“No one can tell you why Memphis is as magical as it really is,” said artist and washboard player Jimmy Crosthwait when I interviewed him for The Blues Society, my documentary film-in-progress about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of the late 1960s. He wasn’t talking only about the magic of a beautiful sunset, a joint, and the sound of the blues, all of which were in profound profusion at the festivals. He was remembering something more elemental, what one of the organizers, the irrepressible Randall Lyon, called the eroico furore, or poetic fury: “It was beautiful to be involved with people who had this heroic enthusiasm for what they were doing.” The Memphis Country Blues Festivals, held yearly from 1966 to 1969, changed the way Memphians—and Americans—think about the blues, and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Daddy’s truck was one of those places—like a grandmother’s house, a real and actual soul food restaurant, or a barbershop owned by an older black man who guards the radio by silent threat of the revolver in his drawer next to the good clippers—where one could reliably expect to hear either (and only) 1070 WDIA or 1340 WLOK. It was the other side of sound, the other side of Southern blackness, a steady if muffled undercurrent that persisted and quietly buoyed new generations.
When I was a kid in 1970s Memphis, limousines were a rare sight, though two would occasionally appear in traffic. From the backseat of our family station wagon, we’d scream for Mother to pull up closer. We’d know whose it was by the license plate. Elvis Presley’s was not customized. Isaac Hayes’s read MOSES, referring to his nickname, Black Moses. He was leading people to the Promised Land.
In the early 1960s, the Staple Singers marched with their gospel rhythms and church-house fervor into the arena of civil rights–inspired folksong. Some saw this as a straying from the one true way, a betrayal even. For the Staples, it was a seamless progression, a greater embracing of all creation. And so it was that a like-minded admirer came by one day to introduce them to a scruffy young songwriter from northern Minnesota.
The Memphis Country Blues Festival had a shoestring start in 1966, organized by the Memphis Country Blues Society, an ad hoc group consisting of counterculture figures, musicians, and fans, including Robert Palmer, who would go on to write the seminal book Deep Blues. His daughter, Augusta Palmer, a Brooklyn filmmaker, is seeking to tell the story of the festival in a documentary called The Blues Society.
This month, Omnivore Recordings reissued a forgotten Memphis classic, a kind of conceptual compilation called Beale Street Saturday Night, produced by Jim Dickinson in 1979. To celebrate the rerelease of this masterpiece, the Oxford American is pleased to present Dickinson’s “The Search for Blind Lemon,” from our 2013 Tennessee Music Issue.