From the 1970s to the early '90s, Juneteenth at Miller Outdoor Theatre was the largest free blues festival in the world and one of the city's marquee live music events.
Thousands of people, young and old, black, white and brown, would come to the park and drag coolers and blankets up Hippie Hill to celebrate the end of Texas slavery with whole weekends full of top-line local and national blues and zydeco. As one legend after another took the stage following one of frequent MC Skipper Lee Frazier's colorful introductions, fans would pass around bottles, smokes and other goodies deep into the summer nights.
The word "legend" gets thrown around a bit too loosely, but check this out: The event, which was hosted by local jazzman and educator Lanny Steele's SumArts organization, hosted Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Milt Larkin, Marcia Ball, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins and the Icebreakers, Rockin' Dopsie, Buckwheat Zydeco, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, "Texas Flood" composer Larry Davis, Lavelle White, Big Walter Price, Koko Taylor, old-time Deep Ellum piano great Alex Moore, Taj Mahal, Roomful of Blues, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Houston Juneteenth celebration
A Gulf Coast Juneteenth Festival is next Thursday, July 19, at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park at 7:30 p.m. The Rebirth Brass Band, Sherman Robertson and Trudy Lynn, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie are on the bill. In addition, Corey Ledet, Tamara Williams and Tony Henry will perform songs composed specially for the event. Call 713-521-3686 for more info.
And that was just in 1983, as Jim Sherman recollected in Steele's obituary in these pages in 1994. In other years, guests included Sippie Wallace, Bobby "Blue" Bland, R.L. Burnside, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan with Lou Ann Barton, Professor Longhair, Roosevelt Sykes, Texas Johnny Brown, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Pete Mayes, Big Mama Thornton, and Clifton Chenier, not to mention every local of note.
Juneteenth's spiral toward history's dustbin began with Steele's death in 1994. At the same time, many of the principal artists of the '70s and '80s Juneteenths were also aging or dying off. And as if the loss of the festival's driving force weren't bad enough — and Steele's stewardship of the event was Herculean — God and man seemed to conspire to start nudging the event towards the grave the very year he passed.
A heavy rain coupled with the Rockets' run toward the city's first-ever pro sports championship (I'm not counting the Oilers' AFL titles) saw to it that the attendance in 1994 was lower than it had been in years. The Rockets' repeat in 1995 led to another shaky turnout. Former Press contributor Sherman said those shows were surreal. "There were only at most 150 people in the audience to see Johnny 'Clyde' Copeland," he recalled. "But those that were there were the hardcore — when he did 'My Baby's Got a Black Cat Bone' everybody in the audience knew the words and sang loud. It was the closest I've ever been to church at a blues show."
By 1997, when I moved back to town and attended for the first time since moving away in 1988, the festival was a shadow of its former self (despite a strong lineup that included R.L. Burnside and a who's who of the local scene).
And this year, Pat Jasper of the Surviving Katrina and Rita Project and Mark Lacy of the Houston Institute for Culture are co-presenting a concert called A Gulf Coast Juneteenth.
Jasper says that this Juneteenth is a new spin on the Juneteenths of yore. For one thing, it's not focused exclusively (or even primarily) on the blues. Instead, it draws from 350 miles of I-10 and takes in New Orleans's ReBirth Brass Band, zydeco/Creole music masters Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie, and Fifth Ward blues royalty in singer Trudy Lynn and red-hot, Louisiana-born, Houston-bred guitarist Sherman Robertson. Also, a trio of other guest performers singing zydeco, R&B and gospel songs composed for the occasion.
"We want to look at other really important African-American roots musics, and really important Gulf Coast traditions," she says. "All of these musics are kind of talkin' to each other."
Jasper, along with the mayor's office (which is heavily involved in this gathering), hopes the festival will help brand Houston and assist in fixing the Bayou City in the national consciousness as a Gulf Coast city. "Everybody's talking about the Gulf Coast, but they don't usually think of Houston," Jasper says. "People think New Orleans, or they think the [Mississippi] Delta, but they aren't thinking Houston, and I think we have to reclaim that status."
"What this is all about is reminding people that these three regional musics are alive and well and right under our nose," Jasper continues. "They are part of this region, and part of celebrating African-American culture is celebrating this incredible legacy of music that enriches people's lives right and left in this part of the world. We do take it for granted."
Amen to that...But a lot has changed since the glory days of the Juneteenth Blues Festival, in both Houston and the wider world. Precious few of the greats listed above remain among us, and musical tastes in both the black and white communities have undergone sea changes.
As the late poet/professor and one-time Juneteenth organizer Lorenzo Thomas put it in a memorable 2000 essay, directly after reminiscing about the glory days of the Juneteenth Blues Festival: "Soon the mode of the music had changed. 'Look at the map of Texas and see where Houston's at,' chanted a new group of performers. 'It's on the border of Hard Times.' Three young men using the handles Mr. Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill styled themselves the Geto Boys and — on the local Rap-a-Lot Records label — introduced a new style of music and spoken word poetry called 'gangsta rap.'"
Across the tracks, no longer do huge hordes of white kids yearn to hear and draw inspiration from the blues, or any other form of black music, for that matter. Outside of hip-hop world, American youth culture seems more segregated now than it has ever been in all my 38 years.
As pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones noted in the New Yorker last year, today's rock bands draw inspiration almost exclusively from other rock bands – rarely if ever blues, jazz, R&B or funk, which had been the case from the days of Elvis up to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Today, when rock bands like Vampire Weekend do draw from black sources, it tends to be from African and not African-American music, and even then it seems as much in homage to Talking Heads as to any African musician. I guess it's some kind of Obama effect...
Of course, even today, there are blues-based exceptions like the Black Keys and White Stripes, but I'd be willing to bet that few of today's most ardent neo-garage rock fans could tell you who Elmore James, Guitar Slim or Jimmy Reed were. As for the rest of the modern rock landscape, be it mainstream indie or dance-punk or the alt-rock schlock on the radio, there's nary a whisper nor even a faint echo of black influence of any kind to be heard. The contemporaneous rise of rap and Nirvana has polarized the races.
And then there's the Internet...Speaking broadly, black American music has always been about what's new. Back in the '80s, most of the black people you would find at Juneteenth were either old enough to remember when Albert King or even John Lee Hooker had chart hits, or they had been brought there by older relatives who did. Few youngsters came of their own accord — with music, anyway, there wasn't much of an appreciation for history.
Today, the Internet has brought about a similar mindset in young white audiences. Rock bands once had a window of a few years when they were perceived as cool, and there was often a real veneration for elders and forerunners of popular styles.
Today, that window of cool is only open for a few weeks, as this week's MGMT becomes last week's Vampire Weekend and so on and on and on down to the Strokes, the world's first blog-hype-backlash band. Yesterday's rock fans learned about the music from books; today's do so from fast-evolving blogs.
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And ay-yi-yi, I've come pretty far astray from the rebirth of Juneteenth at Hermann Park. I wish it the greatest success, and I plan on being there for the duration. I dearly love all the artists on the bill, but I fear that this event won't get the support it deserves.
Years ago, I wrote that I loved this city best when it reveled in its provincialism, by which I meant when it turned out for events like this in droves, when people here went out of their way to find a regional pride in the music that evolved here under our oak trees, beneath our sweat-inducing subtropical sun, in our barrooms and icehouses.
Outside of hip-hop (which really should be on any Juneteenth bill here), too few aspire to wallow in our indigenous music. Give it a try, just this once. It's free. Jasper and Lacy have put together a great bill, a collection of three swatches of the great American musical quilt that have been hand-stitched here and only here over the centuries. You won't even have to miss a Rockets game.