The Carolina Downhome Blues Festival returns to the streets of Camden this week, bringing a vibrant international blues scene back to its roots in the Southern United States.
The festival is an aged institution at this point, much like the blues and the city itself, but that’s an inherent part of the appeal of the Oct. 7 event, according to the longtime organizer and leader. of Charleston blues band Gary “Shrimp City Slim” Erwin. He explained that every element of the 25-year festival allows for a distinctively southern cultural experience that has drawn participants from all over the world.
“I think the interest in southern tourism is really important to make the whole scene here,” he said. “South Carolina is a very popular destination and the way they still work with Charleston and Camden is that the blues component and the performance are part of everything else. I mean the food, the countryside, the history.
And this appeal works in concert with the vision that the festival offers.
Erwin says the festival was originally an outlet for many of the old-fashioned blues musicians who still performed and that they made an effort to maintain the connection with this tradition while bringing in more modern and blues outfits- rock that represent how the genre has evolved.
For this year’s festival, that ranges from Swedish folk-blues breeder Robert Lighthouse, Steady Rollin ‘Bob Margolin from North Carolina (who played guitar in the band Muddy Waters) and electric blues band from Maryland. The Nighthawks, known as the seasoned bar band in Season 2 of the HBO series The Wire.
These national and international names are also balanced by a healthy dose of local talent, including Columbia’s Elliot and the Untouchables, guitarist and poet Rev. Marv Ward and the electric band Blues Deluxe.
For Erwin, the festival’s mission is to stay true to the roots of the blues as a musical tradition from the South, which now lives on music stages around the world. This allows the festival to stay true to its sense of place.
“The participants arrive where it started, at its roots,” he said. “They want to see the cotton fields up there on 601. They want to see the old dilapidated houses where grandmother and grandfather lived, collapsing. They can imagine a guy with a guitar sitting on a porch. They want to see this stuff because that’s what they see in their imagination when they hear the blues, this whole Southern picture.
Erwin, who first appeared on the Chicago stage before moving to Charleston in 1983 and becoming the city’s main blues promoter and cheerleader, said the Downhome Festival is based directly on the Charleston Blues Festival. which he launched in the 1990s.
Given Charleston’s larger size and massive tourist appeal, he was initially skeptical that the model – which at the time was a crawl-style experience with two dozen sites over two weeks – would work. in a small indoor community like Camden.
Ultimately, Erwin says the city’s rich history and bona fide Southern hospitality made him believe that a multi-day blues festival would be possible.
“The fact that Camden was the oldest inland city in South Carolina, that there was this Revolutionary War battlefield and equestrian culture and everything, we decided to try something to see if that would work, ”he concluded.
After booking a few well-hosted shows locally, Erwin and the Kershaw County Fine Arts Center gave it a go, and it’s become a must-see blues destination since that inaugural festival in 1997.
That remains true this year, although Erwin said it was particularly difficult to book as many artists had difficulty arranging a tour to the festival amid the ongoing pandemic. The range of acts and offers maintains the attractiveness of the event. Last year, the pandemic forced Erwin and other organizers to cancel the festival.
Adjusting to a year still plagued by pandemic issues, this year’s iteration of the festival includes a full-day outdoor family-friendly festival at the Arts Center. This precedes the regular night crawl and, on Sundays, a special “blues mass” and brunch at Grace Episcopal Church on Littleton Street.
Erwin will lead a seasoned quartet for the service, and then the Hermosa Prairie Dogs duo will play brunch in the church hall.
“We have something for everyone – all the different flavors of blues, day and night, at affordable prices,” Erwin said in his closing speech. “And certainly, this Saturday event at the Art Center is really family friendly. Why not expose your children to live music? Why not expose them to the blues.
“They need to feel the thrill and the warmth of a live performance.”
Carolina Downhome Blues Festival
October 7-10. $ 15 to $ 20. Kershaw County Center for the Arts. 810 Lyttleton Street beauxartscenter.org