Jews Blues

A graduate student from the University of Texas contacted me the other day to talk about the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. The student is doing the research, and I’m the informant / source / old guy.

Backstage, August 1969: The harmonica player carried a leather pouch first-aid kit. She called the set-up a Kentucky saxophone. It contained shot glasses and whiskey.

Three days of peace and 12-bar blues.

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

“Got My Mojo Working.” How many times can you listen to that? A lot. The festival was three days of just blues. Big Mama Thornton was the booze-packing harp player.

We — the student organizers of the festival — were Jewish. Four of the five organizers were Jewish. The event was produced by the University of Michigan’s student activities center and Canterbury House, the local Hillel for Episcopalians.

We were up against the Atlantic City Pop Festival that weekend: Janis Joplin, Santana, Jefferson Airplane.

We didn’t care about pop music. We were blues freaks. Old, black and blues — those were our watchwords. Embodied by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Son House, Big Mama Thornton.

There had been gate-crashing at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier in the summer, and a mini riot at a festival in California. The University of Michigan president suggested we hold our event in the football stadium. What, on Tartan Turf?

We wound up in a grassy field by North Campus. About 15,000 people showed up.

Pianist Otis Spann, the master, played boogie woogie. I never did talk to him, even though I was backstage a lot. What was I going to say? The man was old, and I was too shy to talk to anybody over 21.

I first heard the “changes” on Otis Spann’s piano playing. The “chord changes” — the I/ IV/V chord progression of the blues.

“Spann’s Boogie,” the tune, was simple. It was like skeletonized jazz. I couldn’t miss the left-hand boogie woogie arpeggios (runs) and chords.

I aspired to be like Spann and the other old guys: authentic musicians who answered yes to “Do you got the feeling?”

Let me hear you, do you got the feeling?

That exhortation auto-repeated at the festival about every 15 minutes, just like the college bell tower.

Spann had the feeling. He was 39.

He died the next year.

My response to that — worked out over the next several decades — was to learn the Jewish blues (klezmer) and slug seltzer. Took me way past 40. Klezmer and seltzer: both are fizzy and both cut right through the glop. Seltzer, oh boy.

As Alan Sherman said:
“Bring me one scotch and soda.
Then you’ll take back the scotch, boy.
And leave the 2 cents plain.”

About the Author
Bert Stratton is a musician and landlord in Cleveland, Ohio. He is an occasional contributor to the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer and City Journal. Byliner chose his essay "The Landlord's Tale" as one of the best magazine articles of 2012. He blogs at "Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate."