Author : Paul Vernon
Source : http://j.mp/nGho5G
BLUE EUROPE PART 1
Before 1940 the real Blues had made almost no impact upon Europe. No-one toured except for Alberta Hunter and Lonnie Johnson – and then only in vaudeville mode – the few discs issued were often viewed out of context by the Jazz collectors they were aimed at and there were no textual guidelines. Blues, as defined by the French expert Charles Delaunay’s 1936 “Hot Discographie” was Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and no more. He listed many boogie pianists that we now accept as a part of the blues tradition but these were judged at the time to be Jazz records.
There were, however, some early stirrings. A Harley Street physician, Dr. Cyriax, was ordering imported blues 78’s from Levy’s record store in London as far back as 1929. He bought on instinct, he told me in 1969, but nevertheless acquired records by Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob and others. Somehow, British Regal-Zonophone managed to issue a 78 by the Memphis Jug Band in 1935, which promptly sank almost without trace – but not before a young Bob Copper had connected with it, leading him to a lifetime of Blues appreciation – and amongst the emerging jazz literature could be found some mention of Bessie Smith and the occasional boogie pianist, but the prewar years were a wasteland if you were looking for the real Blues anywhere in Europe.
Nevertheless, music journalists Max Jones and Albert McCarthy launched “Jazz Music” magazine in wartime Britain, featuring articles of deeper blues interest, also publishing a modest booklet about Leadbelly, and in 1944 that venerable journal “The Gramophone” devoted a page of serious comment to the release of a blues piano 78 by Red Nelson. With war’s end and a rising pan-European impetus to move on, the arts in general underwent a renaissance, of which jazz and, as a result, the Blues, became a part. As early as 1946 Albert McCarthy had written “On Blues” for the “Yearbook of Jazz”, which seems to be the first serious appraisal of Blues as a separate entity. In 1947 Sunday Times correspondent Iain Lang wrote a monograph, “Background of the Blues”, published by the Worker’s Music Association. In it, he stated flatly; “The blues is not the whole of jazz, but the whole of blues is jazz. It has no existence apart from this idiom,” People like Paul Oliver, already listening more closely than many, knew this was not the case , but the booklet contained a useful section of lyric quotations and some explanation of their content. That same year the Czechoslovak journal “Jazz” reviewed a newly reissued Sleepy John Estes Decca 78, perhaps the first Blues record released in the Bohemian lands, and, astonishingly, provided an accurate partial discography of his work. Clearly, a few people knew a few interesting things even this early.
In February 1948 blues pianist Sam Price – who as a young man had discovered Blind Lemon Jefferson, recommending him to the Paramount recording company – sat down in a Paris studio and cut six boogie solos, thus becoming the first blues musician to record outside the U.S. The following spring Leadbelly, in his only European appearance, played several under-attended but warmly received concerts in the same city; a young Alexis Korner made the pilgrimage from London and it spurred him into becoming a busy Blues pilgrim in Britain; his involvement in the release of the watershed Muddy Waters Vogue EP, for instance, inspired many young lads- your editor included- into Blues appreciation. In June 1950 Josh White recorded the first guitar blues made outside the U.S, again inside the Perepherique. He went on to London to broadcast for the BBC and to Milan where he was further recorded. By this time, Derek Stewart-Baxter’s “Preaching the Blues” column in the UK magazine “Jazz Journal” was a regular feature, and a monthly exercise that would last until the 1980’s. Stabs at historical perspective, discography and reviews made his column one of the main conduits for blues appreciation in Britain and beyond for over 30 years. While all this made only a limited impression at the time, compared to what had preceded it, it was a virtual frenzy of activity.
