Morgan Murray blogged about the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival for The Scope from July 13-18.
In May I was lucky enough to spend a week visiting an uncle in Florida and doubly lucky to get to go on a swamp walk in the Fakahatchee Strand (which you may recognize from the movie Adaptation). The swamp walk was an exclusive arrangement for botanists, biologists, and the local orchid appreciation society we were only able to join thanks to our well-connected-in-the-plant-world uncle and sheer accident. It ended up being not only the highlight of an amazing all-around trip, but a definite highlight of my entire life. Seriously.
The swamp walk was led by Ranger Mike, the keeper of the swamp, and hero of the real-life story behind Adapation and the book it is loosely based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Sloshing crotch-deep through a gator infested swamp discovering rare orchids is great, but it was Ranger Mike who made the walk something truly special.
After returning home I wrote about the spectacular day in the swamp, and in particular Ranger Mike:
As the group reveled at a tiny, unspectacular orchid in full bloom, as if it were the holy grail, the feeling that this was something special we were apart of became undeniable. It felt like the squish of 6,000 year old dead leaves between our toes in our cheap, brightly coloured, canvas shoes. And it was all thanks to Ranger Mike. We were fascinated by what he showed us, by what he would extend his extendable walking/measuring stick to point out, measure, and note in his yellow notebook, because he was fascinated and fascinating and it was infectious. When you are in the swamp with Ranger Mike, you love the swamp as he does because he shows it to you as he sees it.
His gift to us was showing us the swamp as he sees it, as he loves it. But the connection between him and the swamp, and his ability to relay that to us, is so much more than one of enthusiasm, like I would have showing you my compete set of 1991 Pro Set hockey cards. There comes a point where Ranger Mike and the swamp overlap into this one wildly gesticulating, hyperactive, sublime nature preserve. Ranger Mike showing us the swamp as he sees it is Ranger Mike showing us his soul.
This is rare.
I’ve had a lot of teachers in the more than 20-years I’ve been in school (slow learner, I know), I’ve tried my own hand at teaching, I’ve been a terrible tour guide in both official languages in the Air Force, and Lord knows I’ve written enough wayward words that missed their mark. I understand first hand, from both sides, the difficulty of making that connection, the consequences if you don’t (nothing much moves), and the glory if you do (the world can change).
On the final day of the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival I had a close call with just such an experience. I took in the “History of Blues” workshop led by bluesman Morgan Davis (his show from the previous night was blogged about earlier in The Scope) Sunday afternoon at Dusk Ultra Lounge.
I had never been to any kind of workshop at any kind of festival before. They frighten me. I figure to attend a song writing workshop you should at least have a predilection to song writing, and I have none. But I thought I would be safe with a discussion about the history of the blues, and I might even learn something.
I got a lot more than I was expecting.
Davis’ workshop was something that approached the sort of connection like Ranger Mike had made between me and the swamp.
Davis has been playing the blues professionally for 40-some years, and has been a passionate student of it for a lot longer than that. His own music is straight-ahead blues, influenced heavily by the originators of country blues around the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s. The likes of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Albert King. But he glowingly talks about all the sources of the blues and the meandering paths their offspring has taken.
The blues are Davis’ life. I don’t want to go so far as to say the blues are Davis and Davis the blues, because the blues is so much bigger and broader than 120 square miles of Florida swamp. But it is close. Showing us what the blues have been, are, and can be, Davis showed us parts of his soul.
With his tape deck and his guitar Davis toured us from the roots of the blues in the merger of African tribal music and Southern US slave work songs, through country blues in the deep South, classic blues further north, the boogie woogie (which led to rock n’ roll), gospel and points in-between. And throughout, thanks to his passion and enthusiasm, you are given the sense that this isn’t just someone showing off all the trivia they know about some obscure corner of humanity.
Davis is completely without pretence, which must come, in large part, from the touring North America for decades in a mini-van. And though he could have flaunted his blues knowledge and pedigree (he’s played with a lot of the greats), he didn’t. He was completely compelling and totally accessible.
I did end up learning a lot. But what I learned most of all is that for the blues to be worth a damn it must be, like Davis, unpretentious, compelling, and accessible. That is how they began, and that is why they persist, in all their moody, earthy, rugged, sparseness.
The only unfortunate thing about Davis’ talk is that the 90-minutes flew by much too fast for him to get through it all of his talk, ending up somewhere around the revival of Country Jazz in the 1960s. He joked that he’d have to comeback next year and give part two of his talk, and I sincerely hope he does.
The Wreckhouse Blues and Jazz Festival ran until Sunday, July 18. You can relive it on their website.