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July 4, 2017 > Blues festival revives lost city and its musical heritage

Blues festival revives lost city and its musical heritage

By Victor Carvellas

The blues, simply put, is twelve measures and three chords. It is also the aural history of a burdened, persevering people and an ancestor of American popular music as we have come to know it over the last century. The blues is sadness and joy, and the complicated reality in between; it is a celebration of victory and a repudiation of defeat. Blues is personal, communal, and global in its reach and appeal. The blues also has a complicated history; its a river with many tributaries.

Enslaved peoples brought the complicated polyrhythms of West Africa to America, but maintaining the tradition was difficult in the face of prohibitions against drumming (on account of the slaves ability to communicate under the masters nose). New rhythmic ingredients, however, became available. French settlers and their light-skinned Creole offspring regularly congregated in New Orleans Congo Square to play marches, quadrilles, and minuets; slaves fortunate enough to accompany their masters on trips to town were introduced to the strict double- and triple-meters of European music, which eventually melded with the rich African tradition. (The banjo, which became a staple of American households for a time, was based on an instrument originating in Africa.)

Slave musicians began to combine the inflected tonality of their own music (the slightly flatted third and fifth scale degrees we refer to today as blue notes) with the measured strides and harmonic structures of Congo Square. Moreover, the exposure introduced slaves to new instruments, including the cornet, trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. Even today, the New Orleans jazz march retains threads of those early beginnings.

Music of the Church also influenced the blues. Displaced and degraded, their native religions banned, slaves were starved for community. Somewhat cynically, slave owners accepted and even encouraged churchgoing: if the slaves wanted the Gospel, letting them have it paid a dividend. After all, Paul himself urged servants to be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

Hymns and spirituals that arose blended existing liturgical music with the energy and group performance practices of Africa. The slaves, perhaps to their mastersÕ discomfort, more than learning the lesson of obedience, identified with the children of Israel, seekers of a promised land. That strong connection outlasted slavery and cemented the role of the Church in the African-American community. As a result, many young blues musicians received inspiration from the soul-rocking music of a Baptist congregation.

In musical terms, the form of blues is AAB, where A and B represent separate verses. The repeated A verse is usually a declaration of sadness, trouble, or loss, but B is often a pithy commentary. This style traces its origin to field hollers, call and response work songs, where a leader calls out a verse and the group repeats, following with a chorus. Such songs not only relieved the monotony of backbreaking labor but also held the community together; group singing was an important reminder of the slavesÕ humanity even as their circumstances worked to strip them of it. Irony and humor, distress and longingÑexpressing them in song was a balm for the soul. After Abolition, many African-American men and women found themselves back in the fields, this time as sharecroppers; ostensibly free, but financially shackled to debt and socially whipped by Jim Crow. Some mobility ensued, usually as men left their southern homes to travel north looking for work. The Black Diaspora brought the Delta Blues and New Orleans jazz north along the Mississippi to places like St Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago.

The blues also travelled east and west, landing in big cities and small towns alike. One such was Russell City. On the western edge of todayÕs Hayward, it never fulfilled its foundersÕ early expectations of a city more opulent than San Francisco. Nevertheless, by the 1950s, the town had become home to about a thousand residents, despite a disturbing lack of infrastructure, such as indoor running water, sewer systems, and pest control. In its early days, the area drew farmers from Spain, Denmark, Germany, and Italy; with the decline in farming, by mid-century African Americans and Mexicans formed the majority population. ÒOne reason why so many people from these two ethnic groups resided in Russell City,Ó says Dr. Maria Ochoa in her 2009 book ÒRussell City,Ó Òis that nearby communities such as San Leandro, Hayward, and San Lorenzo had covenants that prevented the sale of homes to people who were not white.Ó

Small venues dotted the town. Clubs like the Russell City Country Club, and Miss AlveÕs are said to have hosted such stars as Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, and T-Bone Walker. Guitarist and Blues Hall of Famer Lowell Fulson, a Tulsa native and player of his own West Coast style of blues, moved to Oakland in 1943 (he was drafted); after his release from the Navy in 1945, he worked the shipyards by day, but played all around Russell City by night. Celebrity players werenÕt all that could be found, however. Blues is a peopleÕs music, welcoming to new players, and there was never a shortage of local talent to justify the townÕs reputation for hosting great blues music.

Russell City was evacuated in 1964 by eminent domain for the development of an industrial park, but on July 8 and 9, the West Coast Blues Society will rekindle the memories of the lost town and the blues it was known for as it presents the 18th annual ÒHayward/Russell City Blues Festival.Ó With one stage, you wonÕt miss an act. Be sure to bring an appetite; vendors are offering delicious food from around the world.

Featured artists include Little Ed and the Blues Imperials, Grady Champion, Christone ÒKingfishÓ Ingram, Blues Harmonica Explosion, Russell City Blues Divas, and much, much more! See the full line-up at

Hayward/Russell City Blues Fest
Saturday, Jul 8 & Sunday, Jul 9
11 a.m. Ð 7 p.m.
Hayward City Hall Plaza
777 B St, Hayward
(510) 472-8800
Tickets: $30 in advance, $35 at the gate

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