Robert Darden, journalism professor at Baylor University, author of People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music, founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, subject of A Life’s Work, was recently on a panel at SXSW. Below is his report on the proceedings. Thanks, Robert. As usual, you went above and beyond.
Austin, TX — South by Southwest (SXSW), the world’s largest live music showcase and floating party, is like Disneyland for adults. On steroids. Literally thousands of bands playing day and night in every possible venue — concert halls, clubs, bars, restaurants, parks, garages, laundromats, front porches. As big as SXSW is, the “unofficial” SXSW is several times bigger. More bands played in non-SXSW showcases than in ones listed in the mammoth program.
It was, of course, primo people-watching, too. We sat next to wild-haired, wild-eyed death metal thrash bands from Norway and retro 1920s bands in natty fedoras. For young women, the required festival outfit was a short, flirty black dress with cowboy boots. For the guys, black, straight-legged jeans, a hip t-shirt, and an antique vest. My favorite hipster wore all of that and had an energy drink, Shiner beer, and cigarette in one hand and his cellphone (the official fashion accessory of SXSW) in the other. At 10 a.m.
I was there because I’d been invited to speak on my hero Blind Willie Johnson on an official SXSW panel hosted by Michael Hall, the excellent “Texas Monthly” writer. Hall’s epic story on the search for the “real” Blind Willie took on mythic proportions and will probably win an award or three. Also on the panel was the brilliant (and very funny) slide guitarist Steve James, Shane Ford (one of the subjects of Hall’s article, a young man who had spent years of his life searching for anything tangible on Blind Willie), Hall, and myself. My job was to provide historical context from an academic perspective. Right.
It was a love-fest. The 75-100 people in attendance were all clearly knowledgeable about the life and times of the world’s greatest slide guitar player, his short, tragic life, and this once-in-a-lifetime song, “Dark is the Night, Cold is the Ground.” James showed some of Blind Willie’s technique on slide guitar and frankly admitted that some of the things Blind Willie played were still beyond his — or anybody’s — capability. Ford told funny/sad stories of searching for Blind Willie’s birth or death certificate, burial site, homes … really anything that could be tied to one of the greatest artists of the last 100 years. We’re not even really sure where he’s buried, much less if much of anything we think we know about him is true.
After the panel, we feasted on live music, outrageous shopping opportunities, great Mexican food and finally wandered over for the 8 p.m. showcase, sponsored by Texas Monthly, at the famed Continental Club. (One of the perks of being on a panel is that you get the all-access pass … which puts you at the head of the line, no matter how long that line is.) Steve James played a blistering (if too short) set of songs by Blind Willie or from that era of the emerging gospel blues. He was then joined by the magnificent Malford Milligan, late of Storyville, and one of America’s great singers. Mary and I had just seen Malford a few weeks earlier (in Austin, natch) perform a roaring, powerhouse 90-minute R&B, soul and rock set with one of the best bands I’ve ever heard since my 3-hour stay at the Rev. Al Green’s church in Memphis. Milligan moaned and James played the haunting, transcendent “Dark is the Night.” They followed with the gospel blues romp, “I’ve Never Been to Seminary (But I’ve Been to Calvary).” The next act was the brilliant Guy Forsythe, who put together a trio just for the Blind Willie showcase — and it, too, was thrilling.
And then we left before the showcase ended. We had a 45-minute walk to our car and an 1 1/2 hour drive home at midnight. Along the way, we passed more bands, some great, some puzzling, and throngs of happy, happy people.
But if anyone had had a better day/night than we’d just experienced, they would have been walking on clouds.