Ann Arbor Blues Festival draws on a remarkable 49-year tradition

Ann Arbor, Michigan - August 19, 2017: The Ann Arbor Blues Festival. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell)

It was 1969, two weeks before Woodstock, Ann Arbor, Michigan. The first-ever Electric Blues Festival; it was the first music festival ever held in North America. Remember it was two weeks before Woodstock.

B.B. King performed that weekend at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. So did John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf. These were Blues stalwarts, but at the time most white people didn’t know who they were. The Ann Arbor Blues Fest was a breakthrough for some blues artists; a rejuvenation for others.

“It was the first largely white audience these blues legends had played in front of,” said James Partridge, an Ann Arbor attorney, who revived the Ann Arbor Blues Festival last year after an 11-year absence. “It launched some careers and it re-ignited some. All of this happened right here in Ann Arbor 49 years ago.

Ann Arbor, Michigan – August 19, 2017: The Ann Arbor Blues Festival. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell)

“This is the tradition we celebrate every year from here on out.”

Partridge and the blues are in the news right now as the 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival approaches. It is but one year away from the 50th anniversary of that first historic festival. While Partridge is “excited beyond belief” about the lineup he has put together for this year’s festival, he is quick to point to its remarkable heritage.

“Many people have forgotten, and so many others don’t even know about what happened here 49 years ago,” he said. “I want that to change. I want people to be aware of that history, to walk taller knowing what an important role Ann Arbor played in the music business, in shaping the music world.”

The 1969 Ann Arbor Blue Festival was historic for it’s amazing lineup and it’s unlikely origin. A group of students from the University of Michigan wanted to hold a blues fest on a field adjacent to Huron High School, and they asked U-M to sponsor the event. Amazingly, U-M forked over $50,000 – which translates into nearly $350,000 in today’s market. That enabled the young organizers not only to land King, Hooker and Wolf, but also Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters and other stars.


It can be said that the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival changed the landscape of the blues, just as it can be said that the blues changed the landscape of the music. As Waters himself said, “The Blues had a baby and named it Rock and Roll.”

“So much of today’s music was inspired, either directly or indirectly by the Blues,” Partridge said. “Rock and Roll, R&B, pop, jazz, even hip hop. And Ann Arbor helped change the music world.

“If those early festivals hadn’t happened, who knows what would have happened to the Blues, and who knows what direction music would have taken.”

Those festivals were indeed important, but the festival has an on-again, off-again history. There was no festival in 1971. It returned in 1972-1974, but the ’74 fest was held in Windsor. For nearly 20 years, there was no festival, then it revived from 1992-2006. Then in disappeared again until Partridge brought it back last year.

Partridge is passionate about the Blues, and his passion goes far beyond words. He recently left his job at Thomson Reuters to work on the festival full time. He has the help of several key sponsors, but he also the main bankroll behind the 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is hoping that a once-thriving Ann Arbor music scene can rebound and make the 2018 Blues Fest a success.

“The more you learn about the history of this festival, the more awestruck you become,” he said. “To be a part of something like this is humbling, honestly. And, I just hope thousands of people come out to enjoy it.

“Because it’s part of Ann Arbor’s history.”

Tickets and further information on the 2018 Ann Arbor Blues Festival are available




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