Now Playing – Memphis ’69 – The 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival

by | Jul 16, 2021 | 0 comments

“We Don’t Know What the Heat Says, But it’s Cool to Dance.”

Flickering on the flat screen of the ‘rock room’ is a historic piece of celluloid immortalizing three days and two nights of oppressive
heat and stunning blues music. Filmed for posterity, on June 6th-8th 1969 the Memphis Country Blues Society put on their annual Memphis Country Blues festival which ran from 1965 for 4 years. The film was once thought to be lost to the ravages of time, though luck would eventually intervene. A casual
conversation between ‘Fat Possum Records’ (who will release the film on August
6) co-owner Bruce Watson and Gene Rosenthal from Adelphi Records resulted in
these reels of blues gold being excavated, synced up, beautified and released for our
listening and viewing pleasure. 

Rosenthal had originally filmed the festival himself, traveling from Maryland with a crew, exhausting his budget and shooting over 40,000 feet of film. The film was shelved and remained in suspended animation as Rosenthal had to sell his gear just to process the media! We are sure glad he did. Because 47 years later all his hard work finally paid off. Due for online release on August 6th and on physical media September 17th, this previously unreleased vibrant capture of blues, brotherhood and music making has been over a half of a century in the making. Order the film here.

Ironically, held only a few days after a Klu Klux Klan rally at the same
civic shell, Memphis 69 illustrates
the collaborative power of music and how the musicians involved didn’t see color. The current timing of the release of this film couldn’t be better considering the
fractured state of relations in the United States. This is a rare musical documentary where the blues, the counterculture and all walks of life get it on and let the music guide the way. Featured in the film are
special performances by blues legends, Bukka White, Yank Rachel, Furry Lewis, Johnny
Winter, Mississippi Fred McDowell and a formative performance by John Fahey.
Most of those appearing at the festival were local performers just doing their job. The film offers up a plethora of flashing images of the diverse crowd intermingled with the montage of music culled from the three days of performances resulting in an effective expression of the festival.

The film begins with movement, pictures of Memphis, classic imagery
with a radio station acting as the soundtrack while making announcements for the upcoming festival. The antiqued scent of a cracked time capsule fills the ‘rock room’ as each artist is placed in the marquee with the corresponding reels of archival footage. Within moments I am seated on the speeding
train flashing over the bridge and placed in preparations for the show.
Hippies, blues cats, fine ladies and hipsters stroll through the turnstiles for
day one. Before long the grainy footage and movement settles on the steamy stage basked in brutal sun.

The ‘Bar-Kays’ open the proceedings soaked in sunshine, the
former backing band for Otis Redding taking the family canine out for a spin while
they ‘Walk the Dog’. A bounding groove and a fob twirling Stax swing get me up
and getting down. An absolutely triumphant beginning to the film. Soon after, you can feel the heat emanating off of the film as the
assembled crowd fan off as Bukka White takes the stage. Bukka the one man substantial band puts on a guitar clinic
with his glistening resonator guitar, silvery slide, percussive ham boning and guttural
vocalizations.

Estimated at the time of the concert as being 106 years old,
Nathan Beauregard takes the stage with his electric guitar for a set of the ‘real’
blues. Protected from the oppressive sun
with an umbrella Beauregard gets way down. ‘Rediscovered’ in the late 1960’s in
Memphis, this rare recorded appearance allow the viewer, like those in
attendance, to deeply experience the blues by someone who had lived it and
disseminated it in the prewar era.

The next performers are legendary bluesmen Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel who plays some killer electric mandolin on this track. A pretty young girl holds an umbrella over Sleepy John’s head as he cooks up a jambalaya of bubbling blues with his young white rhythm section, illustrating just how wonderful the collaborations were during this long musical weekend. Later in the film Estes and Rachel will be spotlighted again during the evening performance as an acoustic duo swapping licks and vocals. Stunning stuff.

A cut in scene with test tone shows a ‘Friday Evening’ sign before placing me in a night time seat for English blues woman Jo Ann Kelly and ‘Backwards Sam Firk’ who accompanies her for Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’. The voice that comes out of this white woman’s throat could have been pulled from the rutty grooves of a dusty 78. This is a highlight performance from the film, as it has introduced me to something new and illustrates the talented diversity on display at this long forgotten gathering of musicians. Son Thomas follows with a reading of ‘Crossroad Blues’ as dirty as the bottom of the Mississippi River. Thomas dredges the depths with his voltaic reading of the blues standard. The film then suddenly cuts to a plea from the stage that equates as a sign of the times. 

A pivotal moment in the film follows when it is announced from the stage that one of the musicians was arrested outside the venue while enjoying a beer. The MC notifies the crowd that there will be a cup being passed around to take up a collection to assist in getting her out of jail. Can you imagine this happening in a modern day venue?  The camera captures looks of concern across the assembled crowd before returning to the songs. A small but telling piece of film nudging me to understand that music wasn’t just a side gig for these performers, but a way to survive.

A stunning Lum Guffin solo performance follows as he duets with his finger picks and pocketknife slide for a serrated performance that cuts deep and which draws a handshake from someone close to the stage. Reverend Walter Wilkins and Family follow close behind with a celebratory gospel jamboree.  Cooking over canned heat, the Wilkins family band stomp in close precession for the army of the lord. A fitting conclusion to the films documentation of the first day of performances.

