Wednesday, November 20, 2013

# 4 Festival Documentary

    The original 97 minute documentary, Festival, was released in 1967, and covered various performances at The Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1965. It faded into history for a number of years; at some point, I concluded it was lost forever. However, after communicating with numerous collectors all over the world I managed to acquire a multi-generation VHS copy. The day I received that tape in the mail, I was one happy Butterfield fan! The image was terrible, and it took some serious concentration to see the Butterfield performance of Juke, but I was grateful. Fortunately, a few years ago, some kind soul at Eagle Rock Entertainment took the initiative to release it on DVD.

    It's in black and white, and for the most part you never actually see a full performance by many of the artists. I don't know if it was a legal issue at the time of original production, or maybe it was Albert Grossman's insistence. It seems like such a strange attitude for a businessman to have even in the 60s, but I have read that he was adverse to having his any of artists show up in films, fearing the record buying public would not buy his artist's records.

   Anyway, Festival is significant in that it puts Butterfield's original musical contributions to history in a clearer context.  The Folk Music Revival of the late fifties and sixties was originally about rejecting the mainstream commercialism of pop music by reviving the folk music tradition in the United States. However, many of the self appointed instigators of the revival became a little too zealous, and seem to have forgotten that folk music is a living breathing art form, and consequently does not adhere to stagnation. I've read and heard many interviews with these revivalists, to me, they come across as a little too rigid in their thinking.

   These Folk Nazis' would profess that in order for folk music to be authentic, it had to be acoustic and preferably old . Consequently, any artist who breached that inflexible ideal, had sold out to commercialism. Consequently, they were labeled as an enemy of the movement. In retrospect, it all seems so short sighted. Folk music isn't some dead language like Latin, it doesn't belong in a museum.

   Festival does document some memorable performances by several folk artists of the day, but for me, the the highlight of the documentary is the 1965 segment when the Butterfield band does Little Walter's Juke. After that, Dylan's performance of Maggie's Farm, backed by the Butter Band, is stellar! It's not just because I am a fan of both artists, but because they both made history on that day. Thank God Murray Lerner was contracted to recorded it! You'll notice in the documentary that all of the music presented was acoustic, so you can imagine the storm of controversy when Butterfield's band turn on the amps. The folk intelligentsia must have shuttered at the impending runination of their social engineering fantasy.

    There was another silly argument being made during this period: white people can't sing blues, because you guessed it, they haven't had the same experiences as the black man. There might be a small element of truth in the position, but I think the subtext is more a form of reverse racism. I mean, would they say, someone from Boston can't learn to play authentic jigs and reels because they aren't from Ireland, or a woman can't sing Opera because she didn't grow up in Italy? So, for some of the folkies, the thought of some middle class, white kids from Chicago, playing music from their home town was a heresy. Then to complicate matters, Butterfield had a black rhythm section, electric instruments, and they could really play them! It must have thrown many into a state of cultural confusion.
   Dylan saw through this facade though. He knew the times were changing, and hired Paul's band for his set on closing night. His performance with the Butterfield Blues Band is at least mentioned in every history of the era. Many of the folkies were so out of touch with the real world. They didn't seem to realize that blues and country musicians were using electric instruments since the forties. The Rolling Stones had commercial success with Willie Dixon's Little Red Rooster as did other rock bands. Kids wanted to hear authentic electric blues, and it they found it in Butterfield's interpretations.

   After all, most musicians had to make a living with their craft and they knew that making a living in music is an act of commercialism. I guess by this point you can tell I am not a fan of nativity demonstrated by some members in the folk movement. I understand the political statement of rejecting the commercialism of art in an effort to preserve its "purity", but artists need to make a living like everyone else. All of that said, the Butterfield band offered up some pretty convincing interpretations of authentic Chicago Blues which is what they were suppose to do and the audience got it.

     Also included in this documentary is an interview with Mike Bloomfield and Son House at the festival. I'll post that in the next blog as it will be about the Butterfield performances.

     Below, is a video of Elektra records founder, Jac Holtzman. He is a pretty important part of the success of many of the folk artists of the day including the Butterfield Blues Band. He has some interesting things to say about that day.


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