2012 Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival
If you look at the right side of the Weenie home page, you’ll see a box showing how many days are left until the next Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop and Festival, taking place this year from July 29 to August 5.
And if you click on the “About Weenie” link on the left side of this page, you’ll find out that Weenie Campbell was born—fully formed and already in a late stage of life—to a group of midwives attending the 1997 workshop.
The core Weenies who created this wonderful forum spend a lot of time thinking and talking about PTABW, and in our rarely humble opinions, we think that the 2012 faculty lineup is one of the best ever. Click here and see why
. The list includes Robert Belfour and his fellow Mississippian Terry Bean, teaching Hill Country and Delta styles. And Ari Eisinger—the man for learning the music of the "four Blinds": Blake, Davis, Fuller, and Lemon Jefferson. Three great slide teachers: Steve James, Orville Johnson, and Rev. Robert Jones. Reverend Jones has a way of channeling the musicians whose songs he teaches—wait ‘til you hear him sing like Son House. Then there’s our own John Miller, in demand as a teacher on two continents. Every summer he pulls a country blues obscurity or two out of his bag of tricks, which opens the door to making further discoveries on my own.
I’m completely hooked on the PTABW experience—I’ve only missed one in seventeen years. In May of 1996 I got the radical idea that I didn’t have to listen to other people make music, I could do it myself. I bought a Takamine dreadnaught, and six weeks later, armed with only three chords (but three really good ones) I asked a fellow named John Jackson, “John, you got a minute to show me how to play ‘Boat’s Up the River’?”
John taught me the way he knew how: play a phrase over and over and over until I got it. We spent a half-hour together, and I was sweatin’ beads, thinking that this great musician must be getting tired of showing a rank newbie how to move around the fretboard. But the bigger part of the lesson was this: John never gave the impression that he was anything less but perfectly happy to be right where he was. Later that same week I heard another workshop student ask him, “Hey John, you got a minute to show me how to play ‘Boat’s Up the River’?” And in that Rapahannock accent that could stretch out the word “sure” into three syllables, he said, “Why sure, I’d be happy to,” and he meant it.
That’s the kind of story you can tell your friends back home if you attend PTABW. Sure, you pick up a few songs, learn a new chord or two, maybe work on a second instrument. But you also get to share a bench with John Dee Holeman. You get to listen to stories about North Mississippi from Robert Belfour, or jam with Robert Lowery. You get to meet Rev. John Wilkins, the son of Robert Wilkins, or hear Erwin Helfer talk about tracking down forgotten pianists in St. Louis and New Orleans back when there were still a lot of forgotten blues musicians around to be rediscovered.
Those are examples of recent experiences I’ve had at Port Townsend. But the stories I really treasure are those I’ve collected over the years from teachers who are no longer with us. Like the time Honeyboy Edwards showed me how to shave a pair of dice, and how to cause a distraction in order to switch the loaded dice for the regular. You never know when a skill like that might come in handy.
Or the time Howard Armstrong held court in the old cafeteria, telling the story about how he charmed his way out of what could have been a bad situation for a black string band in an Italian neighborhood in Detroit in the 1930s by playing his mandolin and speaking what was good enough to pass for Italian under the circumstances.
Or the year that Othar Turner and his family performed on the big stage at McCurdy Pavilion. A lifelong farmer, he had the biggest, strongest hands I’ve ever seen. I got to chat with him for a while that Saturday morning while he stood in a parking lot in his coveralls, one hand in his pocket, the other rubbing his chin in wonder while watching someone use a piece of technology he’d never seen in his 92 years: an espresso machine.
Then there was the time Grant Dermody, Robert Lowery, and the one-armed harmonica player Neal Pattman started jamming on the porch of The Schoolhouse. They played a simple little call-and-response riff, with Neal singing couplets like “Georgia water taste like cherry wine/Make you higher than a Georgia pine.” Ten minutes went by, Grant had to teach a class, so he hopped over the railing and made his escape. Another five minutes passed, then Robert Lowery stood, threw down his hand as if to say “I give up,” and he left. Neal just kept playing, head tilted back, big grin on his face, blowin’ and singing and blowin’ with a half-dozen of us watching. Never have I seen someone as happy as Neal Pattman that day, just playing his blues in the sun, really for no one in particular but himself.
So many good memories: Precious Bryant singing “If You Don’t Love Me, Can You Fool Me Real Good?” Larry Johnson telling the teenaged David Jacobs-Strain, “I’m a leftover from the 60s, just like someday you’ll be a leftover from the 90s” (you may have seen that on the Weenie quote generator). Drink Small talking about his Ph.D. in Womanology. Jerry Ricks talking about all of the country blues giants he met while doing the booking for a Philadelphia coffee house in the 1960s. Alvin Youngblood Hart describing his right-hand technique in highly technical terms: “Then you just kinda flop your hand around.”
In other words, the music is just one part of the Port Townsend experience, making friends and being part of an ongoing community is another. As this year’s lineup attests, there are many generous people and talented musicians interested in keeping this community strong.
So come to the party, y’all! Go offline for a week while you make music and new blues buddies. Spend some time jamming at Weenie Central. Eat and learn and play and dance and stay up way later than you’re used to. Then get up the next morning and do it all over again, for a full week. And when you get home, start making plans for PTABW 2013.