When listening to the Rolling Stones, I often find myself wondering how they pulled off the trick of performing traditional American music better than most Americans do. They, like most of the other bands that were part of the so-called “British Invasion” of the 1960s, took American musical traditions like country, soul, blues, and especially rock and roll and made them their own. Lord knows, though, that enough has been written about the Rolling Stones. This is not about them. Before the British Invasion, there was an equally important musical movement that, for whatever reason, the rock and roll history books have not been as kind to. Here was the place where all the young dudes like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and Jimmy Page copped their playbooks: The American Folk Blues Festival. You could call it, if you like, “The American Invasion.”
In 1962, The American Folk Blues Festival was brought into this world by, believe it or not, a bunch of Germans. The two figures most instrumental in the festival's conception were jazz promoters Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau. A Jew and an ex-Nazi, respectively, Lippman and Rau were brought together by their love for American jazz and believed in it as a force of “denazification.” They developed the festival along with Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a prominent jazz critic, author, and TV show host who had discovered the blues scene on a trip to Chicago and fell in love. With the help of legendary Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon, who, among other duties, planned the musicians' travels and rehearsals, Lippman and Rau were able to compile quite a roster of blues legends to tour Europe from 1962 to 1970 and beyondi.
Here we have the fourth volume of the celebrated film series that chronicles the seminal festival. Entitled The British Tours, this film compiles eighteen performances recorded and broadcast in Britain from 1963 to 1966.
Britain was much better acquainted with blues music than most of the countries along the tour of The American Folk Blues Festival. In the 1950s, a type of music known as “skiffle” had been massively popular in the country. A hybrid of jazz, folk, blues, and other styles, it was often played with jugband instruments such as washboards and, naturally, jugs.ii Many British musicians, including the Beatles, got their start in skiffle bands. It was only a matter of time before skiffle enthusiasts worked their way back to the music's blues roots.
One such enthusiast was Alexis Korner, among whose nicknames is the “patron saint of the British blues.” In 1961, Korner, along with his musical partner Cyril Davies, founded the massively influential and popular band Blues Incorporated. Korner's band and its contemporaries (such as the Chris Barber Band) attracted young talent and fans from all over the country to London. Korner, who often put up or lent records to eager young folks, had started a movement. By the end of 1962, the city's blues scene was thriving.
Interestingly enough, Lippman and Rau actually had to be convinced to book festival dates in Britain. Naturally, the performances were, as the British might say, a smashing success. Audiences flocked to see the artists that they had only heard covered or recorded. Weekly music newspaper the Melody Maker ran an outline of the artists that would be performing in the festival. John Lee Hooker excitedly compared his reception by eager fans to that of “the President or Jesus.” The audiences' excitement is clear in these recordings. It is not exactly Beatlemania, but the smiles on the faces of these proto-mods as they sing along to every word of these American blues songs speak for themselves.iii
The film opens with an excerpt from a BBC program called The Blues and Gospel Train. As Muddy Waters, suitcase in hand, makes his dramatic entrance onto the set for “You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had,” you cannot help but feel that you're in for something special. It only gets better from there when Sister Rosetta Tharpe takes the stage. Tharpe, criminally overlooked gospel howler and guitar player extraordinaire, is a force of nature.
Aside from these opening performances, which were recorded on a British railway station done up like an Oklahoma! setpiece, the recordings are unadorned affairs. No adornment is needed. These musicians speak (and sing and play) for themselves. The performances have been captured in unbelievable sound and video quality considering their age and rarity. Highlights abound - Personal favorites include Sonny Boy Williamson's virtuosic harmonica playing on "Keep it to Yourself," Howlin' Wolf's inimitable "Smokestack Lightning," and Big Joe Williams' foot-stompin' nine string guitar rendition of "Baby Please Don't Go."
When Tharpe asks “Pretty good for a woman, ain't it?” during one of her performances, it is a rare on-screen reminder of the tumultuous social environment of the time. So easy is it to get lost in the music that the comment is almost jarring. It is that very environment that contributes to the urgency and power of this music. Blues music takes hate, misery, anguish, and heartbreak and turns it into artistic and spiritual empowerment. Blues music is alchemy. Words cannot do it justice. It is no wonder that Lippman and Rau chose this to be music for their “denazification.”
Every generation will have its own version of the blues – this is as necessary for survival as food or sex. But I can only hope that we'll continue to trace the steps of the new musicians and come back to the real deal: The American Folk Blues Festival. Sure, the British blues scene produced classic music by the pound. But I cannot help but put myself in the shoes of an audience member. How could the secondhand blues of Alexis Korner possibly measure up to its foundation? This was the American Invasion.
iAdelt, Ulrich. "Germany Gets the Blues: Negotiations of 'Race' and Nation at the American Folk Blues Festival." American Quarterly, 2008 Dec; 60 (4): 951-974. (journal article)
iihttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skiffle / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_blues
iiiSchwartz, Roberta Freund. How Britain Got the Blues : The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom. Ashgate Publishing Group, 2008 Dec. pages 145-150 and 122-128