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Music Review: Blues and the Spirit A Symposium

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I’ve been to a number of blues symposia and other blues-related events over the past several years, but let me say this unequivocally: The one I just returned from, Blues and the Spirit, sponsored by Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, was the best. It was also an endurance challenge and the most exhausting.

This important symposium on the history, present, and future of blues music began on Thursday evening at seven, and went through Sunday morning at sometime between 2 a.m. and dawn. Thursday was our easy day, ending at 10 p.m., allegedly; Friday’s talks began at 8:30 a.m., and the last activity ended at 10 p.m. Saturday was another early start at 8:30 a.m., and ended at “I refuse to answer on the grounds that my testimony might incriminate me.” Sunday was our Recuperation Day.

This type of symposium is particularly enriching to many because of the cross-section of people in attendance.  College professors and administrators, journalists, musicians, professional researchers, dilettantes, wannabes, writers, critics, recording company representatives, any connection, no matter how tenuous, to music.  Something that you, as a musician, may have never imagined as a problem or concern can turn out to be of vital interest and importance to an academic.  Or vice versa.

The discussions were sometimes short, due mainly to strictly enforced time constraints; they were often spirited and highly participatory, and occasionally they ventured into the contentious, and even into the “who cares?” realm.  Actually, I saw that particular attitude only once during a highly technical interchange on blues notes, half notes, bent notes, and maybe even banknotes, and their transcription under various circumstances.  Most of those in attendance lost track of this interchange between a member of the audience and a speaker about 10 minutes earlier, somewhere around pentatonic scale differences.

It’s a double-edged sword when your schedule is jam-packed with interesting discussions and lectures.  On one hand, it’s great value for cost.  On the other, you hardly have time to digest or question one or two of the speakers before you’re off to the next panel or lsession.

Also with a symposium of this caliber, it’s a tossup sometimes whether the lecture will be academically dry or witty and engaging.  Most were at least interesting, which I think was due to most of the speakers taking into consideration their audience mix.  One thing I did notice was that speakers who’d appeared in front of a crowd like this previously were more engaging and told a joke, or keyed down the academic side of their talk without taking away from it, even those used to lecturing in front of a college class. 

Adam Gussow, for instance, was engaging, funny, and knew many in his class from other symposia, mainly the one held annually at UMiss.  [UMiss has an annual symposium; however, this year theirs was combined with this one.  This symposium was the first blues symposium held at Dominican, and the first UMiss symposium held anywhere other than the UMiss campus in Mississippi.] 

Gussow, however, was also a street musician, which may have given him an unfair edge.  On the other hand, he was part of a duo, “Satan and Adam,” who played the streets of Harlem for several years and who made an appearance in the U2 movie, Rattle and Hum,  and with his partner, Mister Satan, doing just about all the talking.

Gussow’s talk, “Documentary Fakelore: Unmasking the Travel Channel’s Secrets of the Delta Blues,” was one of the most striking to me.  He showed snippets of a Travel Channel “documentary” entitled Secrets of the Delta Blues, and proceeded to dissect these segments, demonstrating where some of the ambiguity, poetic license, exaggeration, and the downright untruths lay in the film. 

Most of these were in the verbiage and sometimes with the choice of film they chose to accompany the verbiage.  They took scholarly comments and ran them before or during footage which was patently not what the speaker was saying, but that was close enough to get past many people.  One of the most egregious was when the narrator was talking about 1920s Delta life, purporting the accompanying film to be demonstrative and authentic.  The problem was, the film clip was from a 1940s reenactment.

Here’s a website where you can catch some of the action in photographs by Bob Kieser.

At this point, I’m not certain if I’m looking forward to, or dreading, the next Dominican symposium.  But I am going, rest assured.

Attendees, subjects and other activities

Subject matter of the various lectures and panels ran the gamut from “Elders Council: Chicago’s Musical Legacy,” through “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Issues of Identity, Aesthetics and Meaning in Black Popular Music,” to “God Rode in the Wind Storm: Sanctified Music, Chicago to the South,” “The Mississippi Blues Trail, “As Blues Tropes Transverse,” “Roles and Responsibilities of Writers who Chronicle the Blues,” “Preserving the Legacy,” “From the Saturday Night Blues … to the Sunday Morning Good News!”, “The History of Gospel Music,” “An Insider/Industry Perspective,” “Perspectives on Blues Education,” and “The Spoken Word in Black Music Cultures from Griots to MCs.” 

