Oakland blues documentary “Long Train Running” a 40-year-old window into West Coast blues history

I enjoy finding old and historical blues information online, especially videos. It seems like many older documentaries, TV shows and much concert footage has found its way onto YouTube.

There are some, like “You See Me Laughin’: The last of the hill country bluesmen,” a documentary that I wrote about recently, which offer a look inside the music and the musicians’ lives. They are absorbing and informative with their personal perspectives. Others, such as “Blues Masters,” show film and photos that go back to the dawn of recordings and filmmaking. Some are enjoyable; others can be a little too preachy. But most are very interesting.

And now I’ve found another source for the blues: the academic world. I recently stumbled across the digital collections of the University of California at Berkeley library. Actually, the academic world is not all that unusual as a source — blues music has been examined by scholars for decades, as they struggle, I think, to explain this deeply personal and emotional music on an intellectual level. The best explanations of the blues are made by hearing and feeling the music.

Image from the film. Born Lowell Fulson, he recorded under several variations of his last name.

And that seems to be the purpose of this 1981 documentary, “Long Train Running,” a powerful half-hour of sights and sounds that trace the blues history of Oakland, Calif., from the 1940s into the ’70s. It’s probably not accurate to call it a history in an academic sense, but it is a powerful evocation of some of the people, places and music from that period, including some of the origins of West Coast blues.

Performers featured in the film include Troyce Key, also the owner of Oakland’s Eli’s Mile High Club; Sugar Pie DeSantoLowell Fulson; Elmon Douggar; author and blues historian Paul Oliver; record producer Bob Geddins; Jim Moore; Frankie Lee; Johnny Waters. (History, via the internet, has not been kind enough to provide adequate biographical information on all of these people.)

There are clips here of the performers in Oakland and Richmond clubs, and interviews where they expound on on what the blues means to them, interspersed with history of the black community in the bay area.

One of the more pleasant surprises in the film is the inclusion of Geddins, a musician and record producer, who almost single-handedly captured much of the Oakland blues scene on record after moving there from Texas in 1942.

Bob Geddens, in an image from the film.

In doing so, he was taking the path of many black Americans from Louisiana and Texas, who, instead of heading north to Memphis or Chicago, went west to California. Oakland, with its shipyards, was a big lure.

Geddens tried to describe the music he recorded, saying here that “It’s not much different from other blues, but it’s got a slow draggery beat and a mournful sound…” In film, Fulson talks about Geddens as a producer of blues records: “He had a beautiful ear of how to phrase the blues.”

From 1948 on, Geddens founded small independent record labels, including Art-Tone, Big Town, Cavatone, Down Town, Irma, Plaid, Rhythm, and Veltone. He also leased his recordings to Los Angeles based labels such as Swing Time, Aladdin, Modern, Imperial, and Fantasy, and also to the Chicago operated Checker label. Geddins produced acts including Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Johnny Fuller, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James.

This lively, interesting film was produced in 1981 as the graduate thesis of journalism students Marlon Riggs and Peter Webster for the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley. They produced, wrote and edited the film. Riggs went on to a career as a filmmaker, educator, poet, and gay rights activist. He created several documentary films besides this one, including “Ethnic Notions,” “Tongues Untied,” “Color Adjustment,” and “Black Is…Black Ain’t.” He died in 1994.

The co-creator of this excellent effort is Peter Webster, who moved on from journalism and is now an attorney in Salt Lake City. I point this out only because the Berkeley library information on the film inaccurately lists the co-creator as “Webster, Peter Richard, 1947-” I know this because I found his website, which describes him as studying “children’s creative thinking in music and the appropriate use of music technology for music teaching and learning,” and asked him via email if he was involved in this documentary. He said he was not, but that it looked like a great project.

I finally tracked down the appropriate Peter Webster (whose name is correct in the actual film credits), and he confirmed his role as Riggs’ partner on the project.

And I point out all of this, not just to make this post look longer and more important, but to demonstrate how a simple matter (hold the sarcasm, please) like this post can turn into an investigative adventure. Isn’t the internet a wonderful place?

All in all, this smart, gritty little film does a wonderful job of preserving a piece of blues history that’s pretty much disappeared. That history was on shaky ground even when this project was completed, 40 years ago..

Here’s the link to the “Long Train Running” video. It doesn’t show an image here, I think, because it goes to a video player at the Berkeley library.

https://avplayer.lib.berkeley.edu/Video-Public-MRC/b22146011?fbclid=IwAR0VkNhJ9aNfPb6M__rmQTPXvruurXp_j3okXCzz4Hf3-ZA_tyJbOuHZNIM

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