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.