You had to be there — but if you weren’t the new book “Blues in Black and White: The Landmark Ann Arbor Blues Festivals” (University of Michigan Press) takes you back in time to what was likely the greatest assembly of blues artists of all time.
With an erudite and knowledgeable essay by music historian and archivist Michael Erlewine wrapped around stunning, never-before-seen black-and-white photographs by Stanley Livingston of virtually every major blues performer, the book is a one-of-kind tribute to a bygone era.
Michael Erlewine described writing the essay that introduces the book as “no challenge. It was like water off a duck’s back. It was a key event in my life; I was totally present.”
Erlewine attributes the festivals, at which he did scores of interviews with the major blues artists and sidemen, as the impetus for him becoming a music historian. He would later found the online definitive guide to recorded music, the All Music Guide.
The two seminal blues festivals in 1969 and 1970 accomplished something no others had done: They brought together legendary blues artists, like Howlin Wolf, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, with the new urban sound of Chicago-style blues.
Erlewine came by his love of the blues naturally. He and his brother, Dave, founded and played in the Ann Arbor blues band The Prime Movers in the 1960s. At one point, the band boasted Iggy Pop as a member. Erlewine was a folkie himself for a time, traveling with the likes of Bob Dylan.
He said he had listened to blues music at his mother’s knees as she played piano. His parents were both folkies, and he often heard that folkies discovered the blues — but he disagrees.
“Blues didn’t need a revival,” he said. “It didn’t need to be revived, it just needed to be heard.”
He heard the blues by taking frequent trips to Chicago to visit clubs and to root through bins of 45-r.p.m. singles, looking for music.
“The blues was live,” he said. “It was robust and in-your-face. It was not something you pulled out of a history book. It was like going back in time.”
Except, he said, it was right there.
And maybe that’s what “The Blues in Black and White” does. It takes you to a time in which Kodachrome would be out of place. Livingston’s casual, candid photos tell the story of a time that can’t be replicated.
Strangely enough, the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival was the first time Livingstone really heard the blues. He was captured by the sound and the uniqueness of the event.
His iconic photo of B.B. King on the cover just shouts the blues, and his photo of Howlin’ Wolf with a woman hanging on his back and a nametag on his shirt identifying his as a performer tells you how laid-back the festivals were.
A quote, almost a blues lyric in itself, describes the photo of Howlin’ Wolf: “Woman, I don’t need you. I got a wife at home feeds me with a golden spoon.”
Erlewine said that early on Livingston’s photographs were ripped-off and, as a result, the photographer “sat on them for 40 years.”
“The few times I tried to deal with the music industry I just got screwed,” Livingston said. “I really got bummed and just put the negatives away.”
Livingstone credits Tom Erlewine, another brother, the book’s designer — and, for a number of years, his photo assistant — for bugging him to get the photos out and do a book. From that treasure trove of more than 1,000 negatives, the three selected a little over 150 for the book in a process Livingstone described as “agonizing.”
For Livingston, it was a heady time to be in Ann Arbor. He would later shoot 20 to 30 rolls at the Free John Sinclair Rally, which included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger, Allen Ginsberg and Stevie Wonder. “I really burned up quite a bit of film,” he said.
Shooting the blues festival was pure serendipity for Livingston. “A friend dropped by and dragged me to the blues festival,” he recalled. “That’s what started it all. I was there to enjoy the music, but I became literally focused on the performers, and didn’t get to listen.”
Livingston knows what he was able to do at the festivals was a case of “the right place at the right time.” And gone are the days when performers would allow you to take candid photos of them.
“In my opinion, that’s a great tragedy,” Livingston said.
He said it’s hard to have a favorite photo, but he acknowledges that the cover shot of King is one, along with the doublepage spread of Mance Lipscomb sitting in a chair, playing the guitar in his arctic sweater.
In his essay, Erlewine points out that the average age of the performers at the blues festivals was about 50.
“We are talking about and end of a movement. Not a beginning,” he writes. “Only the youngest remain alive.”