Deep in the history of American music is the blues. Fundamental, real and influential, the blues music that bubbled up out of the 1700s and 1800s eventually reached the mainstream when the invention of the record player happened.
Before the modern recording era, there was the popularity of sheet music, but few were made in the genre known as the blues. It was blues music played live that kept the genre moving forward.
After blues music became popular, first in the African-American neighborhoods and then eventually around the world with folks of all colors and cultures, it began to spawn and influence other kinds of music. Jazz music sprang from the blues and the genre would directly influence everything from country music, rock 'n' roll, swing to even bluegrass. The blues itself, however, would struggle at times to hold its own. Even today, it is the commitment of blues lovers that has kept the style healthy, even if it is not as popular as it should be.
Here in the Tri-state, the resurrection of the legacy of the late Huntington-born blues singer Diamond Teeth Mary McClain (19022000) in recent years has been a wonderful thing to behold. And, the creation of the Diamond Teeth Mary Festival in her honor that is held every August in Huntington is a perfect example of blues lovers stepping up to revive the tradition.
The Huntington Blues Society is another local organization that is dedicated to keeping the tradition of blues music alive in West Virginia now and in the future. The group is not only affiliated with the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, they also hold regular "meetings" at the V Club, where they bring in a local, regional or national blues band to perform and then hosts an open blues jam afterwards.
On Wednesday, June 19, the Huntington Blues Society hosts their monthly get-together at the V Club beginning at 7 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., guest band Juke Joint Johnny and the Shackbusters will perform followed by an open blues jam. More information can be found at facebook.com/HuntingtonBluesSociety or vclublive.com.
Juke Joint Johnny Hathaway grew up in West Virginia yet moved to various other states as a kid because his father was a schoolteacher. Eventually, however, he moved his own family back to the Mountain State when he was older, working as a plumber and pipefitter. His love of the blues, however, started at an early age.
Hathaway's father was also a guitar teacher and the family's house was filled with music of classic artists such as Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Chet Atkins. By the time Hathaway was a teenager, he was developing his own style on guitar and discovering blues music as well as rock and roll.
"I listened to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and bands like that then, but I also saw B.B. King on TV occasionally," said Hathaway. "When the Stones and Eric Clapton and others at that time were interviewed, they always mentioned the blues. So, in the early 1970s, I went to Huntington to Davidson's Record Shop and ordered a Muddy Waters' greatest hits double album and the Howlin' Wolf greatest hits double album. That is how you got albums like that back in those days."
Another band from the classic rock period of the late 1960s and early 1970s that heavily influenced Hathaway was the Allman Brothers Band, the inter-racial group from the South that took the blues to new heights as they eventually made their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"They day that I first heard the Allman Brothers Band, I said, 'That's it,'" said Hathaway. "They managed to bring together the blues, jazz, country and swing music and make great American music. So, they are absolutely one of my all-time favorites. Then, their music led me to earlier blues artists like T-Bone Walker, Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Elmore James."
Now that Hathaway is retired, he has been able to play the blues more these days. He appreciates those music fans and other musicians out there that help to keep the blues alive.
"I have to give the Huntington Blues Society a lot of credit as they have done an excellent job the last few years," said Hathaway. "There was a blues society in Charleston for a while, but it kind of fell apart. Then, the folks in Huntington started their organization and connected to the International Blues Challenge, and they have done a marvelous job. Next Wednesday will be the first time that we have played for them in a while. So, to go down there to Huntington and hang out with people that enjoy blues music and like what we are doing will be a good time. They are great bunch of folks."
Juke Joint Johnny will also appear on the Huntington Blues Society's weekly radio show The Diamond Duck Blues Hour on WMUL-FM at 3 p.m. this Monday, June 17. The radio station is located at 88.1 on your FM dial.