The biggest single impact, however, was the appearance of Big Bill Broonzy in 1951. Regarded at the time as the first “genuine” blues singer to visit Europe, between his premier expedition and his final 1957 tour, he returned every year except 1954, played concerts in London, Nottingham, Brighton and Edinburgh; in Paris and elsewhere in France; in Brussels, Antwerp, Copenhagen, Milan and Madrid, appeared on French radio, British and Italian television, was filmed in Brussels, saw his somewhat fanciful but entertaining autobiography published and had many European-made records issued aimed at his new European audience. Press coverage was significant and he was viewed as “the last great blues singer” by the fans who took him completely at his word. That he cannily tailored his style to what he accurately believed to be European expectations is now thoroughly understood and accepted, but for all his “folksiness” he was, of course, a genuine bluesman and a wonderful guitarist. His career, in danger of imploding in the U.S., changed course in Europe and in doing so changed the course of Blues history. Talking some years ago to Jim Bray, Ken Colyer’s bassist, who had seen Bill perform in London, I asked him how he felt about it; “It was fantastic” he said, “we’d never seen anyone really sing the blues live before – and Bill had such great presence, warmth, humour, he had us spellbound. And what a guitarist! We felt privileged to see him.” Big Bill’s European success lit the long fuse that would lead to the explosion in the early 1960’s.
With the appearance, in 1954, of a ground-breaking series of LP’s on the London label, “The Origins Of Jazz”, Europeans were able to sample a few genuine blues cut in the 1920’s and 30’s that included early boogie piano recordings, three volumes by Blind Lemon Jefferson and the first reissue, on “Backwoods Blues”, of eight genuine country blues performances including two by “King Solomon Hill”, a pseudonym for Joe Holmes, one the artistic giants of the first wave of Delta Blues recordings. A young Bruce Bastin, who in the 1960’s would produce much valuable field work on Piedmont blues history, first connected with real Blues via this album.
Blues continued to suffer from the patronising attitudes of many Jazz fans who viewed it as simply the bedrock of Jazz and little more, routinely referring to it as “primitive”, and misunderstanding its emotional impact. However, serious research was being conducted, albeit slowly, across Britain and Western Europe by a small group of enthusiasts that included Paul Oliver, Albert McCarthy, Francis Wilford-Smith, John Jack, Kurt Mohr, Jacques Demetre and Marcel Chauvard. Paul Oliver visited Paris in 1957 to meet Demetre initiating a collaboration that has endured for decades. In that same year Yannick Bruynoghe journeyed to Chicago to hear the Blues for himself, and this created a desire in Demetre to both follow him and expand the experience.
In 1958 Chris Barber brought Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to England, including an appearance on British television. That year also witnessed Muddy Water’s first controversial British appearance, again engineered by Barber. Within an emerging fan-base that valued the acoustic guitar as the premier blues instrument, Muddy’s amplification startled and dismayed many, but it also riveted others. Bruce Bastin said “Never before and seldom since has anything affected me as deeply” – and he walked out of the concert a convert to contemporary blues. Paul Oliver completed his book “Blues fell this Morning”, but it was to be delayed for two years by a protracted British printing strike and would not appear until 1960. Had it kept its schedule it would have been the first serious study of the subject ever published, and the first to argue for the Blues to enjoy a status separate from merely supporting Jazz. Instead, that accolade now tends to be awarded to Sam Charter’s book “The Country Blues”, published in 1959.
Meanwhile, Alan Lomax, resident in Britain initially to escape McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt, had edited his two great Blues documents “Murderer’s Home” and “Blues in the Mississippi Night” with able assistance from Shirley Collins. Drawn from recordings he had made in the 1940’s, they became cornerstones of every emerging blues fans collection and remain powerful testaments about both the Blues itself and the conditions that produced it. Because he was working from London, these two LP’s initially appeared on the British Nixa label in 1958, and became, therefore, the first American-recorded blues albums to be originally issued in Britain. In 1959, Australian Tony Standish founded Heritage records in London. Until his return to Melbourne three years later, he busily issued LP’s and EP’s by a range of artists that included Blind Blake, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie, Snooks Eaglin, and more, making Heritage the first dedicated blues record label of the new era.
In the late summer of 1959 Jacques Demetre and Marcel Chauvard visited New York, Detroit and Chicago on the first major Euro-Blues tour. Charles Delaunay, Django Reinhardt’s original mentor and publisher of the magazine “Jazz Hot”, generously offered them as much space as they would need to publish their findings. Armed with this guarantee, they set about interviewing and photographing with a vengeance and the results, extraordinary time capsules of blues endeavor in a period of great change, were published in six episodes beginning in December 1959. From January 1960 full translations were published in “Jazz Journal” offering a wealth of fresh information that could scarcely have been imagined in the UK before, and providing a vital keynote for the new decade’s emerging welter of activity.
