The 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival is now 3 days -- just like the first one in 1969


Ann Arbor Blues Festival 2018 logo and banner

There ain’t nothin' like the blues.

Perhaps that is why in 1969, a group of University of Michigan students created a gathering in an open field on the banks of the Huron River to listen to some blues from the likes of Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters.

They created not only the first blues festival in Michigan but the first electric blues festival ever.

The inaugural Ann Arbor Blues Festival took place August 1-3, 1969, just a few weeks before another festival took place on a farm in a little town named Bethel. While the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was overshadowed by Woodstock, fans of the blues undoubtedly consider it far more important. Writing in #DownBeat# magazine, Dan Morgenstern called the A2 blues fest the festival of the year, “if not the decade.”

After the commercial, critical, and artistic success of the first event, organizers were eager for the next show. While the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival garnered much attention and positive press, it lost enough money that the university did not grant a request for funding for a third event.

Around that time, activist John Sinclair got out of prison and was looking for a project; fortunately, he found the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Sinclair, along with local music promoter Peter Andrews, put together a festival that included such big names as Count Basie, Dr. John, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Bonnie Raitt.

The festival continued in 1972 -- documented by Atlantic Records on a double live album -- and for two years after. While the events attracted tens of thousands of fans and much critical acclaim, they proved to be financial disappointments and the festival was put on pause. In 1992, the festival was revitalized and continued until 2006. Again, financial issues proved a hindrance to future events. 

That might have been the end of the fest if not for a local group of blues enthusiasts, including James Partridge, who resurrected the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 2017.

“Ann Arbor changed history when it put on the first electric blues festival," Partridge says, "and they did more than just change the blues that we listen to today. [Those first festivals] influenced blues, jazz, rock, country, and even hip-hop. We wanted to honor that spirit and bring it back to Ann Arbor.”

After last year's successful one-day event, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival makes a return to its three-day roots: August 17-18 at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds and August 19 at The Blind Pig. The lineup features Ana Popovic, Shemekia Copeland, Benny Turner, Sue Foley, Janiva Magness, Don Was, John Sinclair, and Bob Margolin. 

"Since I heard from James Partridge that the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was back and wanted me to play, I was thrilled," Margolin says. "I remember reading about the festival in #Rolling Stone# in the early '70s. It was two years before I joined Muddy Waters’ band and thought, ‘I wish I was on that show!’ This year’s Ann Arbor Blues Festival completes a big circle of fulfillment for me. I will try to bring both my own music, jamming with others on the Friday night show, and bringing some of Muddy’s spirit to Ann Arbor so many years later. I’ll prove it on the bandstand!" 

Partridge echoes the enthusiasm: “The lineup is outstanding. These artists have received countless awards and honors in their careers. Everyone who attends will be part of something incredible.”

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.

The 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival takes place at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds on Friday, August 17 & Saturday, August 18 and at The Blind Pig on Sunday, August 19. Tickets can be purchased at