Monday, July 08, 2024

The Blues Society: Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell & Others

The Blues Revival was one thing the hippies got right—pretty much the only thing. Technically, the young fans who started the Memphis Country Blues Festival considered themselves more bohemians and beatniks than hippies—at least until they got into LSD. They admit that eventually made them hippies. They were still right about the music. Augusta Palmer, the daughter of music journalist Robert Palmer, chronicles the festival her father helped produce in The Blues Society, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

They were not particularly well-organized, but somehow the rag-tag Memphis Blues Society produced five years of the Festival, which had a special revival (of the revival) in 2017. A lot of amazing musicians performed during the original Revival years, including Mississippi Joe Callicott, Skip James, Nathan Beauregard, Piano Red, Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Obviously, a lot of deep Memphis Delta Bluesmen had roots in Tennessee. However, probably the two most important artists in the Blues Society story are Furry Lewis and Rev. Robert Wilkins, who played with his son, Rev. John Wilkins, who also headlined the 2017 show (before tragically dying of Covid complications).
 The story fittingly all unfolds with the help of Robert Palmer’s writings, read by the Eric Roberts.

The music in Palmer’s documentary is amazing. Lewis’s rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” is an especially beautiful standout. Unfortunately, Palmer wastes a lot of time on “appropriation” grievances. Admittedly, the hippy fans maybe were not as sensitive to appearances of paternalism. However, they were the only valuing this music at the time.
  It was the Blues Society and similar groups that generated gigs for these old school, real deal Bluesmen, so cut them some slack.

Not surprisingly, the Memphis municipal government emerges as the film’s villain. They refused all support, until learning Public Broadcasting would be filming 1969 festival for a Steve Allen arts program. Then they suddenly showed up with their civic banner.

Anyone interested in the Memphis Festival should start by watching Joe LaMattina’s
Memphis ’69, which presents unedited highlights of the 1969 festival, including performances from Beauregard, White, Lewis, and Sleepy John Estes, with virtually no talk. The music is what it’s all about anyway, right? Recommended as some solid blues history and several truly classic performances, The Blues Society releases tomorrow (7/9) on VOD.