By 1960 the fuse Big Bill had lit began to burn more quickly. The book “Jazz on Record” was published in Britain, containing a plethora of reliable information on Blues written by the inimitable Alexis Korner. In a great year for piano fans, Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery and Speckled Red all appeared in England, as did Chicago harmonica player James Cotton; with stringent postwar import laws now more relaxed, American LP’s began to turn up in specialist record stores. The Folkways catalogue secured UK distribution, suddenly offering Brits a decade’s worth of activity including the Harry Smith set, and Paul Oliver’s much-delayed “Blues fell this Morning” finally appeared, as did a French translation, “Le Monde du Blues” which was awarded the Prix d’Etrangers. An accompanying LP for the book was issued, offering 14 rare performances from prewar 78s, while imported copies of Sam Charter’s opus and the attendant LP on Folkways-RBF doubled the perspective so eagerly sought by early blues enthusiasts. There were now two texts about the Blues, each paired with illustrative recordings! In July, at the Newport Jazz Festival, Muddy Waters, among others, appeared in front of a largely white audience. The proceedings were filmed by the United States Information Service and Chess records issued “Muddy Waters at Newport”, quickly released on Nixa in the UK. The impact was enormous, and it became an iconic album, deeply impressing young lads like Eric Clapp and M. P. Jagger as well as the collectors.
Beginning in June, Paul & Valerie Oliver, armed with a BBC tape recorder and a decent camera, accompanied part of the way by Chris Strachwitz, spent the summer traveling in the U.S. and recording blues artists for what would become both the book and record “Conversation with the Blues” as well as the foundations of Arhoolie records. Seen now as a major milestone in blues history, this three month expedition netted performances by over 50 artists, from Roosevelt Sykes and Otis Spann through Black Ace and Lightning Hopkins to J B Lenoir and beyond. Paul and Valerie visited New York, Washington, Chicago and Detroit, then joined Chris in Memphis to tour Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, coming back up north via St. Louis. Returning to Britain, Paul quickly edited some of the material into three radio shows broadcast by the BBC, and in November Chris Strachwitz launched Arhoolie with an LP by Mance Lipscomb, recorded that summer. Heritage amplified this by issuing further material from Paul’s recordings, including “Blues from Maxwell Street”. The ramifications of that trip have reverberated through blues history ever since.
Within exactly the same time frame, but buried by history until recently, German writer Joachim Berendt and American photographer William Claxton also toured the U.S. Their brief was wider; they were looking for jazz of all persuasions as well as blues and gospel, but they photographed and recorded Roosevelt Sykes, Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy and others. Berendt issued two limited edition 10” LP’s in Germany during 1961, material drawn from this trip, and then it got stowed until 2005 when the massive photographic tome “Jazz Life” appeared, accompanied by a 20 track CD sampler.
Looking back, it becomes clear that 1960 was a turning point for European interest in Blues. The number of available records had significantly increased, and imports from America, France and Germany appeared in Britain. French RCA offered a series of reissues drawn from the Bluebird catalogue of the 1930’s and 1940’s, providing the first serious review of this important but overlooked era in Blues history. Ignored partially due to Sam Charter’s blanket trashing of Bluebird in “The Country Blues”
– it was “The Bluebird beat” he sneered – the French set about proving him wrong with well crafted issues by Tommy McLennan, Jazz Gillum, Big Maceo and others. With continuing and increasing coverage of Blues in the Jazz periodicals, it was, in short, a busy period. If you had a taste for the Blues and some money in your pocket in 1960, you could, for the first time in both the UK and on the Continent, fill your boots.
The impetus continued into 1961 with increasingly well-informed articles in the Jazz magazines. More and more records were becoming available and with import restrictions eased, the choices were often the same whether you lived in the UK or Western Europe. This meant that the growing band of enthusiasts had access to largely the same material and could exchange opinions with each other; coupled with the steady acquisition of original 78’s and the expanding printed data-base, there was, at last, some cohesion to Blues research.
The field recordings that Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins gathered during their heroic 1959 journey into the American south were issued early in the year by London records in the UK, and the serious review pagination awarded them in the Jazz magazines spoke correctly of the importance with which these events were viewed. Among many other wonders, they introduced the music of Fred McDowell to the world outside of Como, Mississippi and prompted both Dick Spotswood and Chris Strachwitz to seek him out for further recordings, launching a career that would last until Fred’s death in 1972.
