Back Inside of Memphis, With the Country Blues (Again)

By  |  February 16, 2017
Memphis Blues Festival poster by John McIntire. Courtesy of Augusta Palmer Memphis Blues Festival poster by John McIntire. Courtesy of Augusta Palmer

“No one can tell you why Memphis is as magical as it really is,” said artist and washboard player Jimmy Crosthwait when I interviewed him for The Blues Society, my documentary film-in-progress about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of the late 1960s. He wasn’t talking only about the magic of a beautiful sunset, a joint, and the sound of the blues, all of which were in profound profusion at the festivals. He was remembering something more elemental, what one of the organizers, the irrepressible Randall Lyon, called the eroico furore, or poetic fury: “It was beautiful to be involved with people who had this heroic enthusiasm for what they were doing.” The Memphis Country Blues Festivals, held yearly from 1966 to 1969, changed the way Memphians—and Americans—think about the blues, and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

Along with Randall and a few others, my father, Robert Palmer, years before he became author of the seminal history Deep Blues and music critic for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, was a founding organizer and player at the festivals, where white and black artists shared stages and bills. In all the descriptions he gave of his career, this work got top billing. I sometimes wondered why he gave the festivals as much weight as his writing for Rolling Stone and the Times. What was so important to him about these events I’d barely heard of? That’s what I hope my documentary will explore.

The Memphis Country Blues Festival started on a shoestring in 1966, with the initial stake being guitarist Bill Barth’s baseball-size chunk of hash and guitarist Jim Dickinson’s sixty-five-dollar check from a Sun Studios session. Organizing the festival was a radical act at a turbulent time in the city’s (and the country’s) history, undertaken by talented iconoclasts passionate about music and civil rights. According to the amazing chapter about the festivals in Robert Gordon’s It Came from Memphis, the first festival was held only one week after a Ku Klux Klan rally took place on the same stage. Thankfully, the first Memphis Country Blues Festival was better attended than the KKK rally, drawing hundreds to what is now the Levitt Shell in the summer of 1966.

The festivals celebrated African-American culture and were created as a benefit and a showcase for African-American blues masters like Furry Lewis, Bukka White, and Reverend Robert Wilkins. While rock & roll artists were wringing huge amounts of money out of the blues, seminal artists were left to eke out a living at menial jobs. Furry Lewis, who had recorded on Vocalion in the 1920s, was a street sweeper by day in the 1960s. The festivals were intended as a corrective for the fact that blues artists were ignored, belittled, and persecuted by white society when they should have been celebrated as cultural treasures, authors of uniquely American masterworks.

By 1968, Seymour Stein, the cofounder of Sire Records—who went on to coin the term “New Wave” and sign Madonna—came down to Memphis with Mike Vernon from the U.K. label Blue Horizon to record the festival, and that record, along with recordings of Bukka White made by the same crew (with Jimmy Crosthwait on washboards), circulated widely. In 1969, Rolling Stone and two film crews covered the festival, one from New York’s public station WNET and the other led by Gene Rosenthal of Adelphi Records. WNET’s show aired nationally as part of Steve Allen’s Sounds of the Summer. The festivals moved quickly from hippie happening to national airtime, from the fringes of society smack dab into the mainstream middle.

It was the bluesmen whose music inspired the organizers and remains unforgettable. Reverend Robert Wilkins’s song “Prodigal Son” was made famous by the Rolling Stones, but there was nothing like hearing it from the master, with a driving beat that was sanctified—and made you want to move. “I got a woman, I got a kid gal, too,” sang Nathan Beauregard in 1968 at the age of one hundred and five, according to some sources. (According to others he was a mere nonagenarian.) The sound was almost as old as slavery, but also as new as the sudden urge to sleep with your best friend’s old lady. Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell, and Joe Callicott made incredible music that is beautifully syncretic: a blend of African roots and American experience, and a chance for lament and joy—“history transmitted through pressure on a guitar string,” as my dad famously put it at the end of Deep Blues.

