Mennonites and the Blues

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.

Paul-Butterfield-Blues-BandThe 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.

23-72-Job's-Blues

Job (Mark McKechnie) refuses to be convinced by Sonny (Dan Bieman), the fundamentalist Christian, while the “High and Mighty” house band play in the background. Canadian Mennonite photo, November 21, 2012

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.

Scrap-Metal-BluesThe 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.

6 thoughts on “Mennonites and the Blues

  1. They may have played Assembly Hall more than once, but the particular performance I remember was in spring of 1968. I believe that gig featured Stevie Kreider on vocals and blues harmonica, Fred (not Mike) Hostetler lead guitar, Mark Kreider rhythm guitar, Geoff Hartzler on bass. Other sidemen over the years were Ken Willems and Doug Swartzentruber if I recall correctly.

    Also, although I heard them on several occasions, I never recall that they played “Louie Louie.” Somehow that would have seemed too lowbrow for them.

    They recorded one single, with “Evil” on the A side and “Corrina, Corrina” on the B side.

    BTW I last talked to Mark Kreider (Steve’s cousin) in New York City sometime in the late 70s. He was working as a studio musician and had once played with John Lennon.

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    • Spring of 1968 was too late for me, since I was in Chicago at that point. So I must have heard them sometime in 1967. I think Ken Willems was the person who insisted they were going to sing the original lyrics of “Louie, Louie,” though it was mumbled enough you couldn’t tell.

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      • FWIW when I first moved to Philadelphia in 1985 there was an awe-inspiring “Louie Louie” parade along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I only saw it once, but it was immensely moving. Marching bands, kazoo bands, rock bands on floats….

        “the celebration of International Louie Louie Day every year on April 11, the annual Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia from 1985 to 1989,”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Louie

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  2. Thanks for your memory, Ross. I too remember the Backdoormen at Goshen. I took pictures at one of their performances for either the Maple Leaf or the Record; I don’t remember which. I also remember the “controversy” over their singing of “Louie Louie.” Do you remember what year it was they performed in Assembly Hall?

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  3. Oddly enough, my own introduction to the blues came at Goshen College, in the form of the renowned Backdoormen. Fronted by Little Stevie Kreider, the son of Dean Carl Kreider, and featuring Mike Hostetler, Mark Kreider, and other sidemen, they performed Chicago blues in the Assembly Hall and at Spouter Inn. “Back Door Man” was a famous song by Willie Dixon, later performed by Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, and other greats. The band would travel up to Chicago to experience the authentic blues sound in the bars of the South Side.

    One notable performance at Assembly Hall featured the song “Evil,” also by Willie Dixon. Stevie introduced the song by saying “I hear the Dean is in the audience tonight, and we’d like to dedicate this song to him.”

    I personally had occasion to see Howling Wolf live in Chicago one time, courtesy of Jim Wenger.

    The blues have stayed with me, particularly the electrified Chicago blues, but also the older Delta blues sound. Of course in the 1960s and 70s white rock and roll took over the blues sound and incorporated it as the spine and basis of white rock.

    Side note — John Ellison, who wrote the hit “Some King of Wonderful” lived briefly in Philadelphia and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario as a Canadian citizen.

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