In February 1961 the British poet Philip Larkin began writing a regular Jazz column for the Daily Telegraph, and in April he penned an astonishingly clear-sighted piece called “The Persistence of the Blues” in which he recommended the Lomax set, the Harry Smith opus, Blues fell this Morning, The Country Blues and more. He would continue to champion fresh Blues releases throughout the decade and beyond with the same understanding of its true spirit; despite revisionist attacks on his life and work, his obvious love of the Blues provides sound reading more than 40 years on. Meanwhile, in the Sussex town of Bexhill, two young lads, Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter, launched the grandly titled “Blues Appreciation Society” to further establish both a separate identity for the music and provide a fresh platform for research; early results of this endeavor were published in “Jazz Journal” as an occasional adjunct to Derek Stewart-Baxter’s column. Two years later, the enterprise would morph into the magazine “Blues Unlimited”. Repressed copies of the American Origin Jazz Library’s first two ground-breaking albums, “Charlie Patton” and “Really the Country Blues”, first issued as limited editions in 1960, also became available in Europe, making a deep impact on both collectors and emerging musicians.
With Jack Dupree and Memphis Slim now both resident in Europe, and Roosevelt Sykes visiting and being filmed in Belgium, Piano Blues fans continued to enjoy a heyday. The enterprising researcher Francis Wilford-Smith had, since 1960, invited many of them to his Sussex home and with their consent, recorded them in performance in his living room. Though much remains currently unissued, the available CD by Jack Dupree, on Magpie, is a superb set of heartfelt blues.
Events in 1962 continued to build upon the previous progress. In Belgium the magazine “Rhythm & Blues Panorama” was founded, the first publication in the world devoted exclusively to the subject. The Jazz magazines continued to feature articles by Paul Oliver, Tony Standish, Derek Stewart-Baxter, Chris Strachwitz and other pioneers. Blues discography was now being viewed seriously and what would eventually become the book “Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1942” was quietly being compiled in a Welsh mining village. The Robert Johnson LP on U.S. Columbia was made available in Britain on Phillips, and seen immediately as one of the most important Blues records so far issued. In October, offering fans the chance to experience John Lee Hooker, T Bone Walker, Shakey Jake and others in person, the first American Folk Blues Festival toured Europe, initiating a decade long annual tradition.
As 1963 dawned so did the feeling that the Blues now had a separate existence from Jazz, with a solid base of almost evangelical enthusiasts who were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to satisfying their desires. At least that’s how I felt about it when, in the spring of that year, I collided with my first blues records. I didn’t know then how much groundwork had been laid, but looking back I am bound to offer gratitude to those who constructed the platform I so eagerly climbed upon at the age of 14. Before me lay what became, essentially, the soundtrack to my life.
BLUE EUROPE PART 2
With a solid foundation of research and available material to fuel it, the saga of Blues in Europe took serious flight in the spring of 1963. In April the British Blues Appreciation Society, founded by Mike Ledbitter and Simon Napier, launched the magazine Blues Unlimited, an initially modest production that sold out its premier issue immediately and would continue to thread its way through a third of a century. A month earlier Memphis Slim and Matt Murphy (“The revelation of the year” according to the French jazz magazine Bulletin do Hot Club de France) toured Francophone Europe to great acclaim, and providing a vanguard of experience for blues audiences in the ensuing years .
It was also the dawn of the British Rhythm and Blues boom, spearheaded by the Rolling Stones and other like minded young oiks; Pye International records, leasing material from Chess in Chicago, began their “R&B” series, offering young Brits an uncoordinated wealth of material by Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and more. Stateside records, with the Vee-Jay and Excello catalogs to plunder, added John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Lazy Lester and others, while in the autumn their efforts were augmented by Guy Stevens slightly more esoteric Sue label, that would, over the next few years, enrich the catalog of British blues releases with Elmore James, B B King, J B Lenoir and many more the little known blues talents.
