Further Up The Road: Memories of the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival

Mississippi Fred McDowell and me (age 18), Backstage, 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival

Mississippi Fred McDowell and me (age 18), Backstage, 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival

Thinking back 46 years is difficult for anyone, so it’s odd that I can remember those three days of August 1969 so vividly. Then again, maybe not — those were three days that I can honestly say changed my life…and I know I’m not the only one.

At the time, my brother John was a student at the University of Michigan, a dedicated blues fan, and (unbeknownst to me) one of those doers. He and a group of fellow students felt the current blues boom among young, white audiences should come full circle with a concert by the idiom’s originators, so they somehow convinced the university to give them money to do just that.

I had just graduated high school in late June, and my brother was spending the summer in “Sweet Home Chicago” under the tutelage of Delmark Records founder Bob Koester. By day, he was working at the famed Jazz Record Mart and by night going to the clubs and “discovering” talents for the initial Ann Arbor Blues Festival — rightfully called “the Woodstock of the Blues,” by none other than Bonnie Raitt…herself a college student and aspiring artists who attended the festival with Dick Waterman.

In fact, it was Dick and Bob who gave us the real education. They introduced our family to the genius of performers as diverse as Howlin’ Wolf and Son House, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Joe Williams to Otis Rush. These talents were already stars in the world of African American culture and entertainment, but virtually unknown to white audiences as the originators of the songs and styles we were digging on records by bands like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

When the festival actually happened, it was like an awakening. First off, the music was just staggering. The camaraderie must have lit a fire under the performers because every one came out with the intention of upstaging the others. And with morning and afternoon concerts each day, the music just kept going…blues of every style, from across the country, there in Ann Arbor.

What was even more exciting was that John had tapped me and my friends to be the ones to help out the artists (who, in the Ann Arbor, Michigan of the late 1960s, were for the most part strangers in a strange land). As luck would have it, we had the honor of hanging for the whole weekend with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. While Arthur was a little reserved early on, Fred was a total extrovert and we quickly thought of him as our pal. (Luck would have our paths cross again (and again) with Fred, and he even stayed with my friend at the Harvard Lampoon building the next year. But those are stories for another day…)

Whether it was sitting in their dormitory “hotel” room performing just for us or wandering around the city and festival site, we experienced some magic moments of humor, pathos, and storytelling. Not only did we witness great blues music, but we also heard first-hand about what the blues was and meant to the people who played it. These were “real” people with “real” personal histories…the past meeting the present with few details left unsaid. I was just 18 and thought I was full of worldly knowledge…hanging with Fred changed all that. But at the time I didn’t realize that this event and subsequent encounters would help to shape my life and the world around it.

Thus became my involvement with an event that has steadily gained the historical recognition it truly deserves over the past 46 years.

In the fall of 1969, I began my career life in the music business covering the entertainment beat for The University of Miami’s newspaper, The Hurricane. Lo and behold, one of my first interviews was with harmonica maestro and just months-before AABF headliner James Cotton. I remember that I mentioned my connection to the festival and my credibility was instantly established.

John and I then went on to stage our own series of blues festivals over four years at the U of M. While more modest affairs than Ann Arbor, there were many familiar faces from Ann Arbor like Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Roosevelt Sykes, and Otis Rush.

These early intimate, humbling personal experiences with my musical heroes only added to my love of the music, and the women and men who made it. And it’s that love that I’ve continued to follow.

As it turns out, I brought my portable Norelco tape recorder to the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and somehow managed to capture nearly 15 hours of performances from the audience. Years later, my son Parker would find them in our basement and (with AMP) would go on to restore these “field recordings” so that staggering weekend of August 1–3, 1969 would be preserved for future generations. I hope that someday people might be able to hear my little “field recordings” from and be as inspired today as I was 46 years ago.

- Jim Fishel, 2015

Jim Fishel