March 26 2009 12:00 AM

Photographer shares scenes, stories of American music


While a cafeteria full of teens smacked on cafeteria food and bag lunches in the mid-afternoon a couple of weeks back, an elite group of blues music legends watched on, seemingly unnoticed and undisturbed by it. Guess that’s always been the blues’ style, but it still seemed odd trekking up to that sweaty, secondfloor mess hall to see the work of photographer and public radio broadcaster Robert Barclay, a guy who has spent most of his adult life documenting and promoting the blues through his
photos and his weekly “Juke Joint” radio program on WCMU out of Mount Pleasant.

A professional photographer for Central Michigan University by day, Barclay estimates he’s photographed thousands of musicians, amassing more than 100,000 negatives before going digital in 2002. His exhibit at Lansing Community College includes about 25 photos of famous bandleaders and solo acts, like Albert Collins and Johnny Shines, as well as lesser known personalities and sideman.

“Musicians were one of the reasons I picked up a camera,” Barclay said. “I was in high school when Rolling Stone magazine came out.”

The new magazine, and the work of chief photographer Annie Leibovitz in particular, was a watershed for the young rock fan, especially when compared to the cutesy pop-shots in teenybopper rags like Tiger Beat. “Rolling Stone took rock’n’roll very seriously,” he said.

As he matured, he dug beyond his Beatles and Stones to the black American musicians they were copping and selling back to the United States. “By the time I got into my 30s, I left rock’n’roll behind, because blues can have a good beat, but you don’t feel silly listening to it when you get older,” Barclay said. “It deals with adult issues: love sex, drinking, partying.”

He also found there were several blues magazines looking for good photos. “They don’t pay very well, but I already made a pay check, so getting royally paid wasn’t that important,” he said. “It was more important to have access to the musicians.”

One of those publications, Living Blues, got Barclay a photo credit for the Chicago Blues Festival in 1986. He’s gone back with his camera every year since, snapping about 60 bands over the course of four days, shooting bandleaders and sidemen alike. A real bonus of the festival scene for Barclay is the informal jams that come when a bunch of veteran players get together. One of the photos in the exhibit documents such an occasion, as legends Otis Rush and Buddy Guy share the festival stage. “Sparks fly from their guitar when those things happen, because they’re inspired,” Barclay said.

Barclay spends enough of his time following the blues — and it seems to follow him back. A great shot of an older Albert King, hand raised while singing and wearing a flying V guitar around his neck, came about because Barclay had to cut out of the Chicago Blues Festival early for business in Lexington, Ky. To his surprise, King was playing that night in the same town, so he found out where the club was and met King and his band at the bar.

Perhaps the best image in the exhibit captures harpblowing barber Wade Walton playing the blues while a customer sits waiting for a cut in his chair. The shot came together spontaneously and went on to take what Barclay calls a “life of its own.”

Returning from a trip to rural Mississippi in the mid- ‘80s, Barclay and his family stopped in at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where an attendant told him before he left town he had to visit the barbershop of Walton, a harmonica playing barber who had cut the hair of B.B. King, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and more.

After cruising the town with no luck, Barclay approached a teenager on the sidewalk as to the shop’s whereabouts. “He don’t cut white hair,” the teen told him.

Once it was worked out Barclay wasn’t looking for a trim, the teen pointed him around the corner, where he found Walton and told him he’d like to hear him play and shoot some photographs. Putting his customer on hold, Walton was happy to oblige. “He plugs in an amplifier, puts a record on a little cheapo turntable — that was his rhythm section — and then he starts playing harmonica to the record,” Barclay said. “He just started playing notes, and blowing his harp into the mic.”

When he got home and developed his film, Barclay mailed Walton an 8-by-10 photo. A few years later, while watching a European documentary on the blues, he was surprised to see his work hanging on the wall in Walton’s shop. Still today, coworkers tell him they see his photo pop up on the Travel Channel.

Whether it’s on the air, or on paper, it’s stories like Walton’s that keep Barclay spinning and shooting the history of the blues. “It’s just taken me down a lot of fun paths, and allowed me to meet some interesting people,” he said. “I love sharing their stories.”

Robert Barclay, blues photography

April 3 Kennedy Cafeteria, Second Floor of the Arts & Science
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