The blues arose sometime after the Civil War as a distillate of the African music brought over by slaves. From field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved music for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar; he would sing a line, and the guitar would answer."
That, according to The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (the 1995 revised edition) is the blues in a nutshell. But, as any aficionado knows, there are as many subtleties and styles of the blues as there are in jazz, country-western and rock 'n' roll, all of which owe a huge debt to the blues for their very existence. You can hear it in this "genuine back country ring shout" captured on aluminum disc by folklorists John and Alan Lomax back in 1934:
"Oh my Lord
Oh my Lordy
Well, well, well
I've gotta rock
You've gotta rock
Wah wah ho
Wah wah wah ho"
Cut to Durham. The Bull City. Home of tobacco ... baseball ... and the blues. The golden era of the golden leaf is over, with the last of the local cigarette producers (Liggett & Myers) closing last year. Blocks of abandoned warehouses bear mute testimony to the city's once-thriving tobacco industry. But some of the buildings in the warehouse district are getting a facelift, renovated into retail shops, lofts and apartments. The Durham Bulls, long affiliated with the Atlanta Braves, no longer play ball at the venerable Durham Athletic Park on Morris Avenue. Now, as the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they're headquartered at the upscale Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Durham's rich legacy of Piedmont blues is also getting a makeover. On Aug. 25, the state of North Carolina recognized the importance of "Bull City Blues" at a ceremony dedicating a historical marker at the corner of Fayetteville and Simmons streets near the Stanford L. Warren Library. It reads: "During the 1920s-1940s, Durham was home to African-American musicians whose work defined a distinctive regional style. Blues artists often played in the surrounding Hayti community and downtown tobacco warehouse district. Prominent among these were Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) (1907-1941) and Blind Gary Davis (1896-1972), whose recordings influenced generations of players."
The Durham marker is only one of seven historical markers in the state devoted to music, with John Coltrane being the only other African American to receive the honor. Glenn Hinson, chairman of the Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, helped spearhead the project. Other co-sponsors include the N.C. Blues Historical Marker Project, the Hayti Heritage Center, the Friends of the Stanford L. Warren Branch Library and the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Durham's blues heritage easily sets it apart from every other city in the state," says Hinson.
Indeed, by the 1940s, Durham had achieved national notoriety for its blues presence through the work of artists including Fuller, Davis and the harp-guitar duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. While the historical marker recognizes the importance of Durham's blues past, the future of blues in the Bull City--and beyond--is alive and well.
The 14th annual Bull Durham Blues Festival, sponsored since 1988 by the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation Inc., gets going with a free outreach program this Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the Hayti Heritage Center (804 Old Fayetteville St.). The program includes a panel discussion by local blues music programmers and a screening of Robert Mugge's 1991 film documentary, Deep Blues. In addition to its Ken Burns-ian style narration by music critic Robert Palmer, the film is worth seeing for its riveting juke-joint performances by rediscovered bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others. It's also an excellent primer on Mississippi Delta blues and how its influence spread throughout the South and into points north (read: Chicago).
Activities continue Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Center's St. Joseph's Performance Hall as N.C. Folk Heritage Award-winners Eric Bibb, John Dee Holeman, Etta Baker and George Higgs perform in concert at 7 p.m. Bibb, the son of actor-singer Leon Bibb, has been performing blues and folk music since the 1960s, while Holeman, Baker and Higgs are adept practitioners of the Piedmont blues style. Tickets are $15 advance, $20 at the door.
The venue shifts to the old Durham Athletic Park (428 Morris St.) for Friday and Saturday evening shows featuring headliners James Cotton (Friday) and Bobby Womack (Saturday). Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 after Thursday (Sept. 6). Info: call 683-1709 or Ticketmaster 834-4000. The rest of Friday's lineup includes Big Rick and the Bombers, Maria Muldaur, Rosie Ledet and Lucky Peterson. Saturday starts off with The Allison King Band, Cephas & Wiggins, Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band and Irma Thomas.
A few words about the headliners: Mississippi native James Cotton has performed with three of the all-time blues greats--Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters--in addition to gigging with such blues-rock acts as Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield. Cotton periodically fronts his own band and has garnered several Grammy nominations and W.C. Handy International Blues awards over the years. Recently, he taped a performance for Austin City Limits, and he's currently at work on a new album scheduled for a 2002 release.
It could be argued that Bobby Womack has deeper roots in soul than in blues, but the two are interconnected as a hybrid called rhythm and blues. Born in Cleveland, Womack and his brothers formed a gospel act that caught the eye of soul crooner Sam Cooke, who signed Womack as guitarist for his band. After Cooke's death, Womack gained acclaim as a session guitarist for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and King Curtis. Since then, he's gone on to enjoy periodic chart successes with songs like "Woman's Got to Have It," "Nobody Wants You When You're Down and Out" and "If You Think You're Lonely Now."
Other Bull Durham Blues Festival activities are planned, including a Saturday workshop featuring Cephas & Wiggins and a photo exhibition at the Hayti Heritage Center titled The Blues is a Feeling. Call 683-1709 for details, or visit www.Hayti.org.
There's more to blues in the area than the annual Bull Durham Blues Festival, though. WSHA-FM hosts a weekly blues program, The Blues is the Blues, Sundays from 4 to 8 p.m. You'll hear a broad mix of current and classic blues.
Raleigh's Berkeley Café has earned a reputation of being one of the finer blues clubs in the Triangle, regularly hosting such acts as The Nighthawks, Jimmy Thackery and Anson Funderburgh. Call 821-0777 for details or visit www.berkeleycafe.com for upcoming concerts.
Upcoming blues events:
Microblues Festival--Enjoy music by The Blue Dogs and sample tons of microbrewery suds on Friday, Sept. 14, at the N.C. Museum of Art. Call 839-6262 for details or visit www.ncartmuseum.org
The B.B. King Blues Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29, at Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek features not only the King himself but supporting acts Buddy Guy, John Hiatt and the Goners and Tommy Castro. This could be the blues event of the season. And with tickets ranging from $15 to $35, it's one of the best bargains at the Creek all year.
The above lists are by no means inclusive, just a few suggestions to get you started on your way to livin' and lovin' the blues. Organizations like the Piedmont Blues Society (www.piedmontblues.com) and The Blues Society of the Lower Cape Fear (www.capefearblues.com) host excellent Web sites for the latest in area blues happenings. To really widen your scope, check out the Blues Foundation in Memphis (www.blues.org) or, for full planetary coverage, beam the Blues Society of the World (www.bluessociety.net). You'll get more blues links than you can use in a lifetime.