fried Chicken.) On this afternoon in the park, people at the zoo, the art school, the art gallery, the golf course, on the bicycle paths, and the birds, cats, chipmunks and squirrels in the woods were proceeding as usual, oblivious to the expressway, Interstate Route 40, that will soon tear the park in half.
Back at Shell, the NET men were calling it a rehearsal, and the blues show was about to begin. This year's show was "respectfully dedicated to Joe Callicott's memory." The Mississippi singer-guitarist who'd made records in Memphis in the Twenties had made it to only one blues show. He had been "rediscovered" for just one year, during which he had played in New York but had not been recorded. He left behind, the Festival program stated, "only a small portion of the wealth' of music he knew."
As if to make up for Joe's absence, there were some new old faces. Besides the regulars Nathan Beauregard, Fred McDowell, Bukka White, and Rev. Robert Wilkins (Furry Lewis, appalled by the NET rehearsal, had wandered away into the park), the show included McDowell's neighbor Johnny Woods, Sleepy John Estes and his neighbor, Yank Rachel, and a slide guitar player named Lum Guilin, who sounded like Elmore James, if James had been a better singer. The regular old white boys Baker, Selvidge and Dickinson were there, too, as well as Barth's outfit, the Insect Trust.
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.
And while some of them may at times have had difficulty staying in tune, none of them has ever been so completely and hopelessly out of tune as, say, Big Brother and the Holding Company were at Monterey.
Beauregard, who is blind, was led slowly, across the stage by his nephew, seated, given his guitar (a new Japanese electric), and incredibly, this withered mummy began to play and to sing about a girl who would "call you honey, call you pie." Nathan Beauregard is, in an odd way, inspiring. During most of the Festival, when he was not playing be sat with his nephew at the rear of the stage, listening to the music, his face like a death mask with its closed eyelids, protruding cheekbones, and slight smile.
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.
At the Festival, Bukka received a standing ovation Friday night and every other time he played.
Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel, the guitarist and mandolin player who made records in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, and whose songs have recently been recorded by Taj Mahal, were accompanied in their first Memphis blues show appearance by Jim Dickinson, who is in his twenties, on piano. Such meetings of old and young musicians have provided some of the blues show's better moments.
They give the young players a chance to learn, of course, but at times they give the old men some surprises. During a lull in the NET rehearsal, Dickinson and Johnny Woods, seated together on a piano bench, had played an impromptu duet on "Shake Yo' Boogie." Nathan Beauregard's nephew, who happens to be a retired gravedigger, watched from behind the piano, and when they finished, spoke to Dickinson, "I haven't heard no colored man play piano like that in twenty years." Estes, Rachel and Dickinson went back twenty years and more for a set of country dance hall tunes, with Estes singing lead and Rachel, on electric mandolin, playing brilliant double-time passages with Dickinson.
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.
Guffin's "Dust My Broom" showed him to be superior to James as a singer, and his one Festival appearance on Friday night's show seemed all too brief.
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 a;l). 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.
Moloch's drummer, Philip Durham, is also a skilled singer, though of a very different order. He shouts and screams the blues; he closed friday night's show with a blues be wrote, spotlighting his voice and drumming in a long, dramatic coda. People were still on their feet applauding when the stage lights went down.
Friday night's concert, except for Furry Lewis' absence, may have been the best at any of the Memphis blues shows. The participants went home to bed, singly and in groups, and arrived early the next day for the NET concert.
They might as well have slept late. The show started one and one-half hours late (more technical difficulties), and the first three acts, Rufus Thomas, the Bar-Kays, and a white club-blues singer named Brenda Patterson, had to repeat their performances because the cameras weren't working the first time. This was particularly difficult for the Bar-Kays, whose act, with its jumping, shouting, stomping, and hard-down funky playing, leaves them hardly enough energy to stagger off to the stage.
The show's other acts included all the ones from the previous evening except Lum Guffin, who disappeared, and Rev, Wilkins, who, when presented with a contract by the NET men (still in their golfing outfits), took one look at them, knew that they were not sanctified, and refused to sign- There were also three or four acts front the long list con-tacted by the Blues Society. John Fahey, a music MA from the 'University of California and a longtime friend of Barth, was introduced as "a young man who had made the blues into a semi-classical form." His playing proved it. His performance had all the emotional fire of a children's concert by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Fahey has made some good guitar-picking records on the Takoma label, but on stage he sounded twice as old and feeble as Nathan Beauregard.
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 blues man is quite accurate, and she must be among the funkier items in England. Bringing her to Memphis, however, was like bringing coals to Newcastle.
