For their 1981 masters’ degree thesis project, U.C. Berkeley students Marlon Riggs and Pete Webster produced a 30-minute documentary film titled “Long Train Running” that traced the history of blues music in Oakland in the 1940s and ’50s. They focused on Bob Geddins, a Texas-born songwriter who built his own record-pressing plant in West Oakland and produced national hits by such singers as Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Wilson, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Jimmy McCracklin.
Inspired by that film and Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning 2010 book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Oakland filmmaker Cheryl Fabio has now expanded the story with “Evolutionary Blues… West Oakland’s Music Legacy,” a 90-minute documentary that broadens the definition of blues to include soul and funk and ties in how racially restrictive covenants, red-lining, urban redevelopment, police brutality and other factors affected the lives and music of African Americans in Oakland past and present.
“Blues is a blueprint for Black life – all of the joy, sorrow, the education and miseducation, the sexuality,” vocalist Faye Carol says in the film. “It came from a place of hardship because we were living hard and we had to talk about it.”
Hardship continues to inform the music.
“Oakland blues turned into Oakland funk because things got a little bit too heavy,” KPFA disc jockey Rickey Vincent states in his interview with Fabio at the Oakland studios of KTOP-TV, which produced “Evolutionary Blues.”
Along with vintage footage of Geddins and Fulson, the film contains recent interviews with DeSanto, Bob Geddins Jr., Jesse James, Lenny Williams, Marvin Holmes, John Turk, Lady Bianca, Sonny Rhodes, Freddie Hughes, Wylie Trass, Paul Tillman Smith, James Levi, Larry Vann, the Hartfield Brothers, Ronnie Stewart, D’Wayne Wiggins, Alabama Mike, the Fantastic Negrito and numerous others.
Musical performances, both old and new, include club and concert footage of Fulson, DeSanto, Carol, Williams, Turk, Bianca, Rhodes, the Hartfields, Mike and Negrito.
Wilkerson even flew to Oakland from her home in Georgia to be interviewed at KTOP.
“She stops this talk about people leaving the South to go get a job someplace,” Fabio said of the author last week. “She flips it and says, ‘No, it’s a revolution, and people are saying, No more to Jim Crow.’”
As Negrito is heard singing the line “the policeman shot him down” during his updated rendition of Lead Belly’s classic “In the Pines,” still photos of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in downtown Oakland fill the screen.
“Certainly the pain and suffering won’t go anywhere, so there’ll be a need to sing the blues for a long time,” club owner Geoffrey Pete says near the film’s conclusion.
“Evolutionary Blues… West Oakland’s Music Legacy” will make its premiere at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 27, at the Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue in Oakland.