"BLUES STAY Away From Me," sings J.B. Hutto in a futile plea, as he makes the rounds of the international concert circuit.
Later this month area blues fans will have an opportunity to hear the Chicago bluesman when he and others wind up the weeks-long Brass Monkey Blues Festival '83 with a blockbuster evening May 29 at the Carter Barron Ampitheatre.
Along with Hutto and his group, the New Hawks, there will be Luther (Guitar Jr.) Johnson and the Magic Rockers from Boston, New York's Rory Block, the D.C. harmonica-guitar duo of Phil Wiggins and John Cephas and the Nighthawks, the well known Washington-based blues band. Nap ("Don't Foget the Blues") Turner will be the emcee. From gate receipts, the groups will donate funds to the National Park Service to be used at Carter Barron this summer.
Third generation blues players Hutto, Johnson and Turner grew up in rural, blues-steeped environments. Though roots of this sort are becoming scarce, younger blues interpreters are finding new ways back to the sources. The blues still thrive, they still excite audiences and they continue to recruit dedicated disciples. In fact, they just won't go away.
Bladensburg High School graduate Pete Ragusa, drummer for the decade-old Nighthawks, was first influenced by the British invasion of the blues in the 1960s, and when he joined the Nighthawks, he was "taken back to the sources of the songs I was listening to, to Muddy Waters, Little Walter and others." He was soon "locked into the feel" of these originals. In a stranger-than-fiction coincidence, Ragusa recently learned that his father and uncle played the local hotel circuit years ago with a dance band called--you guessed it--the Nighthawks. The present day Nighthawks call Washington home although the group is here only three or four times a year. The rest of the year the band is traveling across the U.S. and Canada, and next month it will be in Japan.
"My parents had a lot of blues records, mainly boogie-woogie and barrel-house piano, like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons," recalls "Harmonica Phil" Wiggins of his years growing up in Washington and Northern Virginia in the 1960s. His father, who died when Wiggins was seven, played piano and sang in the church choir, and his older brother was a multi-instrumentalist and bandleader, "so there were always a lot of musicians at my house."
Wiggins took up harmonica in his mid-teens after hearing blues mouth harp master Sonny Terry. He also counts local gospel street singer Flora Molton as "a big inspiration." Guitarist "Bowling Green John" Cephus and Wiggins teamed up in the mid-1970s and last year they did a State Department tour through eight African countries. "It's real honest music," says Wiggins of the blues. "I like music that's rooted in a culture rather than music that's just prefab."
Blues guitarist and singer Rory Block, who was born in 1950, was exposed to music early at her father Allan Block's Greenwich Village sandal shop, a hangout for traditional blues and country musicians like Rev. Blind Gary Davis, Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. She had taught herself to play the guitar by the age of 10, recorded with her fiddle-playing father at 12 and at 14 fell in love with the blues and began transcribing, note for note, blues guitar lines from 1930s records. "I related to the blues," says Block, whose seventh album was just released. "I felt practically like a homeless person myself--I was running away from home and I hated school--and this music expressed my own blues perfectly and I just loved it."