Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival

“Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 9, 1973 – Silver-haired Count Basie stepped up to the microphone Friday night, smiled a beneficent smile and welcomed 14,000 cheering young people to the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz festival… By last night more than 20,000 young people had streamed into this college town from all over the country…”

--- The New York Times

My preceding experiences with freight trains gave me the confidence to take on someone who had never traveled that way before. Paul was the younger brother of a high school friend and had entered my circle. My brother Bill had attended the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival and had a blast so I had wanted to go too.

We took plenty of our own food this time but only about $35.00. Late at night, out of the Interbay yards, we caught an eastbound boxcar.

Slowing down in Spokane in the wee hours we continued in the mild early September until we reached Havre, Montana where we are bumped off. It's cold and barren and we're anxious to be on our way. We spend the afternoon eating and locating our next ride.

We don’t have a long wait though. A triple decker car carrier comes in for a short stop and soon we’re riding through the sunny open sky on the top deck. The endless plains of North Dakota occupy us until we arrive in Minot where we again are bumped.

There seems to be no one around and we wander quite a while in the gathering twilight. A switching shed is occupied and we receive the necessary info to make our next connection. Again into the night and take turns sleeping. The terrain improves greatly and by morning we are in Minneapolis / St. Paul, the largest cities we’ve seen since Spokane.

We run into many hoboes. I relate a story I’d heard to one about the President of Northern Pacific Railroad. When he died, he stated in his will that hobos had the right to ride. The hobo promptly relates this to a switching agent. The agent agrees that he had heard the story too. We soon are on our way again through beautiful scenery along the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

About this time Paul was getting excited and it was harder for me to keep him in line and discreet. When he wrote in big letters in chalk, Ann Arbor Blues Fest or Bust, on the outside of the boxcar, I freaked, thinking indeed we would be busted. He used a lot of our drinking water scrubbing it off.

Around midday we began to get nervous about entering Chicago’s vast trainyards. Calling out to people as to our location, a youngster says that yes we are entering Chicago. We grab our gear and jump off only to find that we are still a couple hundred miles from the Windy City. Then find out the next train won’t be by until late. With not much of a choice, we decide to explore the surroundings.

Along one street I spy a Moose Club. I always carried the junior membership card since my Dad had joined some years before. Both of us are well under age but we enter the empty place and I show my pass to the proprietor. He is favorably assured and even sells us a couple of beers while we shoot a few rounds of pool!

On the street again, a carload of young, local girls check us out. I explain our situation and they agree to drive us to the freeway entrance to see if we can hitchhike into Chicago. The onramp is desolate, so the girls bring us back into town.

Our train comes three hours later and does not come to a stop. On the fly, we grab a filthy gondola and continue our trek southward. The sun is just coming up as we reach our destination. We take a wild guess as to which way is the nearest exit and cross 10 or 12 sets of tracks before locating the edge of the stockyard. Without seeing a soul, we slip out and almost immediately catch a bus up town toward the city center.

We are an unusual sight since we are the only whites on the cramped bus. We grab a greasy breakfast at the first cafe we locate. I am interested in only one thing, the Art Institute. We have no trouble getting to it and our admission is only a 25 cent donation. We spend perhaps a little too long at antiquities and by the time we reach the paintings I’m beginning to feel rushed. I take my time before Suerat’s, Afternoon on the Grand Jette, American Gothic and Picasso’s Blue Period, Old Guitarist.

Knowing we’ve still got a long way to go, we enter the loop and catch a ride toward Michigan. We make it as far as Kalamazoo before night falls. The drinking age is lower here so we get some cheap beer and find a cemetery to sleep away the rest of the night.

Early morning we have no trouble getting to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan campus. The endless headshops and pinball parlors give us the feeling of youth in control. A local bus takes us to the festival grounds. Although the festival is scheduled to begin the next day, things are still being set up.

With no tickets, we are planning on sneaking in. The barriers are formidable. A 9 foot tall, picket wall is surrounded by a 6 foot chain link fence with guards and dogs patrolling between. We linger at the main entrance. A man comes up and asks us if we want a free permit to the festival. All we have to do is agree to pick up trash between shows since there is no overnight camping on the grounds. We naturally jump at the offer and soon have white plastic bracelets that allow our access. We’re also told we would get paid a little for our efforts.

