A music festival, held in 1969, is filmed — bits of it airing on local TV — but then shelved for decades before it’s resurrected for a new film. No, it’s not Summer of Soul. It’s Memphis ’69, a recently completed doc — which starts airing next week — that amounts to the blues equivalent to the lauded, Questlove-directed chronicle of that gathering of soul, R&B, and jazz acts.
In Memphis in late May of that year, just shortly before the Harlem Cultural Festival kicked off in New York City, a slew of blues musicians — black and white, veteran and rising — congregated for three days of performances at the city’s Overton Park Shell. The occasion was the fourth (and last) Memphis Country Blues Festival, and for the interracial crowd, the site was significant, as it had hosted at least one Ku Klux Klan rally.
Gene Rosenthal, head of the indie blues label Adelphi, filmed roughly 17 hours of performances, then blew his entire budget processing the film. Decades later, he mentioned it to Bruce Watson and Matthew Johnson, founders of the blues label Fat Possum, and with their help, we’re finally getting to see a much bigger chunk of that festival than ever before.
Memphis ’69, directed by Joe LaMattina from Rosenthal’s old footage, includes clips of Booker “Bukka” White playing a National guitar behind his back, then-breakout Texas blues whiz kid Johnny Winter at his albino-rocking best, Rufus Thomas singing his trademark “Walking the Dog,” a cigarette-puffing John Fahey playing instrumental blues, and a snappily dressed Furry Lewis (whom Joni Mitchell fans may recognize from her song “Furry Sings the Blues”) charming the crowd.
Following a performance by a gospel group, Mississippi Fred McDowell, a hero to Bonnie Raitt, starts his performance by cracking, “I’m a Christian, too, but I still play the blues, you understand.” Also spotted in the crowd and onstage are producer and pianist Jim Dickinson, rock critic Robert Palmer (wailing on clarinet in the band Insect Trust), and singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk, who plays a solo acoustic “Tobacco Road.
Memphis ’69 premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival but will finally be released on August 6th on Fat Possum’s YouTube channel before it’s available for DVD purchase on September 17th.