In the autumn the second American Folk Blues Festival – lovingly given the shorthand moniker “AFBF”- arrived, touring Germany, England, Belgium and Denmark at least, showcasing a “History of the Blues in one evening” from Big Joe Williams through Victoria Spivey to Sonny Boy Williamson. They all appeared on television in Germany, Belgium and England, significantly increasing the impact that the music was having on Western Europe. Separately Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon and T Bone Walker toured as a Blues Trio in the UK while German film maker Dietrich Wawzyn, at the behest of SudWestFunk TV, travelled from California to the South filming blues artists for a TV documentary entitled , simply, “Die Blues”. His soundman and cultural guide was a young Chris Strachwitz. In the meantime Paul Oliver put in a busy years worth of penmanship for several British magazines including Jazz Journal and Jazz Monthly, who both continued to champion the Blues with increasing enlightenment.
If 1963 had seemed a busy year, 1964 would soon outpace it. Blues Unlimited continued to publish monthly and was joined in February by Mike Vernon’s R&B Monthly, a home produced journal that would thrive for two years. In Manchester the short lived R&B Scene appeared, while both the French Jazz Hot and Bulletin du Hot Club de France continued to champion the release of recorded blues and live performances. Bringing the music to a wider public, the Daily Telegraph’s weekend supplement in October showcased Paul Oliver’s article “Really the Blues” across four pages, though for the truly committed fan, the major publishing event was John Godrich and Robert Dixon’s first edition of “Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1942”, the standard discography of prewar recordings that had been painstakingly assembled over the previous decade. Privately published and reviewed in only the specialist press, it sold out its first printing quickly, even at the hefty price of five guineas. In the meantime the American Embassy in London hosted an extensive graphic exhibition, co-ordinated by the busy Paul Oliver, called The Story of the Blues, that ran for some months in its Grosvenor Square foyer and was visited by Lightning Hopkins during his brief sojourn in England.
More records flooded into availability, as did live performers. Little Walter, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker and Tommy Tucker, whose 12 bar blues “Hi Heel Sneakers was steadily climbing the British pop charts, all toured separately. Walter, Hooker and Tucker turned up on the terminally hip “Ready Steady Go” TV show, and all of them also appeared on BBC-2’s little-remembered “Beat Room”. In the spring the “Blues and Gospel Caravan”, featuring Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Rosetta Tharpe, Cousin Joe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee appeared across Europe. They turned up on French radio and, later that year, in a recorded program on British television, “The Blues and Gospel Train” that made a deep enough impact on the UK Blues psych to become iconic. Parts of it are now available on a Hip-O DVD. Spann also recorded a remarkably good album in London for Decca, under the guidance of Mike Vernon. In its third year, the German-produced American Folk Blues Festival again brought an astonishing wealth of talent that included Lightning Hopkins, John Estes, Sonny Boy Williamson again and Howling Wolf, whose then eight year old “Smokestack Lightning” had made the UK Top Ten in the summer. They appeared on television in Germany and England, and to see the standing ovation that Wolf received in Manchester is worth the price of the currently available DVD. This travelling blues history package also turned up in Scandinavia and, curiously, in both East Berlin, where they were filmed for Soviet television, and in parts of Communist Czechoslovakia, where Wolf and Sunnyland Slim played to a village hall audience of baffled farmers.
The radio, at least in hide-bound British BBC-land, remained strangely mute amongst all this activity, but with the rise of illegal offshore broadcasting – the so-called “Pirate” radio stations – the ether became a shade more interesting. Radio 390 employed the talents of Mike Raven, who for seven nights a week jockeyed his own choices of soul, R&B and blues. On Sunday nights he played the blues exclusively, from Charlie Patton through Elmore James to Snooks Eaglin and his impact, if somewhat marred by atmospherics, was significant.
