Put a Spell on You: Michael Erlewine on the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival



Michael Erlewine and Howlin' Wolf in 1969 and the poster for the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Photo by Stanley Livingston; poster courtesy Michael Erlewine.

During the early folk revival of the pre-Bob Dylan 1960s, music historian and author Michael Erlewine says fans were more interested in finding the most authentic form of the music than the next great songwriter. Conserving a dying art form was the priority at gatherings like the Newport Folk Festival.

So when music heads turned their attention to the electric blues, which was largely ignored on the folk circuit, they had the same impulse. But they soon learned it was misguided.

"We wanted to revive it -- to preserve it, protect it, and save it," Erlewine says. "But to our huge surprise, it wasn't dead. It didn't need reviving. It was just playing across town behind a racial curtain of some kind. To find what we thought was a dying music was very much alive, it was just another whole world for us."

In August 1969, a group of University of Michigan students led by organizers Cary Gordon and John Fishel, brought that world home to Ann Arbor with the first ever Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

As founders of the town's resident blues band, The Prime Movers -- which eventually featured drummer Iggy Pop --
and avid students of Chicago blues, Erlewine and his brother Daniel Erlewine were enlisted to help track down and care for the talent.

And there was so much talent: B.B. King, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Big Mama Thornton, Son House. The list goes on. Nearly 20,000 people are estimated to have witnessed that first-of-its-kind gathering at the Fuller Flatlands near U-M's North Campus.

With another Ann Arbor Blues Festival reboot coming on Saturday, August 19, at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds, it seemed like a good time to check in with Erlewine, who went on to found the All-Music Guide and edit several books on blues and jazz. His 2010 book with photographer Stanley Livingston, Blues in Black and White, is an excellent, loving tribute to the original blues festivals in pictures and prose.

Erlewine talked with us by phone from his home in Big Rapids about the heady days of those early fests, tripping out on Howlin' Wolf's massive voice, and drinking early into the morning with Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Big Mama Thornton.


James Cotton lets loose in an Ann Arbor News photo from a review of the original Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969.

Q: How did you first get involved with the original blues festival?
A: The group that started the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in '69, they hadn't been to Chicago, I don't believe. But we had been to Chicago and seen people like Little Walter and Big Walter and Howlin' Wolf and all these people live. So they turned to us, just because we were the only blues band around, and we knew not only the material but had met many of the artists.

Q: When you say us, you mean The Prime Movers?
A: Yeah, my band. My brother Daniel and I, primarily. He was the lead guitarist and I was the singer and harmonica player. We were totally bonkers on the blues and totally happy to be accessed. We ended up being in charge of taking care of the artists. We saw to it that they got food and also alcohol, so we were really popular.

This was the largest, and still is the largest, group of great blues musicians, especially electric, that ever was assembled. There's never been any group of blues artists larger than those (first) two festivals. The funny thing is, some of them started to arrive in Ann Arbor, for reasons I don't know, like a week before the festival. The university put them up mostly in the Michigan League or in West Quad.

We would go to the League or West Quad, and here were these great incredible people, like Big Mama Thornton or Big Boy Crudup, who is where Elvis' first song came from. I remember one time Dan and I went, and Big Boy Crudup was a huge guy, and he opened the door and there he was, and Daniel just opened his basket and showed him a bottle of Jack Daniels, and Big Boy Crudup just said, "Come on in, boys." We'd spend the whole night drinking whiskey and talking with him. We did the same thing with Big Mama Thornton and many other artists.

They had zero to do. They weren't used to coming. They were never amassed in that quantity ever. Maybe they saw each other at a club. They'd be crisscrossing at gigs, but never like 100 of them or more.

Q: Did you get a feeling there was a novelty to this for them? Were they like, "What is going on here?"
A: It wasn't, "What is going on here?" it was "Oh, is this wonderful." They were celebrating. We were exposing their music to a white audience for them mostly for the first time in quantity. They were amassing, celebrating one another and immensely enjoying being appreciated.

Q: It's hard today to imagine a first-of-its-kind blues festival. Electric blues is so ubiquitous now.
A: Not back then. Nobody thought that much of electric blues because it was not dying out. We concentrated on Chicago blues because they were our neighbors. They also had some of the greatest artists that ever lived. I mean, how much blues do you know?

Q: I know enough to know there are hundreds of names I don't know and never will. I like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam ...
A: If you like Magic Sam, going to see him in person was unbelieveable. His voice would literally raise the hair on the back of your neck. It was just so incredible.

The person who taught Robert Johnson his syncopated style was another blues guitarist named Lonnie Johnson, who was as old or older than Robert. We spent a whole afternoon in Canada interviewing him and hanging out with him.

We got smart early about trying to learn from these people. Not just their music, but what made their music so wonderful. There had to be something in them that made them great musicians. That was as interesting to me as the music itself.

