Since 1969, the nation’s most popular blues and jazz musicians have made a stop through Ann Arbor to take part in the now-historic Ann Arbor Blues Festival. B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters, among others, introduced the Ann Arbor population to true blues: the blues of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.
As a dedicated blues fanatic myself, I was thrilled to be able to attend the 2019 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which took place Aug. 16 through Aug. 18 at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds.
After finishing up at work, I made the short drive to the Fairgrounds, going against the flow of the congested traffic eager to leave Ann Arbor for the weekend. With the windows down, listening to “Lightnin’ Hopkins”and “Otis Rush” live in Ann Arbor in 1969, my Camry hopped onto a gravel road leading into the Fairgrounds.
It does not require a deep study of music to understand that the blues are not as popular as the genre once was. The biggest names in present-day blues are some of the smallest names in the grandeur of the modern music industry. Whether this can be attributed to a change in taste or a systemic decline of the genre is difficult to understand, but the fact is the blues, specifically in the style of Chicago or Delta blues, is a rather niche musical interest.
And “niche musical interest” is exactly the feeling I got as I sat down in the matted grass in front of the stage. It was clear that outside of those brought unwillingly by parents and fellow press from other nearby university publications, I was the youngest member of the audience by a significant number of years. Somehow, I felt out of place, out of touch, as I waited for the first performance to take the stage.
The first performance was Thornetta Davis, a jazz and blues musician from Detroit. Her performance and demeanor struck me. She was certainly talented, but there was something else in her that injected some serum of liveliness and happiness into the veins of the seasoned audience. As Davis sang, audience members got up from their lawn chairs and shuffled to the stage to dance along with her. My jaw dropped as I saw 80-year-old people dancing and singing along to the music. The music was loud, and this elderly audience was loving it, and I began to love it too. I was out of my usual place, out of touch with my usual life, but creating that environment in a positive and invigorating way is precisely where this festival triumphs. I was out of my comfort zone in a way that was beneficial to me.
Another performance that piqued my interest was that of Bernard Allison. As he took the stage, a mass of bodies again waded to the edge of the stage to sway along with his guitar. I learned that Allison’s father was a performer at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in its early years, and Bernard had attended at the young age of seven. He continued to play the blues since, and upon returning to Ann Arbor to show what he had learned, Allison was greeted by a warm and welcoming Ann Arbor audience that indeed remembered him and his father.
Despite the widespread falling-off of the genre over the years, I was delighted to see that the blues were alive and well in Ann Arbor, kept alive by the love of its audience. When one of the hosts asked how many original audience members from the 1969 festival were present today, I was shocked to see so many hands rise. Perhaps these lovers of the blues are what keep the genre alive. The blues artists and their audience trade a musical love that keeps the heart of the blues beating and the lungs of the blues breathing.