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July 5, 2005 > Uncovering the history of blues

Uncovering the history of blues

It was post-WWII and along the shoreline of Hayward, a farmer named Joel Russell offered African American migrants from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi some of his land to settle on. As the new residents trickled in, they began to create a community that would one day revolutionize the world of blues music. They named their town Russell City.

During the day, residents of Russell City farmed the land and worked in the shipyards of Oakland. After sunset, they gathered in makeshift, dirt-floor nightclubs powered by bootleg electricity, bringing the juke joints of the South to their new home in California.

Inside these lively clubs, harmonica-based Southern Delta blues were replaced by a guitar-driven California flavor and Russell City Blues were born. This subculture in the blues world attracted greats like T Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton to the Hayward-adjacent area for long nights of music and dancing. It was here that West Coast blues began to lay the ground for the prolific Bay Area music scene.

"Bands like Green Day, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead - they all have their roots in blues," noted Bay Area Blues Society Executive Director Ronnie Stewart.

The tradition of rock's reliance on blues goes back to its beginnings with Elvis Presley's number one hit "Hound Dog", an ode to no-good men originally written and performed by Big Mama Thornton. She also created "Ball and Chain" which would become a chart-topping single for Janis Joplin.

Blues musicians came from Chicago (the birthplace of blues), New York and Paris to witness the burgeoning blues form taking shape in a small California town. Performers doing shows in Oakland would make sure to stop by Russell City and make a contribution of their own.

"All of this is in the bedroom community of Hayward," said Stewart, a guitar player since eleventh grade who feels the public needs to be made aware of the rich musical history of what is now West Winton Boulevard, west of Clawiter Road.

After completing his service in the Marine Corps in 1985, Stewart returned home to his career as a musician. Upon noticing that not many people were aware of the Bay Area's contribution to the blues, he founded the Bay Area Blue Society, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to "the perpetuation of Blues, Jazz and Gospel as an
indigenous American art form."

In addition to his role as head of the society, Stewart is also director of the Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival, with this year's theme, "Russell City Blues: Then & Now." The festival was created in 1991 to bring well-known blues musicians, and lesser known local starts, together for the entire community to enjoy. It is the highlight of the summer for many Bay Area blues aficionados and is highly recommended across the nation as the definitive blues fest.
The Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival is a two-day event held the weekend of Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. There you will find some of the biggest names in contemporary blues like Maria Muldaur and Curtis Salgado (Russell City "now") and legends like Sherman Robertson, "the new kid from the old school," and Saturday's main attraction Guitar Shorty ("then"). Sunday's headliner is Bobby Rush, featured in "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues - A Musical Journey"
You can also catch many other local blues groups, like The Caravan of All Stars, with the man himself, Stewart, on lead guitar. His dedication to the promotion of blues history can be heard on his weekly radio show, Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight on FM 88.1.

There will be 19 performances in all, guaranteeing a great day of blues for everyone who attends.

Admission to the festival is $15 in advance, $20 at the gate and a two-day pass is $26 in advance. Students, seniors (62 years +) and groups of 10 or more are $10 per person. Children under 12 are free. Russell City Blues Festival: Then & Now takes place at Hayward City Hall Plaza, 777 "B" Street in Hayward. For more information on this popular event, contact (510) 836-2227 or (707) 647-3962 or visit

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