“Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy” puts the blues into its historical context

In my previous post, I wrote about “Long Train Running,” a fine little gem of a documentary on the singular history of blues music in Oakland, Calif., produced in 1981 as a graduate thesis by two students at University of California at Berkeley.

In an email exchange with Peter Webster, one of that film’s creators, he recommended that I look up a more recent film about the same subject, “Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy,” from 2017.

I did. In a word, it’s excellent.

In even more words, it’s a thoughtful, moving, loving, evocative, musical exploration of the unique development of the blues in just one area — West Oakland, California.

Amazingly, most of that music came from a small chunk of West Oakland — Seventh Street. (You might not click on most of these links (frowny face emoji should go here), but the one for Seventh Street is especially informative.)

Because it was fertile ground for the black music styles planted there, including blues, jazz and funk, West Oakland was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Black musicians who migrated west from places like Texas and Louisiana in the years around World War II brought their down-home blues with them, and from that beginning, the evolutionary process of the culture and the music led to more elaborate blues forms (think bands with horns; jump blues), to jazz, funk and beyond. Hence, “evolutionary blues.”

And the music evolved because the people evolved. Post-war West Oakland became a sophisticated community that allowed the down-home blues brought in by migration to evolve into newer forms: Fulson, for example, added a horn section to his traditional blues combo, and helped usher in a slicker “West Coast” blues sound.

The musicians who lived in, or moved through, or came to perform for receptive audiences reads like a Who’s Who of blues stars from that era: Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jimmy McCracklin, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, and many, many more. Record producer Bob Geddins recorded many local performers on his many labels.

And this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the many fine blues performers who never went far beyond West Oakland. Freddie Hughes is one of those, and he’s still singing today. Judging from his vocals that I’ve heard, he deserves a spot in the pantheon of great soul singers.

Here’s a list of the complete cast, which includes all the musical performers as well as others interviewed for their perspective. Worthy of special mention in the interview category are two authors, Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (there’s a link to a TED talk by her below), and Historian Robert O. Self, who wrote “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland.”

Self and Wilkerson’s views are important, because they add the ever-present context of race into the history of blues music, in this case, in both its historic and contemporary relevance.

The film is directed and co-produced by Cheryl Fabio, commissioned by the City of Oakland and co-produced by KTOP-TV in Oakland, and while it has toured some festivals, is not available yet for public release. It should be.

Fabio deserves high praise for putting this documentary together. It’s the type of history of the blues (America’s truly classical music) that is often overlooked or missing — placing the blues in the appropriate historical and cultural context, adding even more substance to its already profound origins.

It’s a beautiful, vital, meaningful piece of filmmaking. It is available to stream from the Oakland Public Library, if you happen to live in California. And it’s broadcast occasionally on KTOP, where streaming is available.

Here are some miscellaneous links:

A list of the songs from the film.

A perceptive review from BluesBlast Magazine.

The trailer for “Evolutionary Blues”:

A relevant TED talk by author Isabel Wilkerson:

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