Monday, June 27, 2011

Hines Farm: Blues Mecca

At famed Hines Farm, in Swanton, Ohio, west of Toledo; below, a 2006 Blues Awards poster (yahoo image). It could be harmonica player Billy Branch, who plays lots of festivals and has won many awards. Sure looks like a Blues icon.
The old farm in the Toledo, Ohio countryside, in the town of Swanton, way behind the airport, is hopping. Cars fill the lawn and people wander in. From the looks of it, initially, many of the folks were born in the 1940s and 1950s, like me, and grew up with the Blues. Blues music, that is. I’m instantly at home, but we are early birds, and more people are behind us. I’m with my daughter Elissa and her friend Scott, who lives near the farm and knows the rural area well. It's all new to me. The smell of barbeque and the sound of music, the joyful sounds of a woman on saxophone accompanied by fabulous keyboards, guitar and bass, fill the cool night air.

I’m at Hines Farm, a famous Blues mecca from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, when great names like BB King and John Lee Hooker starred, along with local blues artists like Art and Roman Griswold and Curtis Grant. Some jazz heroes made their appearance from time to time, too, like Otis Redding and Count Basie (City Paper, 10 November 2010, article by Matt Desmond and Scott Recker). The yellowed walls of the old barn's spacious interior are filled with faded photos, posters and memorabilia telling the story. I take it in.

The Blues: Songs of labor, loss, hardship. Born of sorrow on plantations and cotton fields in the deep American south. Songs of deliverance and hope, forged out of African roots and the American experience of slavery and carried North with sharecroppers and the grandchildren of slaves, who fled their native South in search of better opportunities. Songs of “The Great Migration” of the mid-20th century, which gave birth to the “urban blues" and inspired jazz legends. Two great American cultural traditions. True American music, gifts to the world.

Blues artist Willie Dixon reminds us, in a PBS documentary (see note below): “The blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits.” Both the roots and the fruits are with us still, thanks to places like Hines Farm. And as my friend Jim Fahey noted, these old juke joints are rural places, pathways from Nachez and Memphis to Swanton, from the Delta to northern farms. For these migrants the dream of land ownership, of being their own bosses, never died, nor did their songs of freedom.

I lived in Toledo for almost 20 years before leaving for Washington, D.C. in 1985; raised my family here, taught at the University, worked in the community. But I had never been to Hines Farm. How did I miss it?

Maybe because in the 1970s Hines Farm fell victim to airport expansion, super highways and suburbanization. It was as if the music died, people remember. But not for long. In 1978 Henry Griffin, who grew up in the once-thriving and lively black farming community there, bought the Hines’ farm and started the music going again. Griffin also remembers the farm as the center of community life, with a skating rink, hayrides, baseball games, and famous motorcycle races.

“I had to take the place over, because I had some of the best times of my life here,” Griffin said (quoted in City Paper article, 10 Nov. 2010). The Blues venue was reborn. New owner, same farm, same barn, same bar and stage in the large indoor space, same race track, and same music and traditions.

Like in the old days, musicians today come from all over the region and beyond for a gig, some from Chicago, Detroit and other big cities. This weekend well-known harmonica player and Blues educator Billy Branch plays his heart out to a mixed and boisterous crowd, white and black, all ethnic backgrounds, young, middle-aged and seniors. That’s a tradition at Hines Farm, too, a multi-ethnic, diverse, and enthusiastic crowd. It was a rarity in the 1950s, during the height of segregation. Tonight it feels right, natural, Americans united, enjoying a shared heritage.

So here I am at Hines Farm, feeling the tradition, enjoying the music. We get our barbeque dinners, the best in the area, and sit at one of the faded wood picnic tables that fill the area around an outdoor stage. Too nice to be inside. Music and spoken word take turns. Then Billy Branch takes the stage, and Hines Farm heats up. Folks clap, dance, and sing along. Branch calls his music “the Chicago blues.” There’s no grander blues tradition than that, carried North by African-Americans during the Great Migration.

You don't have to go to faraway places for great adventures. It's right here, in our own backyard, I thought. The music blares as the sun sets, a clear summer night in the Toledo countryside, and we take in the magic of the place.

Note: There’s information about Hines Farm online, several articles, and also an award-winning PBS documentary, based on the research of Dr. Matt Donahue, a Popular Culture instructor at Bowling Green State University. The documentary became a labor of love for Donahue, who started his career as a student at the University of Toledo, writing a paper on Hines Farm. One thing led to another. Donahue intereviewed local musicians and all the greats still living. John Lee Hooker, who loved singing the blues at Hines Farm, told Donahue in an interview: “I haven’t made a lot of money, but I had a lot of fun.” Donahue says he felt the same way in working with the local PBS station to produce the documentary.

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