The blues, caught in photographs

book-cover-blues-in-bwIn the interest of honesty, I’ll be forthright and explain that I’m not a big fan of photography collections. Inevitably, there are shots that are included more for their historical value than artisitic value, especially in the case of music photography. The accompanying text is also usually of the “you should have been there” variety, explaining that the photos are in no way a substitute for the actual event itself.

Blues In Black & White: The Landmark Ann Arbor Blues Festivals As Photographed By Stanley Livingston has none of those issues. The Ann Arbor Blues Festivals took place in 1969 and 1970, and for the price of $14 for three days, you could’ve seen Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, BB King, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, JB Hutto & the Hawks, Big Joe Turner, Willie Dixon, Clifton Chenier…and more. It was one of the first, if not the first electric blues festival, and Stanley Livingston captured performances from all of the performers in gloriously crisp, clear, electric blabk and white. These photos have a vibrancy to them to where you can look at one of them and hear the music issuing forth from the page.

The introduction and text by Michael Erlewine (who was there and went on to found Allmusic), eschews the “you had to be there” aesthetic, but rather makes you wish you had been there. There’s a sense of joy and happiness that runs through Blues In Black & White. As you read, you can sense how lucky and thankful the festival organizers felt at being able to attract so many artists to the festival. As Erlewine states in his introduction, 90% of the artists who performed are now gone.

The introduction also honestly looks at how the discovery of electric blues by white folks took it out of the black neighborhoods, and changed the artists’ audience. Many of these artists had their careers extended and made money for the first time in their lives thanks to the white acceptance of blues. There was a very definite attempt by the festival organizers to make sure that there was no exploitation taking place, and that’s made very clear in the book, but Erlewine does note that:

We were perhaps guilty of ascribing to the blues something outside of our own experience and longing to know what the experience meant.

That is perhaps the most honest, legitimate assessment of white folks’ blues appreciation I’ve ever read.

The book is out now via the University of Michigan Press.