"Memphis Birthday Blues Festival," read the banner at the band shell in Overton Park in a recent concert film. It could well be another event tied to the bicentennial, but the texture of the film footage gives the date away: This is from the city's sesquicentennial — 50 years ago.
Of course, the viewer already knows this, having begun the film with a journey up from the Mississippi Delta, cars whizzing by as WDIA announces that weekend's main event: the fourth annual Memphis Country Blues Festival. And from those first few moments, the film offers total immersion in the world of a half-century ago.
Watching Memphis '69, which screens at Crosstown Arts on June 7th (the very date on which the festival was held), is a bit like gazing upon some freshly unearthed treasure, a moment eulogized in decades' worth of music history, captured in amber. Stanley Booth has written eloquently of the festivals (most recently, in a chapter of his new book), as has Robert Gordon in his essential tome, It Came from Memphis, and it's a tale both inspirational and cautionary.
First staged in 1966 by a rag-tag group of beats and bohemians that included Lee Baker, Jimmy Crosthwait, Jim Dickinson, and Sid Selvidge (who eventually coalesced into Mud Boy & the Neutrons), the festival's focus was originally the obscure local blues players — such as Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Bukka White, and Son Thomas — whose work inspired these ne'er-do-wells. From there, the festival gained a higher profile each year, and a recording of the 1968 event was even released as an album on London Records.
By 1969, as Gordon writes, there was "a struggle for ownership of the event between the hippies and the city government" that lent a bitter aftertaste to the memories of many of the original organizers. And yet, by then expanded to three days, that last festival featured many of the same blues legends that were honored in 1966, including a 106-year-old Nathan Beaugard, making this new film a remarkable thing to behold.
"It's an absolute miracle that the footage ever saw the light of day," says Bruce Watson, co-owner of Fat Possum Records and co-producer of the film. During a meeting between Watson and Gene Rosenthal (owner of the '60s label Adelphi Records) about field recordings Rosenthal had made in Memphis in 1968, Rosenthal casually mentioned, "Yeah, I don't know if you're interested, but I recorded the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival, and I have the footage and audiotapes in my basement." Watson, having read about the festival for years, was very much interested and arranged to buy the rights. (He also plans to release a three-LP soundtrack from the film later this year.)
"There are probably 14 or 15 hours of film and audio," Watson says. "The footage is remarkably good for sitting in his basement for 50 years. Some of it syncs up, some of it doesn't. The audio engineer was tripping on acid, so the audio is kind of hit and miss. The solo performances with the blues guys sound pretty good, but when you start getting Johnny Winter and Moloch and that stuff, it's really overdriven."
After organizing the sprawling footage, Watson sought out the aid of Joe and Lisa LaMattina, a Los Angeles-based couple who have had a hand in many music documentaries. "When we saw the footage, we were like, 'We have to make this movie,'" Joe says. Now the two, along with Watson and consultant Robert Gordon, have crafted a total immersion in that fabled era. And while casual viewers may believe they are seeing nearly raw footage, full of sprocket holes and jump cuts from backstage, it's actually a carefully curated experience. "One of the things we wanted to do," Joe says, "was try to edit the movie as if it were made in 1969, so it's not a technique-heavy movie."
Despite being a festival staged at the city's behest, there was still plenty of countercultural influence: The local Jefferson Street Jug Band is joined by John Fahey and Robert Palmer for the anti-war "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." It's all summed up by the banter of one emcee, who announces, "We don't know what the heat says, but it's cool to dance."