As 1965 struggled into life the initial impact of the British R&B Boom was waning a little, the home grown groups widening their brief to include self penned material that took them beyond the blues base. But the music itself was by now firmly established, and the middle of the decade was a fertile field. With Blues Unlimited gathering a wider audience almost every month – partially due to Mike Raven’s incessant plugging – the rise of the limited edition Bootleg LP was perhaps inevitable. The vanguard of this movement, in which collectors transferred their rare original 78’s onto vinyl albums of less than a hundred tax-evading copies, was provided by the “Post War Blues” label, which, over the following two years, would issue five albums that defined the sound of what was now being called “down-home blues”, introducing Europeans to previously unknown artists like Johnny Shines, Willie Love, Baby Boy Warren and the extraordinary One String Sam. In its wake followed further covert imprints including Highway 51, Kokomo, Down With the Game, Neshoba and a fledgling company calling itself Blue Horizon, whose debut album, a session by Doctor Isaiah Ross, recorded on tape in a London hotel, still fetches obscene amounts of money on eBay. From New York, the evangelically purist Origin label furnished more rare sounds by Charlie Patton, Sam Collins, Ishmon Bracey and other delta heroes, but perhaps the most important sound document released that year was on a major label, Decca. To accompany the publication of Paul Oliver’s book “Conversation with the Blues” the company that marketed the Stones issued an eponymous documentary LP, engineered by Mike Vernon, that stitched a patchwork of music and monologue recorded by Oliver five years earlier on a landmark American trip. Regarded now as a milestone in Blues research history, it helped set the scene for a turning point in Britain, at least; that of the switch of interest from urban R&B to older styles of country blues.
In March enthusiast-driven blues journalism was expanded by the appearance of Blues World, a journal that dedicated itself more to the rural-traditional aspects of Blues history. R&B Scene had ceased the previous year and R&B Monthly would publish its last issue as Blues World began. In the meantime Blues Unlimited staged a format upgrade in July as it continued to establish its premier position. There was enough activity on the record front for Paul Oliver to provide several overviews of current output for the Jazz magazines, including those of Pete Welding’s “Testament” label, dedicated to recording the best of the then current traditional artists.
The AFBF retuned in October, as strong as ever, with JB Lenoir, Fred McDowell, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy and more, turning up on German TV sets but, oddly, not British. Nevertheless, they toured Germany, England, Scandinavia and France to the usual enthusiasms.
By the beginning of 1966 things had settled into a steady rhythm. The excesses of the R&B Boom three years earlier had passed, leaving a hard core of serious enthusiasts who largely all knew each other and had very firm opinions about every aspect of the music that they would freely and willingly share. I know I did. The popular attention may have fallen, and appearances on TV were far less frequent, but there were generally more records, books and magazines available than most of us could afford, a state of affairs that would have seemed impossibly utopian a mere five years earlier. Paul Oliver provided a keynote article, ‘The Future of the Blues’, published in New Contact magazine while the American Charles Kiell’s book “Urban Blues”, perhaps the first work to approach the music from a sociological viewpoint, raised many a hackle in Britain, especially as it poured scorn on the much revered AFBF tours. It was the earliest significant work that pointed up the essential differences between American and European researchers.
Notwithstanding Keil’s view, the AFBF returned in the autumn like a homing pigeon, bringing with it artists as diverse as Sippie Wallace and Junior Wells, who played arenas as dissimilar as the Royal Albert Hall and an East Berlin TV studio. Records continued to arrive at rates that routinely outstripped most budgets, Blues Unlimited went from strength to strength, providing fresh research on a monthly basis, while the Jazz magazines, Europe-wide, continued to provide what, in retrospect, was excellent coverage. The poet Philip Larkin, reaching a wider audience via his monthly Daily Telegraph review column, routinely provided comment on new blues vinyl, including one of the earliest reviews of the Sam Charters-produced three-volume “Chicago/The Blues/Today” set.
By 1967 European blues enthusiasts felt they knew who they were and what they were doing, and as the blues bashers mingled with newly blooming hippies, the music was a firm component of a wider scene. In London it was possible to exit from Dobell’s Folk and Blues shop on the Charing Cross Road with a range of deeply esoteric stuff, as it was from shops in Manchester, Plymouth, Paris, Birmingham, Brussels and, strangely, Streatham. We could be sure that Blues Unlimited would drop through the letter box ten times a year; we could look forward with certainty to another autumn AFBF extravaganza. It was all a very far holler from those isolated days of just a decade earlier. There remained the absolute and utter conviction that WE were right and THEY, whoever they may be, were wrong. Some refused to listen to anything with a saxophone on it. Others belittled the eccentric tunings of rediscovered blues performers. Any of us would willingly have perished in a mud-filled ditch defending our chosen cause. The year of the Summer of Love also witnessed the publication of Sam Charter’s book “The Bluesmen” as well as a series of articles on obscure R&B artists by Mike Vernon for Jazz Monthly. He was among the first Europeans, along with John Broven, to focus on New Orleans artists, including the then unknown Smiley Lewis as well as members of Fats Domino’s band. That both older traditional blues singers and Crescent City shouters were getting measures of attention in Europe spoke of the general widening of interest as well as the fragmenting of it. Those who promoted old bluesmen often held scant regard for what they saw as little more than pop artists, and those who found energy and excitement in a full horn section backing a guy in a sharp suit had little time for aged practitioners of the guitar. The 1967 AFBF offered arguments for both sides, with Chicago modernists Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor sharing the stage with Son House, Skip James and Bukka White. “Who was that daft Elmore clone?” I recall someone saying of Hound Dog Taylor as we exited the Hammersmith Odeon show, a remark that caused an argument which sailed perilously close to brawling.
