These days the Blues is pretty much universally acknowledged as integral to the world’s music DNA. Even ad men get it.
But 50 years ago, when a bunch of English white kids with names like Clapton, Jagger, Jones and Page first fell in love with the music they were going to remodel with such vast success, it was not only wildly exciting but also seemed unattainably exotic. So when a couple of European promoters, influenced by the earlier efforts of British jazz-band leader Chris Barber, started packaging American blues stars like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim into The American Folk, Blues and Gospel Festival/Caravan tours in the early 60s, it was veritable manna from heaven for these young acolytes. They were drawn from across the country to venues like Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (the destination one year, so legend has it, of a scruffy van from London bearing Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Jimmy Page to pledge lifelong allegiance to their heroes).
Meanwhile, back in their homeland even the peerless likes of Waters and Hooker had fallen on harder times so the idea of playing sold-out, unsegregated shows for these European enthusiasts seemed like a pretty good one, even if nobody then could have been expected to anticipate the way so many of these skinny kids would soon be re-selling America’s heritage back to its own kids with such astonishing success.
Perhaps the most legendary of these tours, though, was 1964’s line-up of Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis and Cousin Joe Pleasant, largely because it was filmed by Johnnie Hamp for Manchester-based Granada TV. The historic Blues And Gospel Train programme subsequently played to many millions and was indisputably instrumental in helping to bring the Blues to the mainstream. And 1964 – surely not coincidentally – was the only year in the history of the British pop charts when two Blues tunes – The Rolling Stones’s Little Red Rooster and The Animals’s House Of The Rising Sun – reached number one.
Meanwhile, back in Manchester, Hamp and his Granada colleagues, as well as tour manager Joe Boyd (himself to soon take on somewhat legendary status as producer/mentor to the likes of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention) laid plans to film most of the Caravan participants on May 7, the day before their Free Trade Hall show. They transformed the disused Wilbraham Road railway station in Chorlton into ‘Chorltonville’, dressed to look like (at least their idea of) a rail station somewhere in the Southern States of America, complete with goats and cotton bales. The idea was that the performers plus some lucky members of the audience would travel to Chorltonville on an appropriately-bedecked train from Central Station, while other audience members (“mostly University students – there was hardly a black face there,” recalled Hamp later) got to sit on the opposite platform, just feet away from majestic performances from Cousin Joe, as well as Sonnie and Terry and the regal, magnetic Muddy. Especially electrifying was Sister Rosetta Tharpe who arrived on stage in a pony and trap before belting out an astonishing and unrehearsed version of Didn’t It Rain? after the heavens had opened a few minutes before. The Revd. Gary Davis didn’t appear because, according to Hamp, “he’d drunk too much”. This wasn’t quite the whole truth.
At least that’s what ‘cultural historian’ and all-round top cat CP Lee assures me with undisguised glee some 50 years later as we head down to Dulcimer in Chorlton for a 50th Anniversary celebration of the Blues And Gospel Train. “Actually he was so drunk he’d shat his pants and that’s why they wouldn’t let him off the coach to play,” CP whoops.
Such hilariously scabrous revelations were just one aspect, though, of the several days of marvelously maverick, delightfully DIY celebrations of this historic show.
Some months ago, ‘an eclectic collective’ (as they call themselves) of Manchester-based artists, musicians, DJs and VJs, including Joanna Huddart, Costel Harnasz and Phil Busby, began talking about creating a whole day of celebrations on May 3 – the actual date on which the Caravan had played its London show at the Hammersmith Odeon but, conveniently for their purposes, a Saturday as their initial plans included an afternoon visit to the site of the original 1964 show, now part of the Fallowfield Loop urban cycle way to ‘share songs, food and reminiscences’. Then, in the evening, the Carlton Club in Whalley Range would host ‘an evening of Performance Art; Live Blues; Film; Gospel Choir; West African drumming and Acid Blues’.
As it turned out, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, the site wasn’t sufficiently accessible in the afternoon so attention shifted to the evening’s activities. But there was no need for disappointment as this turned out to be a splendidly convivial (and completely sold-out) affair, which somehow managed both to honour and celebrate the events of five decades ago while keeping a clear and steady (at least earlier on in the evening) eye on the future, with community involvement appropriately high on the agenda.
After an opening from performance artist Naomi Kashiwagi/Gramophonica, which was interesting but invisible to a fair number of the crowd, The Blues Collective (including Jo Huddart herself on vocals) took to the stage with a set righteously inspired by Sister Rosetta and the others, while another of the organisers, Phil Busby, shone darkly with his “cutting edge music from way back when” celebration of the Blues Morganfield, interestingly including not only his own acoustic Blues and Folk picking but also bass from Keith Derbyshire, a member of Factory Records’s Crispy Ambulance, and spooky beats from DJ/Producer Paul Needham. With a startling, uplifting appearance from a large part of the Manchester Sing Out Choir, originally formed for the 2005 launch of the Manchester International Festival, and a high-energy show from all-female West African drumming band Wangari, this really was community involvement at its most creative. This bodes well for their plans to expand this to a two-day festival next year.
A few days later, actually on the 50th Anniversary date of May 7, the good folk of the Chorlton Arts Festival took their own stab at capturing some of the magic with their Blues & Gospel Tram and the aforementioned Afterparty, trailing their ten-day festival opening this weekend (see www.chorltonartsfestival.com) and picking up on an idea from Barbakan manager Victor Hyman who had realised that he didn’t have the time to make it a reality.
Thus it came to pass that a number of people – easily enough to fill a couple of Metrolink carriages to breaking point – found themselves waiting in the not-inappropriate but hardly joy-inducing pissing rain for the 7.38pm tram to Chorlton, redesignated The Blues And Gospel Tram for the occasion by a co-operative Metrolink. Onboard, we were promised, the omnipresent CP Lee would regale us with stirring tales of the TV show and its participants while live blues was also played. And that’s pretty much what happened, although personally I thought a noticeably drier-than-the-rest-of-us CP took a bit of a chance, obstructing the opening carriage door to render his unique version of Didn’t It Rain? as the sodden mob surged past him. With another choir to greet the tram at Chorlton, plus the film screening upstairs at Dulcimer once we’d actually managed to get there after a herding of the cats-style journey and yet more music (once again featuring Phil Busby at one point but solo this time), it was all hugely entertaining, a bit crazy and, in its own strange way, very Mancunian.
Quite by chance, I bumped into CP and the lovely Pam (whose film of the events, including the odd glimpse of your humble narrator, you can find on YouTube) a couple of nights later at The Handsome Family show at Gorilla in Manchester. After we’d watched in some wonder as a well-funded punter bought not one but two complete sets of Handsome Family merchandise plus everything he could find related to the not-that-exciting support act, the Dylan expert leaned over to ask me “Did you realise that Wednesday night also marked exactly 49 years since the ‘Judas’ incident at the Free Trade Hall?” Now there’s an idea for this time next year…