In the ’60s, rock artists may have been idolized. But blues artists were revered. And if you want to see a vivid depiction of the latter fact, watch “The Blues Society,” which will be shown at the Spring New Jersey Film Festival at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., and also be available for online streaming throughout the day.
The 76-minute film’s director-writer-producer, Augusta Palmer, takes a close look at the four Memphis Blues Festivals that took place in Memphis between 1966 to 1969 (it was known renamed The Memphis Country Blues Festival in ’69 only, then changed back to Memphis Blues Festival for its final year, 1970). She also gathers some great historical footage of blues giants in action.
Even by the standards of that era, these were low-budget, low-key music festivals. But they offered exposure, and recognition, to local blues veterans such as Bukka White, Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell. These men — who had spent their careers performing at house parties and juke joints, with infrequent opportunities to record their work — had nearly been forgotten, but their music was being rediscovered by young music fans whose interest in rock had led them to the blues. And some of the local bohemians — they describe themselves in that way, or as beatniks, not as hippies — decided that a festival would be a great way to celebrate them.
“We came to feel that the people who had developed this style from which rock ‘n’ roll music really came … we felt that they were being forgotten,” says one of the festival’s organizers in the documentary.
“So for us, it was kind of like, here is this guy who has zero money and lives in a shotgun shack. But I see him as someone who’s created a movement. I see him as someone who’s given us a precious gift.”
“These men were geniuses; they were American heroes,” says an attendee, adding that “in other, more advanced societies, they would have been worshipped as shamans.”
Palmer is the daughter of one of the festival’s organizers, Robert Palmer, who gives the film a bit of a Jersey connection: In addition to spending time in Memphis in those days, Palmer, who later became a renowned music journalist, played in the Hoboken-based art-rock band called The Insect Trust.
Palmer and others formed an organization called The Memphis Country Blues Society, to produce the festival. They were inexperienced, but enthusiastic. For the location, they chose the Municipal Shell at Overton Park, which had previously been used only for symphonic concerts.
“All the freaks in town” came to the first festival, according to Robert Palmer. But lots of other people showed up, too: young and old, Black and white — at a time, Amanda Palmer emphasizes, of racial tension, and the Generation Gap. There were about 1,000 people there, in all. And there were no major problems.
They festival grew, modestly, over the years. By ’69, nationally known blues-rock acts Johnny Winter and Canned Heat were on the bill. The R&B act The Bar-Kays were there, too, that year; some footage from their feverish set is shown, and it’s sensational.
It also looked, briefly, like The Rolling Stones might make an appearance. They had covered “Prodigal Son,” by Memphis bluesman The Rev. Robert Wilkins, on their 1968 Beggars Banquet album (they failed to credit him properly, at first, though that’s a whole other story). But talks to bring the Stones there fizzled.
Why did the festival have such a short run? Amanda Palmer explains that the core organizers simply moved on to other pursuits. Presumably, changing musical tastes also had something to do with it: Interest in traditional blues ebbed again, in the ’70s.
But … Palmer does come up with a nice, uplifting way to end the documentary: A 2017 blues performance by The Rev. Robert Wilkins’ son, The Rev. John Wilkins, at Memorial Shell. He hadn’t played there since he backed his father, on guitar, at the ’68 fest.
For more about the film, visit thebluessocietyfilm.com.
For more about the film festival, which begins with the “Memphis Blues Society” screening and runs through Feb. 18, visit newjerseyfilmfestivalspring2024.eventive.org.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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