u.s. blues in europe

Something magical happened to the music scene in Europe in the early 1960s, when German music producers Lippman and Rau contacted Willie Dixon, a mainstay of the Chicago blues scene, about setting up a blues festival in Europe that would bring the great American bluesmen to the Continent. Many such players had never been outside the United States, so they leaped at the opportunity. The American Folk Blues Festival, which started in Great Britain, turned out to be a rousing success and gave American Southern blues a lot of publicity there and on the Continent proper. The festival continued annually from 1962 to 1972, took an eight-year hiatus, returning in 1980. It finally ended in 1985, but had prompted the establishment of other blues festivals like it in many European countries that have continued until the present day. Few people realize that 70% of all traditional blues recordings are still sold in Europe.

Why was this particular festival so important? Because the British public was given direct access to the sound and feeling of the blues culture of the southern United States, which prompted fledgling British rock bands of that time to adopt or incorporate the blues into their musical styles. “The concerts featured some of the leading blues artists of the 1960s, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson, some playing in unique combinations such as T-bone Walker playing guitar for pianist Memphis Slim, Otis Rush with Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson with Muddy Waters,” explains Wikipedia. “The audience at Manchester in 1962, the first venue for the festival in Britain, included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones [all from The Rolling Stones formed in the same year] and Jimmy Page [lead guitarist and founder of Led Zeppelin in 1968]. Subsequent attendees at the first London festivals are believed to have also included such influential musicians as Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Collectively these were the primary movers in the blues explosion that would lead to the British Invasion.”

It may have been like selling old wine in new bottles, but it worked musically. The British invaders, led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, practically took over the American music charts during the 1960s, stealing the limelight from American pop performers like Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Only a few American performers, like Elvis Presley and the black R&B singers of Motown, managed to buck the trend. Elvis had managed to merge black music sounds into his new Rockabilly style and the American teenage rock and roll lovers were developing an unquenchable thirst for black music, especially the blues.     

“The musical style of British Invasion artists, such as the Beatles, had been influenced by earlier US rock ‘n’ roll, a genre which had lost some popularity and appeal by the time of the Invasion. However, a subsequent handful of white British performers, particularly the Rolling Stones and The Animals, would appeal to a more ‘outsider’ demographic, essentially reviving and popularizing, for young people at least, a musical genre rooted in the blues, rhythm, and black culture, which had been largely ignored or rejected when performed by black US artists in the 1950s,” claims Wikipedia.

Not all American singers were ignoring the black blues performers of old, however. As American rocker Pat Nugent (famous for “Cat Scratch Fever”) once put it: “Way before the British Invasion, I was tuned into the black guys that created the British Invasion. Without Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the Motown hits, there would be no Beatles.”

Fast forward to 2011, when something truly wondrous happened to the blues in Europe. “In 2011, various blues organizations from around the continent founded the European Blues Union and simultaneously created the annual European Blues Challenge. Regional or national blues associations, like the Baltic Blues Society and France Blues, hold annual competitions modeled on the International Blues Challenge held in Memphis, Tennessee, and send their local winners to the European event. Sixteen countries competed in the first challenge, a live-music competition held in Berlin. The fifth competition was held in March 2015 in Brussels and featured representatives from at least 20 countries,” explained European writer Amien Essif.

Indeed, Germany seems to be the main engine for blues activity and recording sales in Europe. It is home to Bear Family Records and its huge collection of blues recordings and other paraphernalia concerning the American blues and other musical genres. Formed in 1975, it is the gold standard for the reissuing of classic blues recordings and is a large contributor to the sale of blues recordings worldwide. The label issues lavishly designed box sets of blues and other American roots music, with book-length liner notes.

Some American blues critics might question whether European listeners can really understand the feelings inherent in traditional American blues songs. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Scalawag magazine quotes black American blues promoter in Germany Ed Davis: “Here’s a German guy singing about ‘down home’ in America, but in reality ‘down home’ for him would be in Bavaria or someplace, you know? But that shows the influence the music has on people. Because you can go anywhere you want in Europe—anywhere—and you’re going to find a hundred blues bands.”

Sonny Boy Williamson performs “Keep It to Yourself”

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