All hail the American Folk Blues Festival
11 June 2021-
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Blues pioneer Robert Johnson and his astounding long term impact on music. Today, we will see how.
Music works in mysterious ways. It took so many happy accidents for the Blues of 19th century America to lead to the Rock and Roll revolution of the 1960’s that it would be comical if it wasn’t so damn’ important. One such instance is the tragically short-lived Robert Johnson’s mythical contribution to modern Blues. Another one, decades later, very much triggered said revolution, by introducing Blues legends directly or indirectly influenced by Johnson to the best audience of all, it would turn out: Britain circa 1962.
Let us rewind just a little bit: before there was Rock and Roll, with Little Richard, Elvis or Chuck Berry engineering that switch in the 1950’s, there was a vibrant Blues community whose work flourished before and during the early Rock and Roll craze, largely fuelling it. Based on the contributions of icons like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Sonny Boy Williamson (the Second: there happened to be two…) developed an incredibly rich catalogue well into the 1950’s. Some of them, like Waters, became legends in the genre; others, like John Lee Hooker, became bona fide stars. But their greatest impact may have been indirect — through a series of overseas shows…
In 1962, German musician, Blues aficionado and concert promoter Horst Lippmann launched his biggest concept yet: a series of star-studded Blues concerts that would tour all across Europe, thus introducing American artists to a new audience eager to reinvent the old continent post-World War II. The original series of shows ran from 1962 to 1970, featuring the aforementioned Waters, Hooker, Williamson and many more, eventually expanding well into the 1980’s. The success the Folk Blues Festival was met with confirmed a few things: 1) that the European youth of the 1960’s was indeed ready for new experiences, 2) that these new experiences were now to be expected to come from the “new” continent and 3) that it would be veteran Blues musicians who would become the unlikely vectors of said new experiences!
For, beyond the immediate reception the “Festival” got, what is perhaps greatly more significant is the impact it had on its audiences, most notably in the UK. The original 1962 Manchester show, the very first venue set in Britain, had Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Jimmy Page all in attendance. In other words, the budding Rolling Stones, future Yardbirds and Led Zeppelins were here, taking all of this culture in, to be later reinterpreted and reinvented with the global success we know. Further London shows are believed to have been attended by Eric Burdon (of The Animals fame) and Eric Clapton (of Eric Clapton fame). The list goes on.
Much like it is hard to imagine the US expansion without trains in the 19th century, it is quite inconceivable to picture a 1960’s British rock scene without that initial Blues input. At a time when discs, especially Blues discs performed by African-American artists, were hard to come by in pre-Swinging Sixties London, the American Folk Blues Festival did what very few concerts ever achieved: it sparked a veritable musical revolution. One we still very much enjoy the repercussions of all these decades later…