ANN ARBOR BLUES FESTIVAL 1969

“Ann Arbor set both the stage and the standard for all the blues festivals that followed…Survivors of the 1960s still ask one another, ‘Were you at Woodstock?’ Those of us who became blues converts ask, ‘Were you at Ann Arbor?’”

– Jim O’Neal, cofounder of Living Blues

The 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was a three-day event running from Friday, August 1 to Sunday, August 3, 1969 at Fuller Flatlands on the outskirts of the University of Michigan campus. For $14, a festivalgoer totally immerse themselves in the blues: 24 headlining artists (plus a wealth of lesser-known, but no less talented sidemen) across daily and nightly concerts, a Saturday afternoon of workshops, and even a midnight jam session at the Michigan Union Ballroom after the first night’s performances.

The historic gathering of the blues was presented by a small group of blues-obsessed U of M students determined to give their blues heroes and heroines a public spotlight where they might shine before it was too late. Through the dedicated vision and work of these students, what the University initially saw as an afternoon event featuring local blues rock acts morphed into the ultimate blues festival.

Performers included: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, James Cotton, Son House, Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Junior Wells, Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, J. B. Hutto & His Hawks, Roosevelt Sykes, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Big Joe Williams, Charlie Musselwhite, Sam Lay, Jimmy Dawkins, Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, Arthur Crudup, and Freddie King.

For three days it was not unusual to find scenes like B.B. King playing his forthcoming single for Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Mama Thornton, and Junior Wells or Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Joe Williams catching up about grandchildren, life on the road, and the recent moon landing. The family reunion backstage led to an all-star game onstage as an audience of eager young blues converts was treated to a living history of the blues from some of its inventors, innovators, and greatest talents.

 

Eighteen-year old Jim Fishel spends some time backstage with Mississippi Fred McDowell

OUR CONNECTION

Among those enterprising student-organizers was John Fishel, whose teenage brother (and AMP cofounder) Jim Fishel, gathered some friends to help record the festival as a personal memento. Taking advantage of their all-access pass and juggling a small Norelco tape recorder from set-to-set, the friends let the 1⁄4” tape roll. In between duties as festival “host” to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup, and Big Mama Thornton, Jim and his friends managed to capture about half the festival – nearly 16.5 hours of music! Though field recordings in the literal sense of the term, they capture the brilliance of the musicians, the excitement of the crowd and the loose, convivial nature of the entire festival. While Magic Sam’s legendary set was released by Delmark Records in 1981 to benefit Sam’s family, the rest of these recordings remained unreleased until they were rediscovered in 2009.

 
 

ABOUT THE PROJECT

Our collaboration with Third Man Records, ANN ARBOR BLUES FESTIVAL 1969, is the result of ten years of work. After the Jim Fishel’s recordings turned up in 2009, we began to make preservation copies of the 1/4” reels at WKCR-FM. After identifying headlining performers and songs, we began a research project to try and reconstruct the festival. Our goal was to determine the exact running order of the festival, identify every sideman who performed, and build context for the festival. This involved not just traditional research methods, but also interviewing surviving musicians, organizers, attendees, and blues scholars. To date we’ve interviewed over 35 individuals. All of this work culminated in ANN ARBOR BLUES FESTIVAL 1969, a 50th anniversary celebration featuring highlights from the festival.

 

FROM THE ARCHIVES

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SPECIAL THANKS

The story of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is a reflection of the blues community that rallied to its cause. Our project is no different. We are deeply indebted to the kindness of those who shared their stories, expertise, and encouragement over the last ten years.