Note: All of the photos in this blog post (as well as all of the words) by Greg Versen, aka Professah Blues.
Volumes have been written about the blues . . .
its origins, its unique musical structures—it's not all 12 bar—and its evolution and influence on popular music today. It is the music of an oppressed people; it is a music that reflects the African roots of slaves who were brought south, who survived, flourished, and adapted the culture in which they found themselves to form a unique culture of their own. A culture of language, folklore, and music, to name a few.
Blues is a music that reflects the life experiences of its creators. It deals with issues of life, death, love, faithfulness, betrayal, and power or powerlessness. It is not a music that is maudlin. It is a music that allows listeners to identify with the message. Hey, someone has been where I am, that makes me feel not so alone. Someone understands. It is also a music that makes you happy. On plantations, music provided entertainment (for both plantation owners and workers), provided songs for work, and for musicians, a livelihood that was better than working in the fields.
To me, and many others, blues is a music that you feel as well as listen to. The blues conjures a visceral response in me. The tune, as well as the words, carries a message one can relate to.
the city at the southern end of the delta, which is considered to be the birthplace of the blues. The music we listened and danced to—and we did lots of dancing—was blues and rhythm and blues. My late night radio listening was to WLAC, a 50,000-watt station out of Nashville, TN. They had DJs—John Richburg-John R and Hossman Allen—who play blues and R&B. I came to love this music in my youth.
The birth of Blues Valley
I moved to the valley in 1977. At that time, cable TV also carried radio that could be split off and run through a component stereo system. I discovered stations in DC that had regular blues programming—WDCU, WHUR, and most importantly Pacifica radio station WPFW. It was through cable that I got my blues fix. After several years, the cable company dropped the radio signals, giving me a case of the blues.
In 1984, I approached Bill Miller at WMRA asking that they offer some blues programming—it was mostly bluegrass at the time, but also very eclectic in its overall program offerings. His response: Why don’t you do it. My response: Let me think about it.
After giving it some thought, visiting Bill Barlow, host of Blue Monday on WPFW, I agreed to host a blues show for one semester. It was to be 9-11 p.m. on Fridays. So, the first Friday night, January 4, 1985, was my first show. I needed to name the show. I was familiar with Blues Alley in Georgetown; so to localize the program, I decided on Blues Valley.
The reception of Blues Valley by WMRA listeners was nothing short of phenomenal (to me, at least). I got phone calls and letters from listeners that were very supportive. When the end of the semester arrived and with the response from listeners being so positive, I agreed to continue—that was 25 years ago.
Special memories . . .
1. While it has been a number of years since the last letter, I used to receive letters from inmates at area correctional facilities—Craigsville, Buckingham—making requests and dedications. For many, it became a way they communicated with family members, girl friends, and wives through music.
2. As a result of #1, I was able to get a grant from Bluemont Concert series to fund the appearance of Piedmont bluesman John Jackson, Fairfax County, at JMU and the Buckingham Correctional Facility.
3. Phone calls from listeners asking me to play songs for them because they were feeling bad/lonely. One caller asked for a special song for his bride to be played at midnight—they were on their honeymoon. Just this past year, a young woman asked me to dedicate a show (she got an hour) as a surprise to her fiancé as a gift—they were working on a limited budget.
4. Mrs. B. More than 10 years ago I received a handwritten letter that said she was a regular listener and listened til the show signed off at 1:00 a.m. It was at the end of the letter that she said she was 80+ years old. She would call from time to time and would request music that had a heavy Hammond B-3 organ component. I later learned that she played the organ at her church for more than 50 years, and loves to hear music that features the B-3. She will be celebrating her 95th birthday this month.
5. Fund raising. This is where the music meets the road. I would guess that about 90% of the challenges I put before Blues Valley listeners during fund raising were met or exceeded.
6. Emceeing area music events as a result of hosting Blues Valley has allowed me to meet a large number of blues performers. As a Blues DJ, I’ve been able to gain access and interview well-known performers: BB King, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls, Saffire, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughn, and Joe Williams.
7. It is the music and the listeners that make Saturday nights (all five hours of it) something I continue to look forward to and enjoy doing.