Buko Magazine Vol. 1 No. 2
Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival
20-years of history, hard work and fun
By Keith Robert Laurent
One of the biggest “goodwill events” in the country, the largest festival west of the Mississippi River, and the second largest blues festival in the nation, for the last 20 years Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival has assembled talents from all groups. It’s not just the visible performers who take the stage that make the festival work. The reality is thousands of volunteers, sound techs, stagehands, lighting techs, food and beverage vendors, security, all the sponsor groups, their directors, and the festival coordinators together, pull off this feat. When you’re hosting an event that draws more than 100,000 people during a four day run in your city, you really need the support of your community. Support is what Portland has to offer.
Support has been at the heart of the event from the very first festival. In 1987 when local blues bands gathered in Waterfront Park, the event was titled the “Rose City Blues Festival. The dream of having a free festival for the city was Delmark Goldfarb’s idea. Prior to 1987, the city’s Waterfront Park was used for picnicking; however, you could get a permit and have your wedding there, too. Goldfarb at the time was teaching a class at Portland Community College on the history of the blues. Along with his friends and associates, they all started raising families. Now with children, opportunities to go out to the clubs around town to hear the great blues music being played were limited. Goldfarb put his idea of a free festival in Portland into action. While he was teaching his class, he would introduce his students to the blues by having the local blues artists visit the classroom.
Getting to know the musicians, Goldfarb shared his idea. He wanted to create an event that would be free to all and support those with less. He also wanted to create an event that you could take your kids to, even your mom and dad. He wanted to see blues bands at the river. Putting together all these elemtns and the purchase of the $25.00 permit, the dream was born. Word of mouth was the driving force. With no advertising budget to speak of, Goldfarb organized the musicians to take the music out to the schools and hospitals to promote the blues. Blues Week was launched. To emphasize to the community the plight of the hungry and homeless, Hillsboro-based food chain Papa Aldo’s sponsored a free pizza party for the homeless in Portland in conjunction with the Blues Week. With the programs called “Blues in the Schools” up and running, local TV stations and newspapers started to cover the story. The media coverage gave the helpful spark to ignite the first free event called the “Rose City Blues Festival.” With word of mouth, volunteers pitched in to make the event a reality. With support of vendors and another of Goldfarb’s creations, the Cascade Blues Association, al the donations went to benefit the Burnside Community Council’s projects for the homeless, or known at the time as Baloney Joe’s.
Befriending legend Fritz Richmond, considered the foremost washtub bassist in the world and also the most successful professional jug player, Goldfarb tapped into Richmond’s other skill, recording. Richmond had worked as a recording engineer for many artists, and his credits can be found notably on albums by Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, The Doors, and Jackson Browne. Richmond, who was living in Portland, engineered the first recording of the festival. On that 1987 recording entitled “Rose City Blues Festival — The Album,” Michael Burgess wrote: “A day in July. A park on the river. A guest list of 20,000. The Rose City Blues Festival. Happy birthday, blues. An event that put a few new colors in Portland’s musical paint box. For eight solid hours, ten homegrown blues bands filled Waterfront Park with a truly startling cross-section of citizens. All of them smiling, most of them stomping their feet, a few of them spilling their beer. It was the gig one prays for but never really expects. This time the magic worked. Nothing in music is truer than this: If the blues don’t make you feel better, you are probably dead. Anthems of suffering and heartbreak, unspeakable anguish laced with endurance, pride and triumph. The fun things of like in a rock-bottom musical format, like it or not, is going to make you dance. The 1st Annual Rose City Blues Festival. Happy Birthday, Portland. Happy birthday, blues.”
Well Mr. Burgess, this “rock-bottom music” has made the folks of Portland and the world dance alright, not only dance, but raise hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to fight hunger.
Goldfarb’s message of a free festival had opened the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people of this city and beyond. His love for the blues moved him to Memphis to work with the Blues Museum for a while. Now back in the area, Goldfarb is still working on music projects. Currently involved with “Give Us Your Poor “ / The campaign to end homelessness, whose mission is to create a revolution in public awareness, dispel myths and inspire action towards ending epidemic homeless in the United States. He is participating on a CD project, which is an eclectic collaboration involving homeless musicians and celebrity artists (such as singers Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant, Jon Bon Jovi, Dan Zanes, Jewel, Pete Seeger, actor Danny Glover, Madeleine Peyroux, Buffalo Tom, Sweet Honey in the Rock, John Sebastian, Sonya Kitchell, and actor Tim Robbins), which is being produced and released by Appleseed Recordings. He will also be featured in a film to be released about jug band music called “Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost.” Others in the film include John Sebastian, Bob Weir, Taj Mahal, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin and Fritz Richmond to name a few. Goldfarb can still be found performing around the region. If you get a chance to shake his hand, thank him for the Blues Festival.