While the Blues Society was making contact with the dozens of acts who nearly all decided not to conic, it hired a group of local night-club and recording musicians to serve as house band for the Festival. As things turned out, there was no one for the. house band to accompany, so they played alone, billed as the Soldiers of the Cross. The group does not play together regularly (they happened to have been working on an album with Albert Collins, the Texas bluesman. as the Festival approached), and they did not rehearse before the Festival, but each of them is such a skilled and seasoned professional that their performance was one of the Festival's best.
Charlie Freeman, the guitarist, was the founder and original lead guitarist of the Bar-Keys. He has recorded with artists as various as Slim Harpo), Brother Jack McDuff, P. F. Sloan, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both Freeman and the group's drummer, Maurice Tarrants ("Tarp," the Georgia outlaw), have been with Jerry Lee Lewis' road band. Jim Dickinson, who sang with the group. has worked for years in Memphis and Nashville as an engineer. producer, singer and session musician. He has had records on, among other labels, Sam Phillips' Sun Records, and some national music writers have called him the best living while blues singer. All the group are, as Tarp informed a pretty little Japanese groupie, "old-time Memphis heavies."
Their first song was an old blues called "Goin' Down Slow." The sound balance at the NET rehearsal had been so bad that Dickinson, screaming to make himself heard, developed a very bad case of hoarseness, which fit beautifully with the lyrics of this particular song. "People tell my mother—tell her what bad, bad shape I'm in," Dickinson sang, and he really did sound as if he were dying. It was a perfect meeting of life and art.
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, 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.
The NET show, which would last two hours on television, had taken more than eight hour's to tape. But the Memphis blues shows' atmosphere has always been easygoing. Like an all-day church meeting with dinner on the grounds, and people found ways to amuse themselves during delays in the concert. When nothing was happening, they wandered around, sat under the trees with friends, eating watermelon, drinking gin and tonic from old-fashioned green glass water jugs, turning on in their various ways. There was almost always something interesting to look, sit, young girls revealing startling new areas of skin, a Goodyear blimp which suddenly materialized and just as suddenly vanished, an old beatnik with JAZZ tattooed on his shoulder. Just a good ole down home freak show.
Many of the blues show regulars had feared that all of the selfish outside interests, the overblown and half-assed preparations, the hype, in a word, surrounding this year's Festival would destroy it altogether. The Memphis blues show was not conceived as a pop festival—-it was started the year before Monterey—and its modest successes had never depended on huge crowds, publicity and superstars. But Friday night's concert had been excellent, the NET show had been survived, and Sunday's gospel concert was not really very important.
If Saturday night's "modern blues" show could escape disaster, the Memphis Country Blues Festival would be called a success.
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.
Furry Lewis, who more than any other living man exemplifies Memphis' musical history, a wonderful musician and entertainer, did two songs in a very subdued manner and then went away.
There were a lot of acts, each more out of place at a blues show than the one before; but it was left to Johnny Winter to provide the great climax of the evening and the Festival.
Like so many people these days, Johnny Winter appears to know and to be able to reproduce every blues lick ever played. Maybe, when be was down in Beaumont fronting Little Johnny and the Jammers, he actually played blues. A cross-eyed albino boy, playing in those sweaty Texas joints — he must have played some blues. But in Memphis, he set up his thirteen mammoth Sunn amplifiers (seven for him, six for his bass player), and though he played for over an hour, one blues lick after another, frequently several at once, he didn't play any real blues.
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.
But it's much easier, and certainly more fashionable, to sing someone else's life, someone else's blues.
As Johnny Winter blasted away, I sat at the Shell, thinking about all these things, until I felt very depressed. Then I walked away into the park, through the flower garden and down into the playground that will soon become a giant expressway. The birds in the trees, kept up by the noise long past their sleeping time, were making soft fluting complaints. In my mood, there seemed to be some connection between Winter's amps, the expressway, the blues show and the little birds. but I was too tired to figure it out.
The saga of the 1969 Memphis blues shows ends on an anticlimactic note, A few diehards, mostly old blues show regulars, met at the Shell Sunday morning, had a brief round of gospel singing, then packed up and went home. Luckily, the city's First Annual W. C. Handy Memorial Concert drew 200 customers Sunday night to the Mid-South Coliseum, which sets 15,000. Luckily, because it appears that success may be a greater threat to the Memphis blues shows than the years of neglect the blues and its artists have suffered. If the grandiose plans for this year's show had been realized, Friday night's concert might have been sabotaged like the others.
Still, the recent wave of outside interest in the old Delta blues has not been entirely harmful (a few of the old men have made some money), and it might even have a positive effect, if those interested in the blues cared enough to temper their enthusiasm with under-standing. Rock sets, in the interest of belatedly paying some dues, might stage a blues benefit concert in Memphis, for which the city might foot expenses, with the proceeds going to the old men. If the city wanted to do the right thing, it might start a blues archives, with good tapes and historical data on this vitally important music.
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...