Rockland, Maine Honored With Blues Trail Marker
As blues has spread from Mississippi to the far corners of the country and the world, the state of Maine has assumed an active role in the presentation and promotion of the music to appreciative local audiences ever since Mississippi-born blues giants Muddy Waters and B.B. King began coming here in the 1970s. The presence of the blues in Maine was solidified in 1994 with the formation of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, a premier annual event that has featured many Mississippi artists.
Maine was first prominently mentioned in blues lyrics in 1928 when Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers recorded “The Brakeman’s Blues,” which contained the stanza “Portland, Maine, is just the same as sunny Tennessee; Any place I hang my hat is home, sweet, home to me.” Blues probably reached Maine via traveling minstrel and vaudeville shows in the early decades of the twentieth century. African American minstrel troupes first visited after the Civil War, and Maine had its own Kemp Family Minstrel Show, founded in Leeds by George Washington Kemp, a former slave from Virginia. Because of Maine’s remote location and small black population, however, few blues performers toured here until the music began to gain a solid foothold in the 1970s among white supporters, on the heels of the 1960s blues revival. The University of Maine hosted Mississippi’s James “Son” Thomas in 1972 and staged a blues festival in 1974. Muddy Waters and B. B. King appeared in the state in the 1970s, and other blues artists began performing at clubs including Raoul’s, the Loft, and Big Easy in Portland, Red Barn in Monroe, Left Bank in Blue Hill, and Geddy’s in Bar Harbor. Appearances in Maine were often made possible by booking artists who were already on tour in Boston, New York, or Montreal. By 1989 the Maine Blues Society had been formed in Portland.
In 1978 Rockland’s Paul Benjamin began booking Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang at a club where he worked as a bouncer. Benjamin continued to present blues artists, dozens of whom had Mississippi roots, at the Trade Winds Blues Plus Lounge, the Time Out Pub, the Trade Winds Blues Bash festival, and the North Atlantic Blues Festival, including Bo Diddley, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Honeyboy Edwards, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Bobby Rush, Mose Allison, R. L. Burnside, Eddy Clearwater, Big Jack Johnson, Super Chikan, Jimmy Johnson, Big Daddy Kinsey, Denise LaSalle, Magic Slim, Eddie C. Campbell, Jimmy Dawkins, Carey Bell, Johnny B. Moore, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Sam Myers, Lonnie Pitchford, Fenton Robinson, Booba Barnes, Mojo Buford, Melvin Taylor, Smokey Wilson, Zac Harmon, Eden Brent, Lil’ Dave Thompson, and Homemade Jamz. Another important figure in putting Maine on the blues map, Randy Labbe of Waterville, was initially inspired by a Muddy Waters performance in Augusta. He began promoting blues in the 1980s and later produced albums for Telarc, Cannonball, and his own Deluge label featuring Mississippi natives Pinetop Perkins, Zora Young, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Milton, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Snooky Pryor, and others. Labbe also produced tribute albums to Mississippi blues pioneers Willie Dixon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, and Howlin’ Wolf.