Younger artists also gave memorable performances that remain thrilling on long-unseen footage. At this fall’s fiftieth anniversary celebration at the Levitt Shell, which Robert Gordon and I co-curated, the audience was swept away by an indelible filmed 1969 performance from the Bar-Kays, fronted by James Alexander. Sid Selvidge melted our hearts and Jim Dickinson taught us how to boogie a little. The inspired sound of the Insect Trust with my dad and Trevor Koehler braiding their horns together across time and filling the Levitt Shell years after their deaths was eerie and electrifying. Marcia Hare had held her umbrella over Bukka White in 1969, and at the anniversary event her alter ego Misty Blue Lavender wore the same sunglasses and carried an umbrella again as she joined joined Gordon, James Alexander, Jimmy Crosthwait, Chris Wimmer, and me to talk about what had happened on the same stage fifty years before.

It was Nancy Jeffries who first suggested this film project. A Brooklyn native who was drawn to Memphis by her love of the blues, Jeffries was a galvanizing force in the Memphis Country Blues Society and the singer for the Insect Trust. She’s a music industry titan who signed Suzanne Vega at Elektra, went on to lead Bob Marley Music, and now works for Paul McCartney—and she wants the Memphis Country Blues Festival and its organizers to be remembered. She told me: “I feel like it’s a metaphor for the sixties. Was it a party? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Was it serious? Yes . . . The party always wins in terms of what people see. That was part of it, but not the motivating factor. The motivation was, let’s show people the evolution of the music. So you had musicians doing the old blues through to musicians doing the most recent rock & roll . . . And let’s make some money for the guys who started it. So that’s a fairly serious motivation.”

I looked at and listened to existing recordings; and initially, it was the voice of my mother, Mary Branton, recorded by Gene Rosenthal in 1969, that really got me hooked. A talented visual artist, she had designed a beautiful program with images of Furry Lewis and Bukka White. As gate crashers were breaking down the fences to see Johnny Winter without paying their dollar for admission, she pleaded, “Come on people, this is a benefit for the blues artists, please help us help them!” Never prone to public speaking and an ardent fan of early classical music rather than the blues, she had caught the furore of the moment.

Looking at the interviews I’ve conducted for the film—with Reverend John Wilkins, Stanley Booth, Robert Gordon, Mary Lindsay Dickinson, Bryan Guinle, James Alexander, and Misty Blue Lavender, to name a few—I keep thinking of the memory palaces built by Giordano Bruno in the fifteenth century. Using a technique developed in classical times, he imagined an edifice equipped with rooms, libraries, and drawers to shelve and retrieve his memories. I feel like I’m storing these memories and building my own edifice on a computer; this documentary film will be a memory palace, an audiovisual mnemonic device to excavate and preserve the past. Only recently, I discovered that Degli Eroici Furore (translated as Of the Heroic Frenzies) is actually the name of a book by Bruno, the Renaissance mage who was an inspiration to my father and Randall Lyon. The book is a series of dialogues about humankind’s passionate pursuit of truth, beauty, and knowledge. Sounds like an encounter with the blues to me.

Sometimes, I dream about The Blues Society. I see myself walking into a memory palace, an ancient library like one in Ephesus. On the wall hangs a Kongo cosmogram, which resembles the crossroads, but symbolizes the unity of past and present, east and west, living and dead. Moving farther down the hall, I see an image that I take for Raphael’s School of Athens. But then I see that all the characters have been replaced by men and women involved with the Memphis Country Blues Festivals. At the center, Plato and Aristotle have been replaced by Furry Lewis and Memphis guitar legend Lee Baker. Down a corridor I hear Randall Lyon’s roaring laugh. I round the corner into a room filled with a multitude of drawers, carefully labeled with the names of folks I’ve interviewed and those I hope to talk to in the future. Sitting in an armchair in the corner, I see my father, wearing his mojo hand. “Well, well, well,” he laughs, echoing North Mississippi blues master R. L. Burnside. “It took you long enough to get here.”

Read “Going Deep,” a profile of Robert Palmer, by Jay Jennings.  

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Augusta Palmer is an award-winning filmmaker, media scholar, and an assistant professor of communication arts at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York. Her latest film, an animated short called A is for Aye-Aye: An Abecedarian Adventure, was installed at the New York Public Library’s main building for several months in 2015–2016, and has screened at festivals from New Zealand to New Jersey.