Mitzvah Blues

Mitzvah Blues
Goldfarb’s love of music raises millions – for hungry
By Deborah Seldner

Portland musician Delmark Goldfarb knows the blues are strictly from hunger. He knows because of the hunger that came his way when, as a 17-year-old bass player fresh to the streets of New York City, he was robbed by a crooked cab driver.
This early lesson in hardship was followed by the kindness of another person. And that is why today’s Oregon Food Bank is the beneficiary of the blues festival Goldfarb created in Portland 20 years later.
Known now as the Waterfront Blues Festival for its venue along the city’s waterfront at Tom McCall Park, the popular July Fourth event has raised $2.33 million and has collected 88,500 pounds of food during its 15-year run.
Now a songwriter, music historian, preservationist and delivery driver, the 52-year-old Goldfarb was a naïve teenager when he went to New York as a free-lance bass player.
After being robbed, Goldfarb found work playing backup for a folk singer. He was allowed to sleep in the coffee house where he performed. That was where Jerry Jeff Walker of “Mr. Bojangles” fame found him. Walker invited Goldfarb and the folk singer home him and fed them.
In return for his kindness, Walker told Goldfarb, “Just pass it on.” To the young boy missing his Jewish home in Buffalo, N.Y., it was a reminder of the concept of mitzvah as he learned it from his father. It was a lesson and a reminder that Goldfarb would include among the baggage he carried with him when he came west.
Those were hard times in New York City for Goldfarb. They were his first hard times, but not his last. He thinks hard times are good for a person.
As a musician and music preservationist, Goldfarb has led a life rich in experience though poor in terms of money.
He’s served as associate curator of two blues museums in Memphis. He won praise from the Smithsonian Institution for his efforts to increase the musical awareness of the American audience. He’s edited an anthology called “History of the Blues” and taught a course on that topic at Portland Community College. He founded the Cascade Blues Association, as well as the Waterfront Blues Festival. He’s a songwriter and a musician.
“I’ve done all those things, but there’s no money in it,” said Goldfarb.
Which is why when most Portlanders see Goldfarb, it’s when he’s driving around town making deliveries for Quick Stop Photo. Who would guess that the slight, jeans-clad driver who slips unnoticed in and out of offices picking up film and delivering photos is actually busy composing music as he wends his way through the city?
He draws on the years when he was inundated with all kinds of blues music as he created exhibits at the Memphis Blues Museum and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. He said curating the exhibits was a great way to learn, but the biggest benefit was being bombarded by the music playing in the museums all day long.
“So I got better,” he said, and music just started to “flow” out of him.
The music continues to flow now as he drives through the City of Roses. He said it is an occupation ideally suited to allowing him to pursue his avocation and his passion for the blues.
He’s written songs for blues musicians such as Curtis Salgado and John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful. He’s performed on the legendary Beale Street in Memphis and has been featured in the Keith Sykes Songwriters Showcase. And his CD “Linda & Del: Something Special” was praised in Down Beat Magazine.
Down Beat’s Frank-John Hadley called Goldfarb one of the acoustic musicians that give lie to the misconception that the blues of today belongs to loud, fire-breathing guitarists. Hadley writes that “Del holds our interest by singing way-down low and picking guitar on a dozen good-time originals.”
Goldfarb called being mentioned in Down Beat “the ultimate . . . It was stunning.”
But one of the things he’s proudest of is the success of the blues festival he started in Portland. He produced the first five festivals, until the Waterfront Blues Festival “got humongous and outgrew what I personally could do.”
While he’s no longer directly involved in each year’s festival, many of the decisions he made in those early years laid the foundation for what has become the West Coast’s largest blues festival.
When Goldfarb decided to hold the festival at Waterfront Park on the Fourth of July, he said people told him the location, date and time were all wrong. At the time, no music events were being held at the park, and he was told no one stayed in town for the Fourth. He said people tried to convince him he should hold the festival at Portland Meadows, where the music could be loud and go long into the night.
But as the father of two young children, Goldfarb wanted a family event where people could take their children and their parents. And he wanted it outdoors so thousands of people could come and so admission could be low enough that they would come.
Being downtown has the added bonus, in Goldfarb’s view, that the music can’t be too loud and it has to stop at 10 p.m. A daytime event with music that doesn’t blast the ears of seniors has created a festival for all ages, he said. That age span has also created an event free of the fighting and gang problems that some concerts seem to attract.
Perhaps the part he’s proudest of is all the good it’s done for the hungry in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
“I won’t see these people who get hundreds of tons of food,” he said. “You don’t know where it goes and you don’t always get thanked, but I think having this event has impacted our city.”
According to Tania Thompson, public relations manager for the Oregon Food Bank, the festival has indeed had an impact on Oregon.
“It is our biggest food-, fund- and friend-raiser,” said Thompson. “The blues festival is about 10 per cent of our food drive and donations. For us it’s a great opportunity to bring people some awareness of hunger.”
She said each festival-goer who pays the $5 suggested donation and brings two cans of food is providing eight meals for a family of three.
That’s a mitzvah and that makes Goldfarb feel good, about as good as when he cocks his signature cream-colored Panama on his head and picks up his old Martin guitar to sing some of his own good-time blues, like “Don’t Bring Me No Flowers.”

Originally published 8/1/02
Portland Jewish Review

Songwriter/guitar player Portable Man