In my high school years in Ohio in the early 1960s, I became a fan of folk music, including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the Chad Mitchell Trio. It was not until I got to Goshen College in Indiana that I discovered the blues.
The album that triggered the passion of a directionless university student was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and their “Chicago Blues” sound. This soon led to performers closer to the original, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave van Ronk, Etta James and more. The blues seemed to connect with the pain of feeling disconnected from my roots while facing an uncertain future.
The Kitchener Blues Festival was held last weekend, and it lead me to wonder about Mennonites who have links to the blues.
I have two stories from Ontario. The first is about a Blues Opera, “Job’s Blues,” produced by Ross Muir, managing editor of the Canadian Mennonite since January 2005, and a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Muir wrote the lyrics in 1988, long before he had any connection with Mennonites (he has a Fellowship Baptist background), but the play was not produced until 2012 when it was performed by the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild, in conjunction with The Grand River Blues Society, in six performances at Harriston Town Hall Theatre north of Waterloo Region. The opera is set in a bar and features God, Satan, Job (a blues singer), and Job’s “friends” — Eric a “new age” Christian; Gregg a prosperity gospel Christian; and Sonny a fundamentalist Christian, who each chastise Job about his sin.
“Job’s Blues” is the best combination of faith and blues I’ve ever seen. Ross has had a few nibbles since 2012, but none have come to completion.
The second story is about a Toronto-based blues singer named Diana Braithwaite, who performed at the Kitchener Blues Festival with her partner Chris Whitely, to a very appreciative audience. She is a direct descendant of an African-American slave who settled in Wellington County, Ontario, part of the Queen’s Bush settlement. Her mother, Rella Braithwaite, was born near Wallenstein, Ontario, and her grandparents lived near Mennonites in that community, and went to school with them. The farm families helped each other with threshing, and shared farm equipment.
In June 2013 Diana Braithwaite spoke to the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario about stories she had heard about her ancestors and their Mennonite neighbors. Although it doesn’t mention Mennonites, her song, “Wellington County,” on her Scrap Metal Blues album of 2013 honors the early African-American settlers. This link of Mennonites and blues may be thin, but blues are clearly rooted in the African-American experience. And Black-Mennonite links in Canada is a historical topic that Timothy Epp’s scholarly work has significantly advanced.
Finding Mennonite musicians who sing the blues has proved difficult for me. An internet search led to only two — The Good Friday Blues Band in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which performs only occasionally, and Bush Wiebe and the Mennonite Blues Experiment, based in Steinbach, Manitoba.
The Mennofolk website lists 94 performers. A few of them mention blues along with a variety of other genres, e.g. folk, rock, and bluegrass. If some of them have recorded serious blues, I would be happy to learn about them. I’ll add them to this blog, and try out some of their music!
I also wondered about blues written “about” Mennonites. One interesting song is “Mennonite Blues” by James “Super Chikan” Johnson, a Mississippi blues singer who clearly encountered Mennonites in his journey, mostly as a laborer on their farms. Less interesting is “Mennonite Blues” by The Electric Amish on their Barn to be Wild album.
What is your experience with the blues? Do you still listen to them? Why or why not?
You’ll learn nothing about the blues in my book, In Search of Promised Lands.