The Ashland Blues Society: Origins and Influence

This article was published a year or so ago. I wrote it to document the origins and influence of a regional blues society and the power of one person’s dream.

 

                                                         THE POWER OF A DREAM

 

It started with a bad night’s sleep.

As with so many great adventures, the concept for the Ashland Blues Society began in the wee small hours, on a sleepless night in December, 2008. Blues singer/songwriter David Pinsky lay awake, pondering the direction–and oft- bemoaned decline—of the blues in America. As a musician, band leader and former club owner, David had witnessed the cyclical rising and falling of America’s Music for decades, and its fortunes on this particular morning looked dim.

“I woke up in the middle of the night,” David recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to do something to promote the blues in our area. The blues is still alive; we gotta do something about this.’”

To be sure, many individuals and organizations had promoted successful blues and roots events in the State of Jefferson. The Southern Oregon Blues Society (then in its waning days) put on hugely-successful outdoor and indoor events that included Portland’s Jim Mesi, Janiva Magness and a host of local talents. David Pinsky made sure the Jackson County Fair included blues events with such luminaries as Lowell Fulson, Mark Naftalin, Luther Tucker, Ron Thompson, Lloyd Jones and many others. The Siskiyou Blues Society put on a yearly festival at Mount Shasta that attracted national acts, and it was the first blues society on our region to send an act (Broadway Phil & the Shouters) to the International Blues Challenge in 2000. In the Redding area, the Shasta Blues Society (now Jefferson State Blues Society) has had a long-running and notable blues series at Anderson River Park. From the early 80s forward this writer hosted all-ages blues events and shows with Paul DeLay, Curtis Salgado and others.

But on that December morning in 2008, David felt the need for something more: an organization that would promote blues, educate blues audiences and musicians, employ musicians and provide a consistent home for blues events and resources for those interested in participating in the roots musical experience.

So he got busy.

In January of 2009, David printed off 3×5 cards and distributed them at the final Rogue Valley Blues Festival in Ashland. The cards were a call for interested parties to help with the formation of a blues society.

The first meeting was in February of 2009 in the back room of Alex’s Restaurant, and it was here that the nascent organization was christened the Ashland Blues Society. The first board members were David Pinsky, Julia Pinsky, Mark Howard, Susan Howard, Bill Fischer, Mike Ruiz, Nick O’Neill, Terry Erdmann and Bill Gates, owner of the Beacon Hill property which became the venue for subsequent festivals.

The mission statement of the ABS was formulated in February 2009. It reads, in part: Our stated mission is to assist in the preservation of the blues as a part of our cultural heritage and tradition through public awareness and education, and through fostering a supportive environment for blues artists in our community to develop, grow and prosper.

The first Beacon Hill Blues Festival was held on September 20, 2009 and included The Rhythm Kings and Guy Puma’s Main Street Blues Band with Mark Howard on Harmonica and the much-loved recently-departed Mark Cunningham on bass. There was also a blues jam band made up of ABS board members that later morphed into the still-active Blues Society Band. The festival was attended by 150 people and deemed a success.

The 2010 Beacon Hill Festival included the Main Street Blues Band, the Rhythm Kings, Broadway Phil and the Shouters and Pete Herzog. The audience size grew significantly and led the ABS board to expand the size and scope of the festival. Beginning with the third Beacon Hill Blues Festival, out of town acts were brought in.

Past president Mark Howard recalls, “It went like this: the third Beacon Hill Blues Festival starred Lloyd Jones, with Pete Herzog, the Rhythm Kings and Broadway Phil and the Shouters opening; Beacon Hill Blues Festival #4 starred Curtis Salgado, and opened with Doug Warner & the Night Train Express, the Rogue Valley Blues All-Stars, featuring David Pinsky, Gary Davis, Roger Volz, Dave Mathieu, Brent Norton, Gary Halliburton and ‘Broadway’ Phil Newton. It also featured a four-harp blowoff with Phil, David, Doug Warner and Mark Howard; the fifth Beacon Hill Blues Festival co-starred Kevin Selfe and Karen Lovely and their bands, and featured David and Phil with the Rogue Valley Blues All-Stars, and a harmonica blowoff. My memory isn’t that good, but I designed all the posters and they’re now hanging behind my desk. The fifth festival was the last one I attended, and for which I designed the poster.”

Blues jams were part of the ABS culture from Day One. Beginning as a musical get-together after membership meetings, the very first blues jam was held at Alex’s on March 3, 2009, with subsequent get-togethers at the Stillwater and the Avalon.

