The Baton Rouge Blues Festival is this weekend. Find more information about it at this link.
By Nick Spitzer
From 1978 to 1985, I worked for the Louisiana state cultural agency in Baton Rouge, with its state government, college, refinery and river town mix of old-guard wealth, fast-growing suburbia, bohemian enclaves and sadly dilapidated neighborhoods. Firmly in the black and white South, culturally different from nearby New Orleans and French Louisiana, Baton Rouge was often sharply divided along lines of race – but local blues music and musicians seemed to touch everybody.
I was lucky to be exposed to the depth and power of singers and musicians who used blues lyrics and style to express social ills, love troubles, anger, pride and happiness. By turning pain and joy into artistry through the blues in smoky clubs like Tabby Thomas’ Blues Box or the Brickhouse Lounge, as couples swayed and boogied, life seemed suffused with pleasure … even hope.
Men such as Silas Hogan, Moses “Whispering” Smith, Arthur “Guitar” Kelley and many more, had been raised in the country and moved to the city. They played the jukes and clubs of downtown Baton Rouge and communities of refinery workers on the city’s Northside and in Scotlandville.
Some of the bluesmen in the city and region had made commercial recordings at J.D. Miller’s Studio in Crowley, mostly heard on Excello Records. Miller handed out promotional nicknames like Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo. Others, such as Silas Hogan, Arthur Kelly and Moses Smith, recorded in a more documentary format for Arhoolie Records or on both local and British blues aficionado labels.
Recordings aside, it was hard to make a career out of playing the blues in Baton Rouge and south Louisiana, but the local mix of soulful city blues, droning country blues and swamp pop that characterizes the sound was attracting attention from blues fans internationally.
Still, there was not much support from arts professionals in Baton Rouge until 1980, when a blues stage at the Spring Arts Festival drew an excited crowd on the grounds of the Old State Capitol. The Baton Rouge (or “River City”) Blues Festival began the following year on the River bluff at Southern University with support from the State and the Baton Rouge Arts Council. It was the first time many of these great blues players were honored in public, outside a club setting, in their hometown. By 1985, Louisiana Public Broadcasting would produce “Rainin’ In My Heart,” a documentary about Baton Rouge blues with its title taken from Slim Harpo’s 1961 hit record.
The older generation of Baton Rouge bluesmen featured at the early festivals and in the documentary is largely gone; only pianist Henry Gray survives today. Gray, who grew up in Alsen La., worked and played in Chicago from 1946 to 1968 with a wide range of famed musicians: Jimmy Reed, Bo Didley, Muddy Waters, Lil’ Water and, most memorably, Howlin’ Wolf.
Gray returned to Louisiana when his father died, and worked many years as a repairman for the city-parish school board. Named a National Heritage Fellow in 2006, Henry is one of the greats featured again on this year’s Festival—a legendary “two fisted” swamp blues piano man.
Another fine player in 2016’s Festival is guitarist James Johnson. We somehow missed him in a 1982 public survey of local blues greats. Johnson had been touring on the blues circuit, but he, too, finally came home. So I was excited a few years ago to see that the Baton Rouge Blues Festival had been featuring him since 2008. Johnson played with the legendary Slim Harpo who had influenced the Rolling Stones. Known as “Chicken Scratch,“ Johnson got his nickname from recording the “chicken pickin’” guitar lick on Slim Harpo’s 1966 national hit recording, “Baby, Scratch My Back.”
Bringing master guitarist Buddy Guy home to Baton Rouge is another highlight of this year’s Festival. Guy, who grew up in the tiny settlement of Lettsworth in Point Coupee Parish, where the Atchafalaya River branches off the Mississippi, first played on a single-string instrument sometimes called a “diddley bow.”
In 1957, Buddy left Baton Rouge and his job as an LSU custodian. He headed to Chicago, where he met and played with his hero, Muddy Waters. Buddy also worked with Howlin’ Wolf, among many others. Guy’s guitar style came to define the Southside Chicago sound of electric urban power chords, and so influence a generation of rockers. A successful businessman, Buddy Guy opened his own blues clubs, first the “Checker Board” and, later, “Legends,” that still operates to this day.
Baton Rouge blues and bluesmen have been a healing force in my own life. I spent six months in Baton Rouge General Hospital back in 1980 with a “terminal illness.” Tabby Thomas and Moses “Whispering” Smith came to visit me one day in the hospice section and played “Goin’ Down Slow” so effectively that I later recovered.
They stomped the blues; I stomped cancer . . . and got back to working in state government as a folklorist with a new outlook on what could be done to document and present local cultures.
In 2008, I was thrilled to hear that the Blues Festival itself came back to life after a 12-year hiatus. In 2014, that thrill extended across the nation when American Routes first broadcast the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. The city has come a long way over the years, and the enduring blues has helped make it so.
This weekend we’ll record again for public radio broadcast. I look forward to my first time at a Baton Rouge Blues Festival in over 30 years. I hope to see you there, down by the River. Let’s stomp the blues, Baton Rouge style, and heal whatever ails us!
Nick Spitzer, host of public radio’s American Routes, served as the Louisiana State Folklorist, later as a senior folklife specialist at the Smithsonian Institution and is now professor of anthropology at Tulane University. American Routes has been produced in New Orleans since 1998. The program can be heard in Baton Rouge every Saturday on WRKF FM 89.3 from 7-9 PM, nationwide at various times and streaming at Americanroutes.org