July 13, 2013 8:06:09 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
MUNICH, Germany -- Thirty-five years ago this month Blewett Thomas invited me to ride over to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to visit the bluesman Johnny Shines. The day before Blewett had met Axel Kustner, a German blues enthusiast, who was visiting their mutual friend, Big Joe Williams in Crawford.
By then Big Joe was in his 70s. He had made recordings and played concerts on three continents. He had performed for small groups on front porches and in juke joints, and he had played for cheering crowds in some of Europe's largest concert halls. Joe's claim to the blues standard "Baby Please Don't Go" (memorably performed by Ten Years After at Woodstock) was as solid as anyone's, and he had befriended a young Bob Dylan not long after Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in the early 60s.
Axel was taking Joe to visit Johnny and invited Blewett to come along. Blewett invited me.
Despite not having seen each other for years, the two aging bluesmen found plenty to talk about. The most consequential outcome of the day for me was my introduction to Axel, who would become a lifelong friend. And it is because of that friendship 35 years later (Axel, who has an unerring memory when it comes to such, says it was July 26, 1978, a Wednesday) I am writing this from the dining room of a small hotel on Schillerstrasse in Munich, Germany.
Tonight at America Haus, a cultural center run by the U.S. government, we attend a reception for an exhibition of photographs taken by Axel during his more than two dozen trips to the States. During those visits Axel befriended and photographed bluesmen all over the South and up the eastern seaboard. In 1980 he and a friend made a series of field recordings of obscure -- and in many cases, dormant -- blues musicians.
Their efforts resulted in an acclaimed 14-record set of LPs titled "Living Country Blues." Axel's photographs were used on the covers of the albums. The music has remained "in print" on CDs.
Tonight the house is packed. Two young German musicians are playing country blues to a rapt crowd standing in a large open room on the ground floor. On the walls is an exhibition of photographs taken by Inge Morath during a 1960 cross-country road trip from New York to Nevada where John Huston was filming "The Misfits." The exhibit includes pictures of Huston and the film's stars, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and the film's screenwriter, Arthur Miller, who Morath would eventually marry.
Axel's pictures are two floors up in a less spacious, and as everyone will soon realize, a much too small gallery. There are speeches. The public affairs officer from the consulate speaks in German; a German professor speaks in English. I am recognized as Axel's friend who has come from America for the opening. The crowd politely applauds.
Weeks earlier students from a nearby university interviewed Axel about the different bluesmen. The center has produced an exhibition catalogue containing their interviews along with his photographs.
Axel will speak later, dedicating the evening to his mother who died three weeks earlier.
In his address Axel mentions a comment I made 20 years earlier amid the dust and heat and squalor of a day on the road photographing, that someday students would be interviewing him about all this. Everyone laughs.
Included in the exhibit is a photograph of Big Joe sitting on the edge of his Aunt Mary Liza's porch on Sugar Hill Road in Crawford. Joe is playing a guitar; there are several other people in the picture, neighbors and relatives.
"See that picture," Axel says to me, pointing to a photograph hanging on a wall next to a window overlooking Karolinenplatz, a roundabout with a monument memorializing the 30,000 German soldiers who died in Russia resisting Napoleon in 1812. "It was taken Sept. 26, 1978, the day Peter was born."
He, of course, is referring to my oldest son.
The students produced for the exhibit a large map of the Southern United States showing the towns where the bluesmen Axel photographed lived: Marion, Miss. (Cora Fluker); Crawford Miss. (Big Joe Williams); Bentonia, Miss. (Jack Owens); Greenville, Miss. (Eugene Powell) and others.
After the speech-making, the blues duo and crowd move upstairs, filling the gallery; the overflow results in a line down two flights of stairs. The academic organizers are bewildered by the swell. Axel signs posters and exhibition catalogues. The Germans can't seem to get enough of it. We both field questions. Everyone wants to share stories about their personal encounters with America.
The crowd lingers; no one wants to leave. Axel enjoys the attention and the talk about his favorite subject, blues music. The students are proud of their efforts. The cleanup man will tell someone afterward that 600 wine glasses were dirtied.
Earlier that day we had visited the Alte Pinakothek, a vast museum filled with art treasures from the masters of the 13th and 18th centuries, Rubens, Durer, Bosch, Brueghel and others.
Tonight, not four blocks from that museum, we were wrapping up a celebration of the work of artists of a very different time and place. A gentle breeze blew in from the open windows; it was a cool, beautiful evening in a distant land.
Yet tonight, at least for this bit of time, that distance between our two lands was made smaller, thanks to the efforts of my good friend Axel Kustner.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.