ON THE SCENE: Blues at Timbuctoo to go virtual this year

Blues musician Jerry Dugger poses at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. (Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, few abolitionists treated Blacks as equals in their acts and deeds. John and Mary Brown did.

As Richard Henry Dana, author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” noted in his diary and letters, that when visiting and staying with the Browns at their North Elba farmhouse, at dinner, Blacks and whites sat intermingled at the table all speaking and eating together as equals. Dana, who traveled widely about New England and had many of the leading abolitionists of the day as friends, also noted just how rare that was. He had not experienced it before.

Eight years ago, Lake Placid hotelier Gary Smith wondered how to attract a broader and more diverse audience to the John Brown Farm State Historic Site to foster an increased understanding of the man who led the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

The arts and humanities matter to Smith. Since arriving in Lake Placid, he was an easy yes for Creative Healing Connections, the Lake Placid Institute, the Lake Placid Film Forum, John Brown Lives! and other local organizations when they needed a place to host a meeting or a special event. Smith made it affordable and possible. On the one hand, it was good for business. More people came to Hotel North Woods and left impressed with the improvements and quality of service. Smith gained by learning a lot more about the community, and such assets as John Brown’s farm.

Smith pitched Martha Swan, founder and director of John Brown Lives!, on hosting a blues festival. Swan had already resurrected annual May events at the farm to commemorate John Brown’s birth, continuing the gatherings organized by the NAACP of Troy and Philadelphia that took place throughout much of the 20th century. Swan agreed and named it Blues at Timbuctoo after the 19th century free Black colony in North Elba that Brown assisted.

This year, in light of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, Blues at Timbuctoo will go virtual. On July 16, JBL filmed a tour of the farm and introduction to blues musician Jerry Dugger. Swan considers Dugger to be the “heart and soul” of the festival. The video, which also includes performances by Dugger, will be aired as part of the virtual event. Also, Dugger and Smith have reached out to other musicians that will be a part of the now on-air event in mid-September.

“‘A Scheme of Justice and Benevolence,’ was the name of Gerrit Smith’s massive distribution of land to Black New Yorkers to enable them to vote,” said Swan. “Several families came to North Elba taking Smith up on his offer. Their settlement came to be called Timbuctoo. The question is, why? How did that name land on the settlement as an address?”

Swan went on to say that we’ll never find the explanation, but we can surmise that as Timbuctoo was well known as a world cultural capital back in the 15th and 16th centuries, using that name says that the North Elba colony was a place of pride for the free Blacks living there.

“For us, having that name on our landscape is an opportunity handed to us to look for ways to connect these cultures,” said Swan. “And, of course, the blues are a derivative of the music of western Africa, where Timbuctoo still exists. So, bringing the blues to John Brown’s farm fits squarely within our mission of getting at the complexity and richness of our history. Further, it will help us honor the extraordinary contributions of African Americans, and people of African descent, to our culture, institutions, and society.”

Smith harkens back to his 2014 presentation of his annual Blues Festival that began at the Hotel North Woods and had spread to several other venues. His headliner for that year was Dugger and the Harlem Blues Project. In between songs, Dugger began talking about the need to reboot the relationship between Blacks and whites, that it’s hard to build a relationship between the Black and white Americans based on what’s gone before.

“Jerry said it’s hard to correct a bad draft. We need to reboot it,” said Smith. “He said that comes about by inviting other kids over, having dinners together sharing traditional foods, and talking about their hopes and aspirations. He felt that people would find that the other is not so different; that we have much in common. I thought about that. I thought about Martha. And I pulled Jerry aside the next morning and asked if he’d be willing to help organize a blues festival at John Brown’s farm. He said yes.”

Smith introduced Dugger to Martha, who needed no convincing, and that led to Blues at Timbuctoo held at the farm. Dugger helped recruit musicians and performed each year. An additional benefit for Smith was hearing for the first time, the song “A Change is Going to Come.” The success was many people came with their families, a significant number who had never been out to the farm before, with the numbers going up each year. Smith wishes the numbers would be even larger but is pleased by the energy and people connecting through music. He said that aspect met his aspirations.

As for Dugger, he remembers his conversation with Smith well. He feels that the best way to reboot a relationship is by having one’s children interact with the other party’s children. Dugger thinks that if children are allowed to develop relationships, the adults will follow.

“A healthy socialized kid is a healthy kid,” said Dugger. “They won’t live in fear of the brown person, the Asian person, or the person that doesn’t look like them. Kids are just naturally drawn to each other. That was the basis of my conversation with Gary. I grew up in the projects of Harlem. Everybody lived there. Asian people, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans all lived there. It was awesome. As a kid, I was into art drawing and everything, so I wanted to go to the High School of Art and Design. I remember the first day I got off the bus; it was like the U.N. Everybody was there. Every nationality. I was so happy. This was a lot more than seeing different people on TV. This was real.”

Dugger feels that music bridges everything. Music can connect people from all walks of life. It provides them a common language and places where they can find common ground, just as Blacks and whites could connect at John and Mary Brown’s dinner table. It was a safe place to talk and get to know the other. He shared how important music was to the Civil Rights movement, the protests about the Vietnam War, and many other social initiatives. So, when Smith suggested a blues festival at John Brown’s farm, that to Dugger was an immediate yes.

“James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Pete Seeger, that’s what I’m talking about,” said Dugger. “From folk music to funk music, music can inspire you to be more open than you are. It can expand your vocabulary. We need to sit down together and talk; the need has never been greater.”

Announcements for the online Blues at Timbuctoo concert will be posted on the John Brown Lives! Facebook page and website.