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VOL. 130 | NO. 176 | Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bona Fide

October blues festival has roots in influential 1969 event

By Bill Dries

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When the Bona Fide Blues Festival takes a set of stages in Overton Square and the Cooper-Young neighborhood next month, it will mark a return that’s been a long time coming.

But it also will offer something new.

Mark “Muleman” Massey performs at Bluesday Tuesday in Overton Square. The entertainment district will host a new festival – the Bona Fide Blues Festival – presented by the Memphis Blues Society in October. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis Blues Society president John Gemmill sees it as a successor to the three-day 1969 country blues festival. Held at the nearby Overton Park Shell, it was a seminal gathering of several generations of blues musicians, all of whom had a connection to the Memphis region.

“It’s all blues. It’s country blues, city blues, kind of soul blues,” said Gemmill, who leads the organization presenting the Oct. 2 and 3 event. “It’s 100 percent. That’s why we call it bona fide.”

More than 40 blues performers, all from within a 100-mile radius of Memphis, will perform on two free outdoor stages in the Overton Square entertainment district. They also will play four Overton Square and Cooper-Young businesses where there will be a cover charge.

The square’s courtyard stage already is the backdrop for the summer’s Bluesday Tuesday concert series.

“One of the biggest aims for the Blues Society in doing this is to really kind of activate the Memphis audience,” Gemmill said. “By having it in Overton Square, I think we’re going to reach people who basically aren’t reached by most of these acts. There are folks who play more in Norway than they play in Memphis. They are some huge talents.”

The lineup includes The Bo-Keys, Delta Joe Sanders, Blind Mississippi Morris and Kenny Brown.

Ruby Wilson, the Reba Russell Band and Barbara Blue also are on the bill along with Preston Shannon, Garry Burnside and the Steve Selvidge Band.

A full lineup can be found at bonafidebluesfest.com along with more information about the venues.

The 1969 country blues festival in Overton Park was held two months before the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 – and Woodstock two years later – opened the festival scene to include a broader social experience with a diverse musical lineup.

“Memphis was a little further out front back then,” Gemmill says of the local musical environment.

The first two days at the Overton Park Shell included sets by bluesmen Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell and Sleepy John Estes. White, Lewis and Estes had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. They and McDowell were rediscovered in the blues resurgence that began in the 1960s.

Forty-six years later, the bill’s names serve as a roll call of bluesmen who knew more modest Depression-era fame. But a re-emergence later in life made them a touchstone for younger musicians who adapted the blues several times over – electrifying it to play arenas and stadiums before their own back-to-basics musical journeys.

One legacy of that resurgence was that blues festival organizers didn’t always pay the performers. The organizers of Bona Fide confirm that all of its performers will be paid; it’s part of a recognition of local talent.

“The people like Furry Lewis and Son House – that real country blues stuff is much harder to find,” Gemmill said. “It’s more electric. We’ve got some old country folks. We’ve got people who are very much in the Delta tradition. We’ve got hill country.”

And Gemmill says some of the traditionalists are part of a new generation, mixing their own experiences with the legacy of those who played the same road houses and juke joints that Robert Johnson did.

“It’s transformed. It’s rising and falling at the same time,” he said. “We’ve got 25 and 30 year olds doing incredible stuff that’s coming up in its place.”

Those younger blues players don’t come from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when festivals were influential cultural and social gatherings.

That’s become apparent with more recent blues events like the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., which Gemmill said offered some lessons in changing times.

The Clarksdale festival bills itself as “half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta.”

“There’s sort of a sense that the festival is like the highest form, that’s really what you want to do. But in my opinion, some of the very best blues performances I’ve seen have been in small bars and small venues,” Gemmill said. “There are some performers like Booker Brown who have never played a festival. There are going to be folks who 90 percent of the people attending have never seen even though they are right in the backyard.”

Gemmill counts about 50 hours of music over the two days. And as the bill began to fill out, he was fielding calls from more performers than there were slots, which he says is a basis to start planning for 2016.

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