My hometown is fixin’ to get the blues in a big way the first weekend of August.
A couple of music-lovin’, cable-stringin,’ hammer swingers are making it happen out of their own passion and pocket. I love that. I love it in the abstract, and I love it because it’s the same damn-fool thing I and a few other people did more than 20 years ago when we started the Sisters Folk Festival.
Joe and Jen Rambo, the founders of Sisters Rhythm & Brews Festival are not screwing around. Take a look at the line-up (looking at YOU Paul McNamee): Walter Trout; Tommy Castro & The Painkillers; Shemekia Copeland; Nikki Hill; Cedric Burnside; Curtis Salgado; Hillstomp; David Jacobs-Strain. More.
Blues Power is looking out for ’em, too. When the legendary John Mayall, their headliner, had to drop out due to illness, a little outfit from East L.A. stepped up.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a good weekend.
Here’s another cool thing. Jen and John come out of the building trades. Jen says she was one of those kids that didn’t fit in the standard high school model — so they’re supporting the Heart of Oregon Corps YouthBuild program, which offers an alternative to the classroom for those who need a different path:
YouthBuild members transform their lives and roles in society through earning their GED, high school diploma, or college credits, learning job skills, and serving their community through building affordable housing. Members in our program divide their time between classroom, field (construction sites), and leadership development. As stated by YouthBuild USA Co-Founder, John Bell, “YouthBuild seeks to join with others to help build a movement toward a more just society in which respect, love, responsibility, and cooperation are the dominant unifying values, and sufficient opportunities are available for all people in all communities to fulfill their own potential and contribute to the well-being of others.”
YouthBuild kids will be building the stages for the festival, and their program gets a part of the proceeds. Righteous.
For decades, the blues was the most muscular exponent of American culture in the wider world, along with its progeny, rhythm and blues and rock-n-roll. It grew out of the fields and plantations of the Deep South, coalescing in the humid heat of Mississippi Delta juke joints. African chants, church music, field hollers and minstrel songs were seeded in a deep, black soil of lives hard lived and burst out in passion and fervor that would roll up the Mississippi to Chicago, plug in and blast out across the globe.
It’s not hard to see why the blues connected. As Ed Kopp writes in his Brief History of the Blues:
“When you think of the blues, you think about misfortune, betrayal and regret. You lose your job, you get the blues. Your mate falls out of love with you, you get the blues. Your dog dies, you get the blues.
“While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.”
In one of the most extraordinary moments of cultural cross-pollination in history, the record “Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers” sailed across the Atlantic and lit a fire under Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and Eric Burdon and who knows how many other kids with guitars, and it caused an explosion. The American blues came roaring back across the sea in the British Invasion, up-ending, well, just about everything.
I went to the crossroad
Fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
Fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now
Save poor Bob, if you please
A soul sold to the devil, a fast life ended by poisoned whiskey at the hands of a jealous husband (or a jealous lover) leaving poor Bob on his hands and knees barking like a dog — you don’t get more wild and weird than that. That hellhound-driven guitar and that haunted, keening wail… that’s rock-n-roll.
America needs the blues today more than ever — not least because the blues stand as a rebuke to the political identitarians of both right and left. The blues is Exhibit A that truly, uniquely American culture belongs to all of us, and, in fact, often comes from the most marginalized people in our society. And those who bleat about “cultural appropriation” can’t possibly argue that Stevie Ray Vaughan was anything but a blessing upon the world. Put Stevie Ray and Albert King together on “The Sky Is Crying” and you’re touching something transcendent…
The blues, for me, is part of my own personal American Nation — what rock critic Greil Marcus called The Old, Weird America. Consumerism, political correctness, media pandering to soccer mom sensibilities, the atrocious flattening of pop music … all have done their best to turn The Old, Weird America into the Land of the Bland. But The Old, Weird America is strong. It’s still lurking there, down at a crossroads somewhere off the interstate and away from the shopping malls, ready to tap you on the shoulder and lure you in to its mysterious, dangerous and exhilarating embrace.
I’ve got a gig playing my own Western folk music at a Len Babb exhibition in town. Then I’m headed down to the crossroad to palaver with ghosts of the Old Weird America. It’s what I do best.