That's how we wound up being in charge of those artists, and I ended up interviewing all of them. First with audio and then with video and audio, and then I went into the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals and did the same thing. The university lost most of my stuff.

Q: The university lost most of your stuff?
A: Yep. There have been a number of historians who have gone down to Ann Arbor in recent years and tried to find it. They've searched and searched. I have written copies of some of it -- stuff that I transcribed. My Howlin' Wolf interview is pretty famous. John Sinclair says that's the finest Howlin' Wolf interview ever made, and I think so, too, because he's talking like an acid trip.

Q: How many hours of tape did you have?
A: I have no idea. Just lots and lots. Remember, I created the All-Music Guide and the All Game Guide. They just opened something in San Francisco a few weeks ago, the largest poster collection in the world, including 30,000 photos I took of posters. So, I'm very, very thorough. It was the same thing with those guys. I didn't care if it was a band member or it was a headliner, to me, they were the grandfather I never had. Their life wisdom was stuff I couldn't get on the street, and I couldn't get in Ann Arbor. When I talked to them, I asked them all kinds of stuff. I wish I did have it. I feel heartbroken.

Q: Did you find any common thread over the course of interviewing all these people?
A: The life wisdom they accrued from the suffering and stuff they had to go through just to survive. A lot of these guys carried guns and knives and, apparently, some of them used them. You weren't going to get that at Ann Arbor High School. We didn't know how it was to really live. I think that's what we learned along with their music, and we also played their music for years.

Q: Were there any noteworthy obstacles or opposition faced by the organizers or were people generally on board?
A: Originally the university organized a little group to have some kind of a music thing, and they wanted to kind of honor the blues, so they were thinking, believe or not, of bringing a U.K. artist, like John Mayall or somebody over. But John Fishel stood up to them and said, "Are you crazy? They're derivative. Why wouldn't you want to hear the sources themselves who are still living and the people who wrote all the songs these guys are covering?"

That's an obstacle he sorted out. Otherwise, we'd have heard just warmed over, U.K., Eric Clapton kind of stuff or Rolling Stones kind of stuff: what I call "reenactment blues." We instead had a festival with all the original artists.

Q: But as far as in the community or with the university, there was no trouble pulling this together as a group of young people staging a first-of-its kind event?
A: Not that I know of. You have to realize that the university, or even the rest of the crew, had no idea what was about to happen. How would they know? They might have heard Josh White or Art Tatum or something like that, but they had no idea what was coming down the pike.

Q: Were you surprised at all by how many people showed up?
A: It was a good crowd. I wasn't surprised. I didn't even think. It was just like, "These are the greatest guys in the world, of course you'd want to hear them." But it didn't occur to me how people would know enough to even want to come hear them. I didn't really think about that, but I probably should have.

Q: Why Ann Arbor? Why didn't this happen in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, New York -- someplace like that?
A: The proper circumstances coalesced and came together and there it was. Why was Woodstock in Woodstock? I just think it was circumstantial. There was no second plan. There was nothing behind it trying to shine through. This was it. This just came together in a period in the world, and we all took advantage of it.

Q: What kind of lasting impact do those first fests have today?
A: First of all, most of the original artists have died. What you're hearing now, no matter how good they are, will never be the equivalent of the original, fresh, Chicago style. What you get now are, no offense, a reenactment of what it was. It's great that people love the blues. But who's going to sing like Muddy Waters? Who's going to sing like Magic Sam? Nobody.

Somewhere in my book, I think I describe what it was like to hear Howlin' Wolf in Chicago late at night one night. Nobody else there, maybe one person. It was just Wolf singing. For a while, I lost all sense of my body. I thought I was on an acid trip way out in the universe somewhere, because his voice -- you have to realize when these guys get in a groove, your and my sense of time is taken over by their sense of time, and they take us to places we've never been and will never get to and don't want to get to even.

Your sense of time would kind of fold into their sense of time, at least for the moment. That's what it was like.

There was no time in my life exactly like that one. Everything came together. Like a flower that blooms. We have a plant here called a night blooming cereus. It's a foot-long flower. It blooms for one night, then boom. It's gone in the morning. Those festivals were like that.

Ann Arbor News coverage of the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
Memories of the 1969 fest by Jim Fishel, co-organizer of the original event.
➥ Cary Gordon, co-organizer of the original festival, shared his memories in the Ann Arbor News in 1992.
Bob Franck's photos from the 1969 festival.
The Michigan Daily's coverage of the 1969 fest.
➥ The Ann Arbor Chronicle's Alan Glenn recalled the 1969 festival in a 2009 column.
➥ Resurrected: James Partridge on the 2017 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
➥ Slow Burner: Alabama Slim at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival is from 1-11 pm Saturday, August 19, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Fairgrounds, 5055 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, in Ann Arbor. Advance tickets are $35 ($17.50 for kids age 13-18, free for kids 12 and younger). For tickets and more info, visit a2bluesfestival.com.