Goodbye Newport Blues - The 44 Blues-Butch Cage and Willie Thomas

Newport Jazz Festival (Newport, RI), 07/03/1960

Music Audio Goodbye Newport Blues
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For its afternoon lecture/demonstration program at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, promoter George Wein gathered some of the prominent names in blues music, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Rushing, each representing a different aspect of this quintessentially American roots music. Narrator Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as well as a witness and chronicler of the Jazz Age, provided insightful commentary for the assembled Newport crowd, along with Dr. Harry Oster. Both esteemed authorities preside over an entertaining and enlightening Sunday afternoon program at Freebody Park.

To begin the program, Mississippi-born McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) demonstrates his signature blend of country blues from the Mississippi Delta and urban blues from Chicago in a series of tunes he performs with his working band, which consists of pianist Otis Spann, guitarist Tal Harris, harmonica ace James Cotton, bassist Andrew Stevens and drummer Francis Clay. They open with Muddy's gutbucket "Catfish Blues," a electrified Delta tune alternately known as "Rollin' Stone" (cited by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as the tune they named their band after). Pianist Spann then demonstrates three different kinds of blues -- boogie woogie style, a slow blues and a jump blues -- accompanied by the members of Muddy's band.

After reflecting on numerous blues composers who enriched the music with their contributions, Hughes then focuses the audience's attention on blues pioneer W.C. Handy, whose 1920 composition "St. Louis Blues" jump-started a musical movement in America. Hughes' personal anecdotes about Handy are particularly illuminating while Spann demonstrates Handy's classic tune with his typical flair on piano, alluding to a slight tango influence in the head of the tune before opening up to the looser shuffle groove in the middle section.

Following a demonstration of 'blues dancing' by Al Mims and Leon James, Hughes introduces bluesman John Lee Hooker, described as "one of the last of the real country blues singers." Hooker runs through a string of Delta flavored tunes including "It's My Own Fault, "Molly I Miss You So," "Tupelo" and "I Wish You Were Here." Langston Hughes returns to introduce pianist Sammy Price and his trio. They open with the spirited boogie woogie number "The Price is Right" and then Price introduces guitarist Lafayette Thomas, who sing the deep blue anthem by Guitar Slim, "The Things That I Used To Do." Gospel vocalist Betty Jeanette then come front and center on a smoldering rendition of "The Birth of the Blues" and a soulful version of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

Folklorist Harry Oster then introduces fiddler Butch Cage and guitarist Willie Thomas, two musicians he had discovered playing at dances and church services in Zachary, Louisiana and documented on a 1959 Arhoolie Record. They turn in such traditional blues numbers as "The 44 Blues" and "The Hard Archin' Blues" as well as emotionally-charged spiritual offerings like "Pick Up the Slack and Hew the Line," "He's Got the Whole in His Hand" and "Trying to Get the Children Out of Pharoah's Hand." For a grand finale, the entire cast of this blues afternoon assembles on stage for renditions of of the slow blues "Mean Mistreater" and a raucous rendition of "I May Be Wrong But I Won't Be Wrong Always" with former Count Basie vocalist Jimmy Rushing taking the lead.

Willis Connover, Newport Jazz Festival emcee and radio host for Voice of America in Europe, then closes the proceedings on a somber note, announcing that the board of directions of the Newport Jazz Festival had voted to accept the decision of the city council of Newport to suspend activities of the Newport Jazz Festival, beginning with the evening concert on July 3. "In other words, there will be no concert tonight or…again," he told the stunned audience. This decision was made following a clash with students and police the preceeding night (Saturday) that by all reports escalated into a full-scale riot. And while this disturbance took place not at Freebody Park where the festival was held but on the main drag in the city of Newport, council members nonetheless met on Sunday morning and voted 4-3 in favor of revoking the entertainment license of the Newport Jazz Festival. As Connover explained to the Sunday afternoon crowd: "The board of directors deeply regret that the true jazz lovers were denied the opportunity to hear their favorite jazz musicians, due entirely to non-ticket holding outside the park." He added, "I think it's a shame that the Newport Jazz Festival has to be killed because a bunch of pseudo beatniks and rock 'n' roll escapees who had no interest in jazz, had no intention of coming to the concerts and were not inside the park at all, decided to use the Newport Jazz Festival weekend and the City of Newport as an excuse for giving vent to their healthy animal instincts in such a fashion as to qualify them for admission to a zoo rather than a school." Connover adds, "It does seem to me that in attempting to cure the disease that infected the Newport Jazz Festival activities, they decided to shoot the patient without clearing up the germs."

After a year on the shelf, George Wein would convince the city council of Newport to reinstate the festival for 1962.