The board then decided they needed a regular venue and moved the jams to the Ashland Community Center, where they resided for a year or so. Every other week, David Pinsky held a blues class, where people were invited to bring their instruments and study a different blues legend each time: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, etc. The classes allowed the musicians to delve more deeply into an individual artist’s style and learn the facets of the music, both broadening and deepening the knowledge base among Rogue Valley musicians and blues aficionados.

David Pinsky was ABS president for the first two years, then moved to the events coordinator position following the election of blues harpist Mark Howard. Mark had the idea of moving the jams to the legendary Phoenix rib joint, Roscoe’s, which had been opened in 2007 by Will and Nikola Moore.

Mark Howard comments, “The jams at the Community Center were a lot of fun for players, but never drew much of an audience. I had drinks one night with Karen Lovely and picked her brain. She declared that blues lovers wanted to eat and drink while they were being entertained, something the Community Center didn’t offer. So I set out looking for a food and drink venue, and when I spoke with Nikola [Moore] at Roscoe’s she loved the idea and a deal was struck.”

The first ABS jam was held at this much-loved restaurant and blues club in December of 2010, with the Ashland Blues Society members hosting. The jams thrived there until Roscoe’s was forced to close in March of 2013. No more buttermilk pie. No more barbecue. No more sassy good times with friends and family.

Interviewed for this article, Nikola spoke for all of us when she said, of Roscoe’s closing, “It left a hole in my heart.”

After a brief sojourn at Howiee’s on Front Street in Medford, the jams moved to the Little Brown Jug in Talent in the summer of 2013.

Host bands over the years include The Rhythm Kings, Duke Street, the Muscadine Blues Band, Mercy, the Main Street Blues Band, The Rogue Suspects, The Randalz, Soul’d Out, Leonard Griffie, Broadway Phil & the Shouters, The Roadsters, The Blues Dusters, The Blues Society, The Teri Cote Band, Dan Day and many others.  

The Ashland Blues Society has seen many changes. Several years ago David Pinsky and others stepped out of the organization and Bill Gates formed a new board. Festivals and jams continued successfully, but entropy took its toll and by summer of 2016 the ABS was on the ropes. There was no festival and the jams stopped.

Enter board member Linda Huffman.

“I took over as President last summer when everyone resigned due to health and personal situations,” Linda says. “The Society was near-broke but the response of people that wanted to see the jams reinstated spurred me to try to see what could be done. One person offered to match funds if we raised $250.00. We did that easily.”

Next came the task of getting the jams going.

Linda says, “It took some time to reorganize the board and get the jams started again. We tried to find a location that could allow minors on the premises.” The ABS search for a venue finally located The Grape Street Bar & Grill in Medford.

Linda is happy with the new venue. “We wanted a place that was large enough and could have minors. There wasn’t anything in the Ashland area that would work, so the jams moved to Medford.” The inaugural post-hiatus ABS jam was on December 13, 2016, “and we’ve been holding them on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month since then.”

Linda was next able to get a grant for $2,500.00 from the Fred W. Fields fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to put in savings for the next festival. “I was told about the grant two weeks before the deadline, and I had no paperwork to submit. Believe me, in the future there will be better record-keeping. We are also working to get corporate sponsors for the festival. We’d like to grow it to a weekend event.”

Linda anticipates that proceeds and donations from events will also be used to help sponsor acts that compete regionally and then enter the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “Plus, you have to pay the bands that host the jams. You can’t ask them to play for peanuts.” The proceeds from the festival will go toward more events and help bring in talent to the area, offer benefits to members and “keep the music going.”

The ABS believes in reaching out to the younger people in our area with the blues message. One idea is to participate in the Blues in the Schools program, however finding the personnel to commit to fulfilling the specific requirements of this worthy project is a challenge. Reaching out to college students is also a desired goal.

Another challenge to the ABS is finding interested volunteers to fill board positions and do volunteer jobs such as working at the blues festival, handling publicity, logistics, etc., but Linda is optimistic. The tide seems to be running in the ABS’s direction again: jams are well-attended, former members are coming back to help and the enthusiasm is there.

With 2017 comes the fantastic news that the ABS is going to have a blues festival at Grizzly Peak Winery on the last Sunday in June. Details will be forthcoming, however the return of the blues festival marks a real change in fortunes for the State of Jefferson and the Rogue Valley in particular.

Over the years ABS board members have included, in addition to those already mentioned, Marsha Carrino, Robert Ogle, Phil Newton, Erin Koltner, Bruce Dunn, Peggy Dunn and Gary Roberts. Current board members are Red Ohmer, Lloyd Lawton, Linda Huffman, Linda LaCasse, Katherine Keys and Bob Crowly.

