It's not surprising to hear Adolf Hitler wasn't a fan of jazz music. In fact, Der Fuhrer, awful bastard that he was, went as far as enlisting minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbles as the man in charge of censoring and eventually eliminating jazz music from German airwaves in 1935.
It's a sad thought to mull over—a groundbreaking form of music, a form that blew open the doors of experimentation, a form that inspired so many people, stolen from the German people. Presumably, Hitler and Co. didn't like the fact that many of the talented musicians and composers happened to be of a darker skin tone but the company line was that the removal of jazz from German radio was for its people's own good because it was frivolous music. Instead, the Nazi party believed that all Germans should be consuming mass quantities of classical music from the likes of Mozart, and renowned anti-semite Richard Wagner.
This didn't last forever. The war ended, Hitler took his own life, and Germany began to piece itself back together. Jazz music emerged from the underground, and luminaries like Joachim-Ernst Berendt, author of the highly regarded Jazz Book, helped popularize the genre and other, modern forms like blues, folk and soul.
All of this is to say, the German produced and backed American Folk Blues Festival is incredibly powerful on its own, but even more so knowing just how much German music had been censored.
The festival, which began as a tour across Europe and aired on German television, began in 1962 and stretched all the way to 1972 with a few reunions in the 80s. Two enterprising concert promoters, Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau felt it was time to bring American blues music to Europe. They called on Willie Dixon, the Grammy-award winning Chicago musician, probably most famous for his compositions of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” Dixon, considered the father of the Chicago blues-sound, opened up his world to Lippmann and Rau and the American Folk Blues Festival was born.
As I sat and watched Buddy Guy glide across the floor while his fingers danced effortlessly up and down the neck of his guitar and Big Mama Thornton made her way to the microphone, it all began to make sense. Perhaps I'm digging too deeply here, but I got a strong feeling of what this was all about: identity. During the peak performance years of this festival, (1962 – 1967), huge strides were being made in America. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and music was an extremely important part of that. This music represented a certain prideful feeling, a feeling that said “We will not back down!” You can hear it in the songs, the fight against that struggle, the toughness that bleeds through in each of the performances lyrical content. All of these men and women have been through some shit, and they intend to tell you about it.
Germans were, perhaps, yearning for this sort of feeling. Here they were, not even twenty years after an awful tyrant fell, still trying to find their footing amongst the rest of the world. They wanted to erase the past. They wanted to usher in a new era of thinking—open minds and open hearts. It's impossible to take the cynical point of view on this one, that the Germans were out chasing paper, hoping to cash in on a growing American trend—it’s much more than that. You can see the tenderness the German crew put into these productions just by the framing of the shots--the way the camera gets in real tight and doesn't budge. I felt Germans were communicating to America's bright and rising musicians: we are here with you, fighting the good fight.
Each segment is done with extreme care. The direction is artful—not many cuts, some slow pans accompanying minimal sets; music is the focus here. Many of the performances in this set are filmed without a live audience, making it all the more powerful. The energy is incredibly real and raw, and you get the feeling you're peeking in on a sweat-filled, intimate rehearsal.
The variety is impressive too. We open up on Big Mama Thornton with a full band, Buddy Guy leading the way on guitar. She belts out a fierce version of “Houndog,” which then leads us right to Roosevelt Sykes tearing through one of his famed boogie tunes, “Gulfport Boogie.”
What hit me the hardest, however, were the deeply moving solo performances of Skip James, Bukka White and Son House, three of the more significant contributors to the delta-blues sound. The three men sit in one room on benches spaced about twenty feet apart. The camera starts in on James who plays “All Night Long,” and “Crow Jane.” Just a man, his guitar, and his blues. A title card comes up introducing Bukka White, and when he finishes, another title card pops up introducing the almighty Son House, who sings the goose bump inducing “Death Letter Blues.” All three sing powerfully and they play their instruments with a ferociousness unmatched by any live show I've ever seen. They have been put through some painful times. You don't have to know anything about their lives or upbringing; you can see it in their faces, in the way they strike those well-worn guitars. It's about the music, but it's also about the struggle it took to get this far. You don't learn the blues—you live the blues.
Germans could relate. Though their image had been tarnished by a hateful regime, they were still proud of where they came from. Similar to those fighting for civility in America, they wanted to progress without dwelling on the past.
So, get five or six of your closest friends together, hook that laptop up to the television, turn the lights down low, have a few beers, and let Big Joe Turner sing to you about all the women he's had. And, then, remember how important music is, how it’s not always just about bobbing your head. It defines movements and helps us grow. It’s called the blues for a reason.