In 1966, The Memphis Country Blues Society created their first festival with a fistful of dollars and what society member Randall Lyon called a “heroic passion” for the blues. This collective from the counterculture launched an integrated music festival featuring bluesmen like Bukka White and Furry Lewis playing alongside younger white folk musicians like John Fahey at the Overton Park Band Shell (now the Levitt Shell), a space where staff restrooms were still segregated and the KKK had held a rally just one week before. Three more versions of The Memphis Country Blues Festival were held, attracting increasing attention from fans in the city and people much further afield. Even in the face of the violence following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the Blues Society persevered. A recording from the 1968 festival became a major international release on Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, and, in 1969, the festival attracted a crew from New York’s WNET, and footage of the festival was broadcast nationally on Sounds of the Summer, hosted by Steve Allen. Combining a wealth of archival materials with new interviews featuring the organizers of the festival, The Blues Society traces the journey of the festival from improvised local celebration to an event of national prominence.
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