What ‘they’ say!
thanks Michael Anthamatten
Keeping Oklahoma Blues Alive
The Blues: When most people hear it they think of Memphis or Chicago or New Orleans even Kansas City.
But, there’s a resurgence of the blues in Oklahoma focusing on the present as well as the past.
Just off I-40 and Highway 69 north of Checotah sits the small town of Rentiesville.
The historic black town of just 99 people includes the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame in an old bar which opened in 1936.
The current owner Selby MInner gives us a tour of the place originally opened by the grandmother of blues great D.C. Minner, Selby’s husband.
A display on one wall holds pictures of the 71 inductees to the Hall of Fame over the past ten years.
Although D.C. died in 2008, Selby has kept the hall of fame going as well as the annual Dusk till Dawn Festival which has been around for the past 23 years during Labor Day Weekend.
Oklahoma blues musicians have played with legends like Count Bassie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Billie Holliday.
And many Oklahomans have become legends themselves like Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Liggins, Lowell Fulson, Roy Milton, Elvin Bishop, and Jimmy Nolen.
So, why doesn’t Oklahoma Blues get the respect it deserves?
Selby’s got a few theories.
“Number one we don’t have the PR that other states have in general. Because this is such a diverse state there’s 11 different topographies here there are people here from all over the nation. It was settled by people and it was never supposed to be a state, so we got a late start.”
But, Larry O’Dell with the Oklahoma Historical Society says the mix of cultures makes Oklahoma Blues Special.
“You had American Indian, you had African American, but the white population from the north and land runs they came from Kansas and then southerners came up from Texas and Arkansas so you kind of have a line across Oklahoma where in that you have all these different people mingling which is all kinds of different music and I think that’s one reason why Oklahoma has such a different music tradition.”
In fact, Oklahoma City musician and band leader Hart Wand published the first blues song on Sheet music called “Dallas Blues”.
At her home in Oklahoma City, Dorothy Ellis also known as Miss Blues plays a version of it on her computer.
For 70 years Miss Blues has performed what she calls a style of music unique to America and Oklahoma.
“I think that we should celebrate just because it’s there and it’s the one thing that we can call our own in America. What else we got that nobody else’s hand hasn’t been in.”
Miss Blues started singing the Blues when she was eight years old and has always believed is started in Oklahoma.
She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Rentiesville back in 2004.
She says she loves the fact that the hall of fame is in an old drinking establishment.
“It’s in a juke joint,” she laughs. “Everybody else got a real pretty place. We got this juke joint and it’s housed in where the blues started in a juke joint.”
Another theory on why Oklahoma doesn’t get the respect it deserves for its contribution to Blues is a lack of an established music scene like Memphis.
But a local group, Watermelon Slim and the Workers wants to change that.
Norman resident and Bassist Cliff Belcher says the band recently returned from a festival in Finland and the last four albums have received worldwide attention.
“You know, we recorded all four of these albums that we have so far 16 nominations and one album of the year and band of the year for the 2008 blues music awards that was all recorded right here in Norman, Oklahoma.”
Watermelon Slim, Miss Blues and Selby Minner are all performing over the three day Labor Day Weekend Dusk till Dawn Festival in Rentiesville.
Selby says it’s a family friendly event showcasing true Oklahoma Blues at its roots.
“You didn’t get on this festival unless you were really doing blues. This is kind of an alternative festival because it’s really more about the blues tradition from this region then about the hottest new act out on the circuit because I don’t have the money to get them anyway.”
Several other groups are working to bring Blues back at the end of August with the Mayor’s Blues Festival in Medicine Park and Arcadia’s Blues Festival.
There’s also a free event on Blues culture in our state at the Oklahoma History Center on August 28th.
Written by Domenica Lovera, FOR Blues Inc Board
~by Susan Herndon
“I don’t care What you say about me Just so you say it.” ~Woody Guthrie, 1948
the blues muse
Selby Minner, singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist and blues warrior, says she has no method to songwriting, but she does have one beautiful and simple rule that she follows: “If I get an idea, I get up and write it down.” She says she’s very faithful to it– “it’s a commitment; whenever the Muse strikes– wait on it hand and foot.” She also has a theory about the music… “it’s a living thing, it wants to be played. For it to stay alive, it must be taught and learned and played and performed. It’s an act of service.” And so, she has lived her life by this code, following the Muse.
Born and raised in East Providence, Rhode Island, Selby was going to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design when she had a life changing experience. Janis Joplin came to the school, along with her band, Big Brother. “They put on a four hour concert and it blew my mind,” she says. “She had all her hits”… Selby was eighteen years old and from that moment on, became a singer, “following guitar players around and singing in coffeehouses.”
She and guitarist, Jim Donovan, started a duo called, Home Cookin, made their way playing gigs across the U.S. and it was he who encouraged her to play guitar, she also gives him credit for teaching her to play slide guitar. The duo eventually broke up, and Selby, in Berkley, California, began playing solo guitar and vocal, but she was wanting to play electric blues. She had bought a bass guitar, and she abandoned the acoustic folk-blues she’d been playing. It was around this time that she met D.C. Minner. D.C. had just switched from bass to electric; so Selby became his bass player. They also became husband and wife. And, together they traveled the country, the whole world even, playing four nights a week, dedicated to that Blues Muse, as a group called Blues on the Move.
“I switched back to guitar about four years before D.C. passed.” D.C. Minner, Selby’s husband of 28 years, legendary blues man and Oklahoma Jazz Music Hall of Fame inductee, passed away one year ago on May 6.
Together, they not only created a lot of great music, but have put Rentiesville, Oklahoma on the musical map. In ’91 they founded the Dusk til Dawn Blues Festival, a favorite three-day celebration, held every Labor Day weekend. They also established the Down Home Blues Club in 1988, hosting regular jam sessions. And they developed the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. As Artists in Residence with the Oklahoma Arts and Humanities Council, they have promoted the Blues Muse, teaching in the schools– work that Selby will continue in the upcoming 8-10 weeks. And Selby, herself, has even written a book, The Band Guide, which includes everything D. C. taught her… with invaluable information about being in a band.
The Down Home Blues Club, will be open six nights a month this June. The first Friday, June 5th, will be an all ages, open mic coffee house. Saturday, the 6th, she’ll be playing there with her band, and every Sunday from 6 pm to 12 am there will be an open jam which has been ongoing for two years!
With a new CD called, Take One, coming out in about 2-3 weeks, Selby says, “I just really love the Blues… the minor sound, the rhythm, and the stories. It gives you permission to live life and to enjoy it… it’s about living life and about surviving.” Selby is definitely a survivor, committed to the Muse and dedicated to the Blues.
Fortunately, Selby likes playing in Okemah and notes how supportive of the music everyone here is. She will be at Okemah’s Blues and Jazz Festival at the Grape Ranch this Saturday at 2 p.m. And will be at Grape Ranch again on Saturday, June 27th for the weekend singer/songwriter series. She also plays on occasion at the Brickstreet Cafe, so ask Luna when she might be there again!