The Blues and Gospel music luminaries in attendance were legion. The speakers and organizers included educational personages such as Janice Monti, chair of Dominican’s Sociology department, who organized the whole affair, to professors from Benedictine University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Indiana University, Roosevelt University, Emory University, and Cleveland State University.

There were more journalists in attendance than you could shake a guitar at, including Earl Calloway, Fine Arts editor of the “Chicago Daily Defender,” the last black daily newspaper, and opera singer; Jacques Lacava, also a linguist and author; Salim Muwakkil, editor of “In These Times;” Sandra Pointer-Jones; Marc PoKempner, also an author; Bob Riesman, writer and documentary film producer; and David Whiteis, author, educator and blues critic.

Among the panelists and speakers were:
James Abbington, theologian and musicologist
Carolyn Alexander, outsider artist and videographer
George Bailey, poet, blues and jazz musician
Steve Balkin, professor
Scott Barretta, writer, radio host of “Highway 61” blues show, and former editor of Living Blues Magazine; also, with Jim O’Neal, writer of the text of the ongoing “Mississippi Blues Trail” markers; also a newspaper journalist
Timuel Black, educator and historian, activist, community leader, author
Bob Davis, CEO of “Soul Patrol
Mrs Willie Dixon of Blues Heaven Foundation, widow of blues legend Willie Dixon
Barry Dolins, Director of the Chicago Blues Festival, among the many hats he wears
Nat Dove, founder, Bakersfield Blues Preservation Society; musician, historian, educator
Suzanne Flandreau, head librarian and archivist
Brenda Fuller Willis, blues educator and journalist
Paul Garon, noted blues author and co-founder of Living Blues Magazine
Carole Gunn, independent filmmaker
Adam Gussow, author, street musician, recording artist, and professor at University of Mississippi
Samina Hadi-Tabassum, professor, author
Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records
Bob Jones, songwriter, producer and promoter, historian
Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records, proprietor of the Jazz Record Mart, has produced and sold some of the finest and most memorable blues and jazz music for over 55 years
Bob Marovich, radio host, gospel music historian
Portia Maultsby, professor, composer, pianist, writer
Horace Maxile Jr, professor, musician, scholar
Jim O’Neal, noted blues author and co-founder of Living Blues Magazine, Blues Hall of Fame inductee
Morris Phibbs, music researcher
Sterling Plumpp, professor, poet, author
Shelley Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum
Fannie Rushing, professor and director of Bronzeville tour
Frank Scott, Jr, outsider artist and musician
Donald Shaffer, professor
Stephanie Shonekan, professor, researcher
Gayle Dean Wardlow, noted blues author, researcher and historian; has probably the best collection of Prewar Blues records known to exist
David Whiteis, writer, educator, author
Regennia Williams, professor

Musicians in attendance included:
Frank Scott Jr, octogenarian, one of last of Maxwell Street bluesmen, folk artist
Imago Dei Ministries Community Choir
Larry Taylor and the Taylor Family Band, noted Chicago musician
James Wheeler and friends, Chicago blues legend
Otis Clay with the Platinum Band
Sharon Lewis, and Texas Fire, noted Chicago blues singer, speaker
Billy Branch, musician and educator, founder of Blues in the Schools
Fernando Jones, musician and educator, author, actor
Fruteland Jackson, noted musician and educator, oral historian
Billy Boy Arnold, leading blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter
Stan Mosley, recording artist
*Many of the people listed wore multiple hats

Other activities included:
Tour of Chicago’s Bronzeville, including the Blues Heaven Museum, housed in the former home of Chess Records
Photography exhibit
Saturday night fish fry
Blues Club Crawl

Noteworthy sponsors included:
Koko Taylor Celebrity Aid Foundation
Oak Park Public Library Public Program – The Blues: The Roots of American Music
Maxwell Street Foundation: Blues Season Maxwell Street Film Series
Papa G’s Band Gear Rentals
Rosa’s Lounge

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About Lou Novacheck