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“The Blues Society” (Cultural Animal) [Documentary Review]

Dr. Augusta Palmer’s new Blues-focused documentary, ‘The Blues Society,’ is a brilliant look into the history of Memphis Blues music.

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"The Blues Society" (Cultural Animal) artwork
"The Blues Society" (Cultural Animal) artwork

Dr. Augusta Palmer’s new documentary, The Blues Society, is a much more powerful piece of filmmaking than your typical music documentary.

The film opens with the legend (scrawled onto the casing of a pink cassette tape): “This is a moving image mixtape about a 1960s Blues Festival held in Memphis, TN.” (Tape flips) “Not everyone sees these events the same way.

Reflecting on the Memphis Blues Festival, which ran from 1966 to the end of that most colourful decade, this is a story that needs to be told. This was the most unique of events that frames the political landscape of the late 1960s as much as the likes of other era-defining gatherings, Monterey and Woodstock, perhaps even more.

Essentially, this was a Blues festival featuring long-lost original bluesmen, pulled back into the limelight by a group of white counter-culturalists in a part of America not known for its racial harmony.

The film begins with an overview of the Blues in Memphis (home of the father of the Blues, W.C. Handy) at a time when Black folks were largely being shunned and segregated. Amongst the harrowing scenes of segregation are beautiful moving images of black communities celebrating and coming together in the warmth of the Blues. Radio broadcaster Henry Nelson states: “It (the Blues) was a very private thing… It belonged to Black people… I think the Blues comes from impossible situations.”

It appears that things started to move when John McIntyre opened a shopfront Blues venue called The Bitter Lemon. He used this as a platform to reintroduce the brilliant but long-forgotten Blues artist Furry Lewis to the Memphis locals.

It wasn’t long before a band of friends, intent on reviving the Blues and presenting it to a multi-racial audience, formed. Those would include Bob Palmer and his wife Mary (parents to the director), Nancy Jeffries, and Bill Barth.

The first festival happened on July 30th, 1966, at Overton Park Shell (looking very much like a Southern Hollywood Bowl). Furry Lewis would be joined by Fred McDowell, Rev. Robert Wilkins, and Joe Callicot, artists who most of the audience would never have been aware of until now, even though they were vitally important components in the history and legacy of American music.

Dr, Augusta Palmer, photo by Paul Reuter

Dr, Augusta Palmer, photo by Paul Reuter

Studio manager Mary Lindsay Dickinson sums it up:

“I realized what was happening here was very important, these men were geniuses, they were American heroes. In more advanced societies they would be worshipped as shamans.”

The severity of the landscape is highlighted by the fact that only nights before the first event, the same venue was host to a vast Ku Klux Klan meeting. This was the community that surrounded the Overton Shell. The organizers were taking on a brave task, but it worked.

Footage shows not just Black locals but White folks, hippies that have travelled far and wide and also servicemen. Vietnam was happening and was a prime target for the counterculture who were organizing the event. But these sailors and soldiers were more than welcome. This was an event for all.

The opening statement of not everyone seeing these events the same way becomes clear when we see the assassination of Martin Luther King on Memphis soil in April 1968 and the rise of The Black Panthers. Blues music was superseded by more militant (funk and soul) anthems and became, in the words of Screenwriter Jamey Hatley, “sad” and “poor.” “I felt that I needed to be separate.” There was for some a sense of embarrassment of the Blues.

The festival did, however, plough on.

The Blues Society movie still

The Blues Society movie still

There are some interesting stories that emerge throughout The Blues Society that serve to highlight the ongoing struggle between White and Black musicians, a conflict that the festival organizers were keen to quell. When the song “Prodigal Son” appeared on The Rolling StonesBeggars Banquet album in 1968, it was sold as a Jagger/Richards composition. As Rev. John Wilkins tells us, this was a song composed by his father, Robert. As a gesture of goodwill, The Stones agreed to play a gig in Memphis at a union rate of “around 50 dollars,” but local authorities turned them down.

The argument here of white musicians and managers “owning” black music and both parties locking horns is a seam that runs deep through this documentary and is arguably the reason for the festival’s demise after the 1969 show.

There’s another story about the team tracking down Nathan Beauregard, the blind Blues artist who was known as “The world’s oldest living blues singer.” The legend was far more interesting than the reality with Beauregard being around 70 and just looking older than he was. There is a suggestion here that this fable was created to make the artist more exotic and intriguing for White audiences, taking away the importance of his actual work.

The Blues Society movie still

The Blues Society movie still

Snapshots that really do hammer home the racial situation of those times include Marcia Hare, another white organizer, sitting astride Booker T. White on stage, sheltering him from the baking heat beneath a large black and white golf umbrella. The commentary makes a point of this juxtaposition as being the opposite of what was expected then.

Another defining moment of the festival’s demise is captured on the night of a performance by the White Bluesman Johnny Winter. Over 2,000 of his fans crept in without paying. Mary Palmer takes to the stage to implore the dominantly White audience to donate money for the other (Black) artists who have also provided their entertainment at the event. The incident highlights that perhaps not everybody entered into the original spirit of the festival and showed sadly how this was the way it was.

The only valid criticism of the film is the short running time of 75 minutes. I feel more extended festival footage would have been a welcome addition rather than short snippets between dialogue.

In an age of mammoth corporate programmes, The Blues Society is an essential reminder of what festivals should be and the power behind staged events.

Director/Producer: Dr. Augusta Palmer
Starring: Eric Roberts as the voice of Bob Palmer
Production Company: Cultural Animal
Distributed by: Freestyle Digital Media
Release Date: July 9th, 2024
Run Time: 75 minutes

"The Blues Society" (Cultural Animal) documentary artwork

“The Blues Society” (Cultural Animal) documentary artwork

Del Pike is a University lecturer in Film and Media in Liverpool (UK). He writes film, music, art, literature and culture articles and reviews for a number of websites. Del loves nothing more than snuggling down in a dark cinema, getting sweaty at  a live gig or drifting off late at night to a good book. He loves cats. He enjoys promoting new talent online so please say hi if you have something to show.

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