Linda is happy with the board and with the direction the Society is taking. She acknowledges the task is a formidable one, and has had some doubts over the past few months, but she is determined to galvanize the Ashland Blues Society into a successful iteration of David Pinsky’s original vision on that sleepless winter morning over eight years ago.

“I couldn’t just sit back and watch it fade away,” she says. And we are glad she feels that way.

Persons interested in volunteering for the Ashland Blues Society events, or for being considered for the ABS board are encouraged to contact Linda Huffman at (530) 262 5270.

 

Walking Each Other Home

 

The fall comes quick in September

When the leaves and the rivers go dry

I take night trails  and remember

When you were by my side

 

The dogs are both out here with me

They’re old and they trip now and then

But they’re happy to be here anyway

Under the moon again

 

And there’s no need to fear the winter at all

When it gets here you won’t be alone

We can hold each other up

When we stumble and fall

We’re just walking each other home

 

When we were younger we took all those chances

And some of us took more than a few

Now I don’t spend my time at the dances

I want to stay here with you

 

The seasons work on your bones

Like the sky, my hair’s turning gray

But together our hearts won’t be weak or alone

I wouldn’t have it any other way

 

And there’s no need to fear the winter at all

When it gets here you won’t be alone

We can hold each other up

When we stumble and fall

We’re just walking each other home

 

Where did the Blues Begin?

Where did the Blues Begin?

The blues had to begin somewhere. Or did it? Did blues really have a beginning, or was it a sort of timeless coming together, a weaving and a braiding of different sources, streams and threads, shuttling forward and backward in time?

The blues scale, with the flatted third, fifth and seventh has its roots in west and central Africa, as does the melismatic vocal pitch bending, which could also have had a North African and Middle Eastern influence. Regions in Mali, Senegambia and other West African countries gave us the familiar elements of blues such as the call and response. The melisma (varying of pitch through a long musical syllable–think Aretha Franklin gospel) was important in these regions, as well as in the Middle East, connoting emotional meaning and artistic structure. Some of the percussion and stringed instruments (particularly the banjo) came out of Africa, as did the cultural context for the aforementioned call and response structure of the blues.

When African scales, instruments, vocal techniques and song structure encountered European folk and religious music (particularly that of the Scots-Irish southerners) it also came under Native American influences. Soon a cross-cultural ferment began that led to the basic roots of the blues. It isn’t hard, for instance, to correlate the skipping dotted 8th beat of a Scottish reel or British sea shanty with a dotted 8th blues shuffle, or to equate the insistent 4/4 time signature of Native American drumming with some Delta or hill country trance blues and later expressions in rock, rhythm and blues. Spanish, French and Portuguese influences brought us rumbas, sambas, tangos, zydeco and other styles to stir into the mix.

So we can think of blues as a conversation, a speaking together and an exchange back and forth between continents, cultures, races, religions and artistic styles that continues today. What we now term “Afro-Celtic” began brewing centuries ago when Scots, Irish and West African musicians began checking out what the other guys were up to. Tex-Mex and Latin jazz had their beginnings on our southern borderlands and in Florida and the offshore islands. Delta folk music has at its heart the lament, defiance, fear and restlessness of souls cast onto the shore of a strange land, struggling to stay alive. African-American music was born in sorrow and pain and it rose up to overcome every obstacle placed in front of it.

Even the legend of the devil meeting Robert Johnson at the Crossroads likely had its roots in the African Dahomey deity, Papa Legba, a trickster who stood, not just at the physical crossroads, but at the intersection of this world and the next. What better metaphor for music, that most transformative and transcendental of art forms, ready to transport us to wild, strange and dangerous realms? The crossroads is a fitting metaphor, also, for the crisscrossing musical influences that gave rise to the blues.

African, Latin, British, Moorish, Arab, Native American: throughout all these disparate sources are strung the strong threads of the blues, and its powerful gravity pulls them together into a swirling mix, constantly generating new iterations that fling themselves out again into popular culture.

It is no exaggeration to assert that all modern popular music has its roots somewhere in this amazing sonic generator we call the blues. Where did it begin? The answer will never be known. That is part of the fierce magic of the blues: it has no beginning because it is constantly reinventing itself, growing, shrinking, shaping and reshaping its dimensions. And it is because of this constant reinvention that music we now call the blues will have no end. It is as close as humans will get to the eternal. And that’s plenty close enough.

You can read and hear and see more about blues and roots at my music website. Thanks for reading!