Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

The Road North

UWM Presents A Tribute to 1920's Blues

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In undergraduate school, I took a course in the history of pop music. It’s kind of surprising that courses like that aren’t closer to the core of a standard liberal arts education. An understanding of the history of contemporary pop gives one a really interesting perspective on what’s going on in the world of contemporary pop culture—makes for a much more literate graduate.

Somewhere in that course, I remember hearing about a 1920’s recording studio above a chair factory in Port Washington Wisconsin. Paramount Records was a subsidiary of the chair company, and in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, it welcomed jazz and blues artists from the south with an opportunity to make a shadow of what their music was actually worth—but at least they were getting paid. Artists like Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson would make road trips all the way up to Port Washington. I remember thinking that those road trips by early blues and jazz men—recording artists who had such an impact on the proliferation of blues, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and everything that was to come after it . . . the stories of these guys driving up to Wisconsin to record above a chair factory. It just sounds like interesting drama.

Kevin Ramsey paid tribute to Paramount some time ago in his Rep Cabaret show Grafton City Blues (Grafton being where the records were actually pressed.) This week UWM pays tribute to that drama of the journey from the south to Wisconsin with the debut production of The Road North—a new musical drama featuring song, dance and spoken text weaving a story of the early blues in the 1920’s and early ‘30’s. It’s presented as a variety show with the atmosphere of an Avant Garde coffeehouse or the aforementioned recording studio in Port  Washington. The venue at the Kennilworth Building where the show is being staged can have a very bare feel to it that should work perfectly. Featured songs mentioned in the show’s press release include, “West Coast Blues by Blind Blake, Big Road Blues by Sam Chatmon, Devil Got My Woman by Skip James, If I Had My Way by the Reverend Gary Davis, Hey Hey Baby by Big Bill Broonzy, and Blind Willie Johnson’s Let Your Line Shine on Me.”

Rebecca Holderness directs a joint project betweenn UWM Theatre and Guitar programs in what sounds like a really interesting fusion. The ensemble features 21 performers of diverse ages and backgrounds.

The Road North
runs November 11th through the 15th at the studio space on the 5th floor of the Kennilworth Building (on 1925 East Kennilworth.) All shows are at 7:30. All tickets are $5.

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