Third Man Records Releases Two Dozen Never-Released Performances from the Iconic Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 (ALBUM REVIEW)

Mentions of music festivals in the summer of 1969 usually bring one name to mind for most – Woodstock. Blues fans, however, point to the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, the first American festival totally devoted to blues music, and the blueprint for all that have followed. This is the strongest lineup of blues musicians ever assembled, partly due to the concept of the festival and partly because many of the originals were still performing fifty years ago. 

In fact, among these two dozen on the lineup, only Charlie Musselwhite lives on. He was a mere 25-year-old when he performed in Ann Arbor. These performances have never been released and it likely took an occasion like the fiftieth anniversary to make it happen courtesy of Jack White’s Third Man Records. The sound quality is far from superior, but the conversations and crowd noises heard in the mix, to some may just add to the authenticity of the performances. The lineup is so outstanding that it needs to be highlighted in a list (leaving the songs for you to discover)

Volume One Volume Two
Roosevelt Sykes Muddy Waters
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup Charlie Musselwhite
J.B. Hutto & His Hawks Magic Sam
Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins Shirley Griffith
Junior Wells Big Mojo Elem
B.B. King with Sonny Freeman And The Unusuals T-Bone Walker
Mississippi Fred McDowell Big Mama Thornton And The Hound Doggers
Pinetop Perkins Big Joe Williams
Luther Allison And The Blue Nebulae Sam Lay
Clifton Chenier Lightnin’ Hopkins
The Original Howlin’ Wolf And His Orchestra James Cotton Blue Band
Otis Rush Son House

Held August 1-3, 1969 at Fuller Flatlands, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, for three days it was not unusual to see the artists jamming together or catching up on grandchildren or the recent moon landing. In effect, it was a family reunion of sorts for the primarily black artists who were introducing blues the or to a young, white college audience. These were the originators, the innovators, the major talents representing a mix of the Delta, Chicago, Texas and West Coast styles from acoustic solo acts to sizzling electric bands.

This writer arrived in Ann Arbor eight years too late but proud to be associated with those blues-obsessed U of M students who put this remarkable festival together. Among the student promoters was John Fishel, whose teenage brother Jim Fishel, gathered some friends to help record the proceedings as a personal memento. Using their all-access passes and juggling a small Norelco tape recorder from set to set, they captured the festival in the real sense of a field recording. As we’ve learned in recent years lost tapes have a way of being found for some heavenly reason and these have been found and restored as well as they could– far from pristine but acceptable. This project is produced by Parker Fishel and Jim Fishel, coordinated by Third Man co-founders Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank. Most of us remember the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 issued on Atlantic but this festival has long been the legendary, almost mythological event.  Now we have two individual volumes issues on LP, exclusively on 180 gram vinyl and on CD. Both volumes include never-before-seen photographs, artist biographies, and exclusive reminiscence from Jim Fishel, with liners notes by Parker Fishel, Sophie Abramowitz and David Beal.

The historic nature of the event suggests that you listen to all tracks but these: Junior Wells’ tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson “Help Me,” Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “John Henry,” Luther “Showman” Allison’s almost 14 minute medley “Everybody Must Suffer/Stone Crazy,” and Howlin’ Wolf’s lengthy “Hard Luck” on Volume One.  Muddy Waters’ version of “Long Distance Call” that opens Vol. 2 is almost as good as the memorable one on Fathers and Sons. T-Bone Walker with “Stormy Monday” and Big Mama Thornton with “Ball and Chain” do their biggest hits. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand” and Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” are must listens as well.

This was an unprecedented event in its time. Today, at least here in Pennsylvania, there is a blues festival (many loosely titled and none as pure as this one) on almost every summer weekend within reasonable driving distance.  To appreciate the significance of this gathering, these excerpts from the liners are noteworthy. The authors write, “From the city to the country, the West Coast to the Gulf Coast, Mississippi to Chicago, 24 masters of the idiom were booked to perform for this new audience – an estimated 10,000 plus kids, listening to the artists they saw as vanguards of the music that had dominated the decade’s counterculture. But more importantly, the festival presented a view in miniature of the changing blues community and the often surprising relationship between musicians who comprised it – some who were still sharecroppers or working day jobs, some who had popular recording careers years before the blues and folk revivals brought them back into the spotlight, and some who had yet to release a full album…The 1969 festival was exemplary space of communion and reunion.”  

There are many outstanding reflections from the artists and for a festival that did not make major headlines, renowned music publications now consider it perhaps the festival of the decade. Yes, that includes Woodstock. This was the first major mass introduction of pure blues from mostly black performers to a white audience in the states. It’s now moved from mythology to documentation. What a gift!

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2 Responses

  1. The Ann Arbor Blues Festival was indeed a significant cultural event on many levels. And the release of this album is a wonderful and fitting tribute to Cary Gordon and John Fishel and the dozens of legendary musicians who performed on that magical weekend in 1969.

    But there’s another celebration commemorating that historic occasion that deserves mention – the 50th Anniversary Ann Arbor Blues Festival itself which is taking place in Ann Arbor on August 16 – 18, 2019.

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