1968 brought the publication of Mike Ledbitter and Neil Slaven’s discographical opus “Blues Records 1943-1966”, a much criticized volume at the time that, in retrospect, is actually a good dealer better than many of us knew or would have admitted to. As well as the annual AFBF in October there was also something called The First National Blues Convention that was held over a weekend in October at London’s Conway Hall. It was a strange affair, a mixture of lectures, live performance, workshops, films, merchandising stalls and, always, tea and biscuits in the refreshment room. It was the ideal forum for the late Nick Perls to introduce his new vintage country blues reissue label Belzona, shortly to be renamed Yazoo in the face of a lawsuit from the Scottish country dance label Beltona.
Our editor, than as dedicated a blues basher as the rest of us, was a key figure in the pool of home grown talent that included Jo-Ann and Dave Kelly, Gordon Smith, Simon and Steve and a host of other, perhaps lesser lights. The late 1960’s rise of British Blues (I recall no French, Belgian or German equivalents) is a phenomenon that only those who lived it will fully appreciate. To witness someone like Jo Ann Kelly channelling Memphis Minnie in the dusty upper rooms of an old pub, or Ian himself singing from the Early Delta Blues songbook, or to experience the alcohol fuelled exuberance of Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts are experiences not easily communicated. We were, collectively, a VERY snotty bunch, no matter the tone of the colours we chose to wear. Some of this behaviour surfaced during the short tour that Mississippi Fred McDowell undertook in March. Your editor, I know, still cradles fond memories of that time, as he had Fred as a house guest for the duration. On the 8th of that month Fred recorded a long studio set for Transatlantic records and, thoroughly warmed up, appeared that same evening at the unlikely venue of the Mayfair Hotel in London. The performance was recorded and is available on CD, and it’s one of his best. He duets with Jo-Ann Kelly, to the delight of most and the ire of the few, who viewed it as something akin to Dylan plugging in for the first time. I was there, and remember it as a very 1960’s moment.
In the decade’s final year our little world – and it was, in retrospect, a little world- was maturing. Blues Unlimited had again upgraded its production values, Paul Oliver’s landmark work “The Story of the Blues” was ready for publication, a great deal of recorded blues history was generally available, basic discographies offered the context for them, and the last great 1960’s Euro Blues Gig – the AFBF- was perhaps the strongest of all, with Juke Boy Bonner, John Jackson, Alex Moore, Clifton Chenier, Earl Hooker and the great Magic Sam filling the Albert Hall with a sound that was now known and recognised far better than a decade earlier. Philip Larkin, in the Daily Telegraph, called it “an entertaining evening”. I fancy that I remember sitting immediately behind him, but that might just be my fantasy.
As the decade closed there was a feeling that we, as champions of a very special art form, had achieved our goals. In retrospect, perhaps, we were not dissimilar to those Victorian Technocrats who felt that Humankind had reached its peak of achievement. Most of us were young, and those who were not, with the exception of Paul Oliver, were often not listened to.
Could we, as Europeans, say that we had nurtured the music in a positive fashion? That we had appreciated and understood it? Ask twelve different people and you’ll get a dozen disparate answers. My view, for what it’s worth, is that European interest from the late 1940’s until now has, to a marked degree, rescued, revived, reshaped, reinvented and rewritten blues history both for better and for worse. The parallel American saga, it should be said, is a slightly different tale, and one that deserves its own account.