Music

The Long Lost Tapes From the Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Are Here at Last

Third Man Records release the long-lost tapes from what Bonnie Raitt calls "the blues Woodstock".

Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 - Volume 1
Various Artists

Third Man

2 August 2019

The original Woodstock festival's 50th anniversary is rightly receiving a lot of attention. There's no disputing the lasting cultural impact of those gathered days back in 1969.

However, two weeks before Woodstock, in August 1969, another festival occurred that's only now being heard. Put on by a small group of blues fans enrolled at the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival brought together 24 blues legends including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, James Cotton, Otis Rush, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Big Mama Thornton. It's always been considered one of those legendary events. It was the first American festival devoted solely to the blues (called the "blues Woodstock" by Bonnie Raitt, who was in the crowd). But few have heard it before now.

Part of its mythical status stems from the surprising fact that the event wasn't professionally recorded despite the star power on the stage. It was, however, captured on 1/4" tape on a small Norelco tape recorder by John & Jim Fishel and their friends as they scampered from one performance the next. Until recently, those tapes were thought to be lost.

As a result, the performances gathered here don't possess the best sound. On full band arrangements, the bass and other instruments can disappear in favor of more piercing elements like harmonica, guitar, and voice. But given the circumstances, the recordings are remarkably good: think a good audience bootleg, and you're in the right neighborhood. Laughter, coughing, and conversations (someone is particularly delighted to laughter during Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain", for example) can sometimes compete with the music. But more often not, an appreciative crowd of reportedly around 10,000 listeners let the music play. You could argue that the rough field recording-like sound quality increases the intimacy of listening to these long-lost performances.

They are, without fail, solid performances. Part of the festival lore is that the artists treated it almost like a family reunion backstage, catching up with friends and hanging out with each other in ways their schedules (either from touring or day jobs) typically didn't allow. On stage, they give shout outs to the other artists in attendance, as well as missing musicians who influenced them. They're in a good mood, and you have to imagine they were also determined to put on a good show for not only the audience but also for their peers and friends.

Brought to vinyl and CD by Third Man Records, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 offers one track from each artist. That might not seem like a lot, and here's to hoping there's more that can be released in the future. But it provides a good overview of the range of blues styles - country blues, Delta, Chicago, West Coast, Texas, and more - showcased by the festival. From Roosevelt Sykes' bawdy opening "Dirty Mother for You" to J.B. Hutto's energetic "Too Much Alcohol", and on through Muddy Waters' "Long Distance Call", Shirley Griffith's "Jelly Jelly Blues", and Son House's "Death Letter Blues", Ann Arbor Blues Festival captures two dozen blues legends at a unique point in blues history.

Ultimately, despite its auspicious beginnings, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was short-lived, losing money -- mainly due to ill-timed competition with another local festival -- the next year and then being canceled in 1971. It was resurrected in 1972 as the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, which has endured its own on-again/off-again history over the years.

Of that inaugural festival, only one participant, Charlie Musselwhite, is still alive. So it's more important for blues history than ever that these tapes were found and released. This isn't just an important and historical listen, though; it's also an extremely fun one.

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