Near the stage we locate some trees and stash our packs, then lend a hand erecting the ticket booths. We return to our gear to find a fence blocking off the backstage area where our packs are. We explain the situation to security and are allowed backstage entrance for the rest of the festival.

Money is exchanged for food tickets redeemable at the concessions. Our cash is running low and we are able to scrounge some food from the backstage area. Early the next day we rise and help out where we can spending most of our time at the main entrance watching the growing crowds and answering schedule questions.

Honeydripper Roosevelt Sykes opens the show with Freddie King and JB Hutto and the Hawks and Leon Thomas rounding out the early evening. Finally, Count Basie takes the stage with his dynamite band and has the crowd jamming.

We play it cool and do our determined job. With the show over, we proceed to gather as much trash as possible. I concentrate on the area around the concessions and find quite a few meal tickets in the process. We are done for the night and crash under the trees.

Feeling a little grimy on waking we decide to go for a swim at a nearby public swimming pool. Walking most of the way, we get there and buy swimming trunks made of paper. Hours later we return to the festival which is well under way.

Many old time Detroit bluesmen are knocking the crowds socks off and peaks when John Lee Hooker hits the stage. We get backstage and manage to watch from the bleachers adjacent to either side of the stage itself which is reserved for VIPs. We’re ejected after awhile and return to the crowd and settle in for a tremendous evening.

Ray Charles is the main headliner and our long wait for his closing set is well worth it. Preceding his set a roadie is exhorting the crowd by raising his arms in welcome. The crowd responds enthusiastically. Then, when he is at rest, I raise my hands in salute to him and he responds in kind. A gallon jug of wine is being passed around and we partake generously until we get pretty loaded. We’re still obliged to pick up trash after the show but do so only in a token way, even escaping to a sani-can to pass out briefly. I assure the boss man that I’ll pick up trash during the next festival day while the bands play.

This I do but take many long breaks to jam to the Johnny Otis Show and a searing set by Ornette Coleman. The evening is dominated by Luther Allison’s wild set, Sun Ra and Otis Rush and Hound Dog Taylor. An absolutely incredible scene.

Next day, we stick around waiting to get our pay but are stiffed by the boss who has disappeared. We mix drinks with leftover pineapple juice and vodka. We give a little thought to continuing on to New York but figure we had better not press our good fortune too much.

We hitchhike towards Chicago and sleep the night in a rest area near Kalamazoo, Mich. We get picked up by a gorgeous woman early the next day who says she felt safe because of my eyes.

In Chicago we get dropped off in the suburb of Park Forest where my Aunt Therese and Uncle John and 8 cousins live. They are my Godparents and are only too happy to give us a hearty welcome. John works for the Illinois Central Railroad and is able to provide us with a schedule for hopping freights back home. Therese drives us to nearby Joliet to make our first connection and gives me a $20 to make up for past birthdays she says.

It’s my friend Paul’s 18th birthday so we spend almost half of it on a bottle of Crown Royal to celebrate. We miss our first train so the rest of our schedule is thrown off. We do well by ourselves but are unable to locate an empty boxcar so make do on piggybacks, under semi truck containers. It’s not too bad at first but as evening descends and we climb into the Rockies we nearly freeze.

In the middle of the night, I decide to get into my stashed pack for my extra pair of socks. In the pitch black, with the train roaring about 80 miles an hour, I struggle out of my sleeping bag and gingerly make my way around the massive truck wheels and manage to find my pack. It’s worth the effort to keep my feet a little warmer but we get no sleep whatsoever.

In Spokane we attempt to persuade a switchman to let us ride in the caboose but are rebuffed so continue on the piggyback and come into the Interbay yards in Seattle towards dusk. I’ve less than a dollar in my pockets but feel rich in experience and grown beyond my years.

Next Summer I was to embark on the most ambitious journey up until then. To Dutch Harbor Alaska to work for 6 months on a crab processing vessel.