What is American music? Like most things it depends on who you ask. Whoever it is, you’re bound at least to hear jazz… or country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. You might even get those last three all at once. There was a brief time in the sixties when we did, with the resurgence of the country blues, or folk blues, as it was called for the American Folk-Blues festival, a long-running European tour of the Delta’s most revered names: Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Turner, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And that’s only to name a very few. Just to get your feet wet, see all those names above perform, in order. The footage was filmed for broadcast on British TV between 1963 and 1966. Sonny Boy Williams opens, striding onstage in a dapper suit, umbrella, bowler hat, and leather case. He takes his time arriving, and in the pause between his announcement of “Keep It to Yourself” and the first note, he has completely mesmerized the audience. Next Muddy Waters, with his easy charisma (at 5:10), delivers “Got My Mojo Working” like a rock ‘n’ roll hypnotist, and leaves the crowd dazed.
The mojo works. Whether traditional acoustic or electrified hybrid blues, you will get chills at least once during each song. That is, if you like American music. The British kids in the audience sure did. At the tour’s first British stop, Manchester in 1962, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Jimmy Page were in the crowd. It’s said that in London, Erics Burdon and Clapton watched the show. But while those young dudes invaded the States, the Folk Blues Tour kept rolling through Germany, France, the UK and points East, every year until 1972, then again from 1980 to 1985. A staggering number of those performances were recorded and released on LP and CD. Scroll through this discography to get a sense of the embarrassing wealth of blues the entire collection represents. As a bonus for collectors, the albums boast some of the coolest covers to ever grace a live compilation. If these albums sound anything like the film compilation above, then they’ve captured these musicians at their best—if also at times their least edgy and most composed. But it’s no wonder. For a great many of the blues artists represented, Allmusic critic Bruce Elder notes, “these were the largest audiences they’d ever played to, and the first (and often only) decent money they ever made.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
Thanks for this fabulous video. I saw lots of these musicians in the 1970’s, but to see them a recording of them in their prime is really exceptional.