The upcoming "The Blues Society" documentary from Dr. Augusta Palmer pays tribute to the artists who performed at the Memphis Blues Festival in the late 1960's
The upcoming feature documentary The Blues Society is the work of Dr. Augusta Palmer, director of the SFC Women’s Film Festival and an Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Arts at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Dr. Palmer is a filmmaker and scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
The Blues Society focuses on the Memphis Blues Festival and bohemia in 1960s America. Dr. Palmer spoke with WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle about the film and her career.
Dr. Palmer says she kind of inherited an interest in the Blues.
"I really got to know the Blues from my dad Robert Palmer and he's one of the subjects in this documentary The Blues Society about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals in the 1960's. He was a writer for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, a music critic who wrote a book called Deep Blues which is still used frequently as a textbook for people studying the Blues. It was a great first read. There have been a lot of advances in Blues scholarship since the 1980's when it was published, but that's how I came to it."
You could say Dr. Palmer was at the 1969 Blues Festival.
"My mom was taking tickets at the gate. There's no footage of her which just makes me want to cry. I was there because she was pregnant with me. I was born in December of '69. So I like to say I've been working on this film even before my life began. She (mom) made quite an impassioned speech there, asking people who had kind of rushed past the gate and not paid for their tickets to please pay the one dollar admission fee to benefit the musicians like Furry Lewis, Robert Wilkins, Fred McDowell and these great Blues legends who were kind of beginning a resurgence in their career but were not as recognized as they could have been. That was really one of the purposes of the festivals.
Dr. Palmer stresses racism was a major factor for the lack of recognition for those artists.
"Being a professor at St. Francis College, I'm constantly reminded of that. The College is very interested in social justice in all ways. That's really inspired me to work on this film and think about those issues."
The Blues Society contains some fantastic footage of the 1969 Memphis Blues Festival.
"WNET sent a crew down there from New York to film the festival. That was part of the show with Steve Allen hosting the Sounds of Summer. He did concerts around the country in that show. At the same time there was an independent crew there led by a gentleman named Gene Rosenthal who still has the record label Adelphi Records. That crew came done and shot with five cameras on beautiful 16-millimeter footage. You really feel like you're there in that moment because the footage is so gorgeous and it sat in Gene's closet for many years. Some of it has been used in the film Memphis '69. I was also able to license it from Fat Possum Records who made that film and bought the footage from Gene."
As a documentarian, she is best known for The Hand of Fatima (2009), a feature documentary about music, mysticism and family history. Her award-winning documentary and experimental video work has screened in national and international festivals, as well as at venues such as New York's Anthology Film Archives.
Her first fiction short, A is for Aye-Aye: An Abecedarian Adventure, has been screened at children’s film festivals from New York to New Zealand. A is for Aye Aye follows a little girl named Iris — played in the film by Palmer’s 11-year-old child. Quinn wanders through the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Picture Collection. That film premiered on February 27th and 28th at BAMkids Film Fest.
Dr. Palmer’ scholarly interests include Chinese-language cinema, as well as documentary history and theory. Her essays have been published in several important anthologies on Chinese cinema, including The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the 21st Century (Ed. by Zhang Zhen, Duke University Press, 2007), which is now being published in translation in the People’s Republic of China.
Palmer is also co-founder of the P.S. 20 Farms, an urban agriculture program that provides students with the opportunity to learn about gardening, healthy eating and sustainability on school grounds.
You can SEE the entire interview with Dr. Augusta Palmer here.