Thursday, May 19, 2022

Music in The Out of Doors




   (I am still thinking about, reading about, listening to music from, and reveling in the memories of my time at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was an absolutely wonderful weekend, and I am still aglow from it. In addition to the sheer power and beauty of the music I heard that weekend, I am also thinking about how good it felt to be outside in a group and at a real live in-person music festival. I had almost forgotten what that feels like. The Dukes did do the Chestnut Hill Fall for the Arts Fest last year, and that was wonderful. But this was the first Jazz and Heritage Fest in two years, and the collective joy of everyone in that huge crowd at finally being back at the Fest was palpable. To me, one of the true joys of late May into the summer has always been playing and hearing music outside in a festival format; it has been that way for me for years. So I went back and found a piece I had written several years ago about my love for the power of music played and enjoyed outside. Jazz Fest brought that back to me in a big way, so I updated the piece. ) 

  If you look at the schedules of many bands and groups of just about any genre for the next three months, you will see that there is a return to the days of summer concerts in local parks, festivals, and street and block parties. The Dukes will be playing The Narberth Arts and Music Festival on June 12 and The Falls Township and Kahn Park Summer Series on August 14th and 17th respectively. The Two Johns will be at Le Fete de La Musique on June 21st in West Chester. These are all outdoor gigs, and I love playing these gigs. One joy is that  the crowds and venues are bigger; more folks, generally means a good and excited audience. But I also love them because they put me back in touch with the types of gigs that first awakened me to the joy and power of playing music. As a young teen, watching the way live music outdoors could bring a crowd of people together produced a feeling of awe that has never quite gone away. And each summer I get a chance to re-live that. 

   I started playing in the late 1960’s, and those were the days of the “Be-Ins"-outdoor festivals of music, politics, and good spirited nuttiness that were held at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park and in Powelton Village. There amidst the pot smoke, Frisbee throwing, and political organizing I heard Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth and The Electric Flag and even played at a couple of them with Sweet Stavin’ Chain. It was all exhilarating. The joy and power of a group of people outdoors listening and dancing to the same music made quite an impression. I also attended several Philadelphia Folk Festivals, the longest continuously running outdoor music festival in the United States.  I went to my first one in 1966, and I got to see John Hurt, Tom Rush, Buddy Guy and Jr Wells, and more. I was amazed at how they could get hundreds of people-all ages and types of people- singing along, dancing, swaying back and forth in rhythm, and feeling like we were all one. There was a sense of joy and freedom and togetherness in those gatherings that I still cherish. 

   Then in 1969 I had one of the defining experiences of my musical life. I hitchhiked with a friend from Philadelphia all the way to Michigan for the first Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. While other friends of were making plans to go to some place a few weeks later called Woodstock, Bill and I made our way over the course of two days to Ann Arbor. There I had the amazing experience of seeing Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Son House, Magic Sam, Yank Rachel, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Sleepy John Estes, T-Bone Walker, Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell, Big Mama Thornton, Jonny Shines, Charlie Musselwhite, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and more all over the course of one weekend with thousands of people. All in one weekend! Wow!  I was hooked on festivals and outdoor music from then on. 

   As I have aged and been playing for a while, I am, of course, aware of some of the difficulties of outdoor music. Guitars can have a harder time staying in tune, sound systems can be difficult, and every now and then crowds can  become unruly. Despite those things, I still love outdoor music events. I love looking out and seeing people spontaneously dancing and swaying together, just as they did at those folk festivals and Be-ins I attended so long ago. I love it when a whole group of people starts singing along and clapping together. And I especially love watching kids getting into it as they realize that music is something that real live human beings do-that it is made by folks who sweat, make mistakes, laugh, and can see and wave at them. I like to connect, if only for a moment, with young kids when playing these events; to smile at them and do some dance steps with them. Because for that moment nothing else in the world maters except the music and that shared feeling. That moment and that excitement. And just like that, I am a teenager again, feeling the pure joy and wonder of music outdoors with hundreds of people. It still feels great.    

So I hope you get to a lot of festivals and concerts in the great outdoors this summer and get to experience some of what I got to experience in New Orleans two weeks ago. Regardless of where and with whom, being at such events can be magical and transformative. I urge you to get out the house, away from the MP3 player and/or the stereo and the binge TV watching, and go catch some real live music. You and your spirit will definitely be glad you did.  

(Here is a link to a recording of the historic first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969: