Ann Arbor Blues Book

Remembering the Ann Arbor Blues Festival


Published:

In 1969, when Woodstock made news across the country, Ann Arbor hosted the first electric-blues festival in North America.

For a $14 three-day ticket, concertgoers saw the likes of Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King, Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto and the Hawks, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, and Freddy King.

Four decades later, a new book details the genesis of that seminal event. Blues in Black and White: The Landmark Ann Arbor Blues Festivals, (University of Michigan Press, $29.95), is scheduled for release this month.

The record-album size volume by Michael Erle-wine is notable, in part, for its beautifully reproduced black-and-white photographs by Stanley Livingston. In the text, Erlewine supplies musical context for the festival, detailing how a college-student interest in American folk led him and the festival organizers to “discover” electric blues.

The Ann Arbor event was “without a doubt the festival of the year, if not the decade,” the book posits.

“At the time of those first two blues festivals [1969-70], most of the performers were generally unknown to white America,” Erlewine writes. “We had no idea that modern electric blues not only existed, but was playing live most nights of the week, probably only blocks away, separated from us by a racial curtain.”

The performances, viewed by a mostly white college crowd, were a meeting of two cultures. In an included interview, Howlin’ Wolf, who died in 1976, described the young fans as having “great big heads and tiny hearts, trying to lose that big head and get that big heart … blues performers have big hearts. I’m not a smart man. You see, I got a little head and a big heart.”

In 1970, the festival’s second year, it ran into competition from the Goose Lake rock concert being held nearby. The Ann Arbor Blues Festival ended up about $30,000 in the red. Promoters later revived a version of the festival, which ran until 2006.

Erlewine ends on a nostalgic note, referring to the generation of musicians who played those first two years. Their average age, he says, was about 50. Mance Lipscomb was 74. By 2009, more than 90 percent of them had died.

The performers are very much alive in the book’s large photographs, which include images from the original festivals and later versions, when the festival had evolved into the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival founded by Peter Andrews and John Sinclair. That festival played to a wider audience with names such as Miles Davis and Ray Charles added to the bill.

Images include Bonnie Raitt with Sippie Wallace in 1972. (Wallace died in Detroit in 1986.) Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, Koko Taylor, and John Lee Hooker are also among the many pictured and quoted.

Among the quotations is this comment from Big Mama Thornton: “What about rock and roll? Some folks say it’s nothin’ but a hopped-up, fast-up blues. That’s all it is.”

And from Muddy Waters, there’s this: “Blues? I lived them. I lived them musically, and I lived them lifewise.”

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