The second day of music begins nestled in pastoral imagery and a sense of calm. John Fahey pulls on a smoke dangling from his lips before revealing to the crowd an emotive solo finger picked prelude. The chiming strings and persistent thump of his bass notes lend a calming soundtrack to the film. A breezy clothesline of portraits of the attendees increases the emotion of the music as well as lending a a deep realism and historic context to the film.

Sid Selvidge with Moloch continue the introspective day two of the gathering. A smooth R and B sound plays against studies of beautiful women and shirtless gentlemen. John D. Laoudermilk sits solo on a stool for a dramatic reading of ‘Tobacco Road’ undulating between aggressive bass notes, fingerpicking and well timed harp toots. Fields of cotton and farm hands hard at work elicit the true source of the festival as they move in time with Laoudermilks expressive playing. A moving series of moments in a film brimming with them.

Memphis’s own Furry Lewis takes the stage next, a man who lived the original Delta blues and a musician who influence reached even the ‘Rolling Stones’. Fluid strumming, guitar body percussion and backward hand work on his acoustic neck shuffles out the ‘Walkin Blues’.  Lewis moves, jigs and squirms his way through straight Delta blues with no chaser. Once Lewis hits his flow, the tap opens revealing undistilled and crystalline soul music. A second song, ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ follows and is played as a cross between jump blues and a waltz. Lewis serenades the crowd deeply and in a way the film’s viewers as well.  Lewis leaves the stage and returns just as quick with a beaming smile as the crowd urges him back. We get one more number before the MC announces the conclusion of the afternoon performances.

The mood of the film changes with the angle of the sun. People return to their seats as the dusk settles on the crowd like liquid night. Bukka White sits center stage with glorious resonator guitar and his substantial hound dog throat. White digs deep, plays his guitar behind his head and stuns the crowd into honorable silence An even better appearance than his playing on day one. Hot on Bukka’s performance, blues legend Piano Red, sits at the blacks and whites, bowler cap perfectly in place and performs ‘Rocky Mountain’. Rolling notes and delicious caesura’s punctuate Piano Red’s highlight performance.  Bukka White shares the piano stool with Red while lending gritty off mic asides and gruff encouragement. I fell lucky to have witnessed this.

The local ‘Jefferson Street Jug Band’ takes the stage next with John Fahey joining for a rickety back porch jam with kazoos, jugs and clarinet. A screaming and ragged reading of Country Joe and the Fish’s’, ‘Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag’ brings the crowd to their collective feet. ‘Insect Trust’ follows next and is a wonderful and fitting representation of the festival. The band is a full electric whirling dervish of blues, rock, jazz conglomerate with a saxophone and a hearty female vocalist.

Another well timed interlude takes place with a plea from the stage that while 800 people paid to get into the festival there are 3,000 attending. The voice announces that these musicians have been working their whole lives for recognition and that there is going to be a hat passed so that the performers can get something for their art. As these pleas are executed, the film pauses on crowd shots, an effective approach, and successful in making me want to pay for my own ticket!

Moloch, who appeared earlier in the film play a harmonica driven slab of blues rock with a full band and a singing drummer. Staying thematically consistent as the MC reads a poignant poem to the crowd, ‘Johnny Winter Band’ and his ‘300 amps’ take the stage. Winter’s ‘blues trio’ sizzle in the evening air. Winter disseminates series upon series of brisk prickly blues riffing. Winter’s rhythm section puts eight ball in the corner pocket while Winter breaks the cue over his knee. Once Winter, just a young lad here tugs on the musical tread everything unravels magnificently. The camera scans the front row of the crowd, there are no phones, iPads or drunk floppers. Just a series of young impressionable faces and fully engrossed music fans. A blue howl of feedback segues the film into the closing Sunday morning as snippets of cells from the final day of the festival coagulate on screen.

‘The Salem Harmonizers’, a gospel vocal group sound just like a glorious Sunday morning with only guitar accompaniment. The camera pans across the early morning assembly all ages, colors and denominations clap hands and sing collaboratively about ‘old time religion’. This is church. Now performing in the grass as opposed to the stage Mississippi Fred McDowell sits on a chair and states, ‘These folks behind me are all nice Christian people, you see I’m a Christian too but I play the blues’. Armed with amplified hollow body guitar and slide McDowell is easy on a Sunday morning with a slowly swaying jump groove. McDowell’s slide work is patient and orchestrated and as smooth as the silver on his ax. This is a legend, up close and intimate. McDowell’s set concludes, people applaud, faces smile and we are then placed in the back of the venue looking at a clearing stage.

In this age of instant gratification, Memphis 69 is a film that took a decades long gestation period. Not really lost, just never found. The film as we have explored, is a diverse collaborative of the blues players and admirers from the Memphis area and beyond. The film can also be viewed as a metaphor for what we as music lovers and people may have lost in the interim. While the documentary focuses on the art and performers, through the music and images captured it also illustrates to the viewer empathy, collaboration, faith, and creativity. That being said, on the outskirts of the magic of music there is also prejudice, disrespect and entitlement. These elements can sometimes be held in check by the power of song. Memphis 69 allows us to feel all of these divergent emotions with a visual soundtrack of historic proportions.

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