February 2009 Issue
Marietta Sings the Blues
The historic river town becomes a musical mecca this month.
For a typical journey from Cleveland to Memphis takes travelers through Columbus, then Cincinnati and then southwest toward Tennessee.
Austin “Walkin’ Cane” Charanghat, the trip requires a detour through Marietta, the picturesque town tucked in the southeast corner of Ohio. That’s where Charanghat, a serious blues musician, tries to punch his ticket to perform on the big stage of Memphis’ Beale Street.
The 38-year-old singer and slide guitarist has twice earned a berth in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis — the premier blues competition in the world — by winning a sponsorship at the annual River City Ohio Blues Competition in Marietta. Like others who dedicate their musical souls to the passion of the genre, Charanghat views Marietta as Ohio’s blues cradle. The town’s Lafayette Hotel will host musicians and blues aficionados alike for this year’s competition, Feb. 20–21.
“The soul of Marietta lies in the attitudes of the people and their common love for the blues,” Charanghat says. “Marietta is a blue-collar town doing its part in preserving the blues.”
Most Ohioans would be surprised to know that Marietta has earned this respect among musicians. Indeed, the city’s reputation for the blues is a relatively recent phenomenon.
About 20 years ago, current Marietta mayor Michael “Moon” Mullen helped found the Blues, Jazz & Folk Music Society with a fellow blues enthusiast, the late Keith Gatto. Mullen, a folk singer with a passion for the blues, and Gatto, an eccentric doctor who moved to Marietta from New Jersey with a 2,000-plus CD collection of obscure music, wanted to bring first-rate blues, jazz and folk acts to the Ohio Valley.
They formed the Blues, Jazz & Folk Music Society in 1987, a group of about 50 people who shared a penchant for promoting the musical genres. They invited local acts to perform in coffeehouses, and that was fine for a while.
But they longed for more. They hit upon the idea of a festival. It took a few years to pull it together, but in 1992 the annual River City Blues Festival debuted. It showcased regional and national blues acts, and in its second year included a competition for local performers. Interest in the competition grew. In 2000, the festival and competition split into separate events (this year’s festival takes place March 20–21), and the reputation of Marietta as a blues center blossomed.
“The level of talent in our competition has risen to incredible heights from the blues acts we’re getting from all over the country, and so has the level of talent we’re seeing from Ohio,” says Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation, which hosts the Blues Challenge in Memphis in early February. “Good blues music seems to be coming from everywhere, and Ohio is no exception.”
Marietta’s place in the blues landscape is unlikely, yet somewhat logical.
It’s a small city, measuring only 8.6 square miles, with a population of about 15,000, only 1 percent of which is African American.
Still, the blues, while taking on distinctive styles based on some of the sizeable cities where it was developed, does not owe its genesis to large populations. The genre was born from the unaccompanied singing of slaves working in the rural South.
Located in Appalachia, Marietta has roots in folk music, a close relative of the blues. And Marietta looks the part of blues towns such as New Orleans, with riverboats churning down the Muskingum and Ohio. Founded in 1788, it’s the oldest city in Ohio and has stood the test of time. The city’s brick streets are lined with mature trees and stately Victorian homes.
Mullen recognized Marietta’s potential when he and his friend formed the music society. Today, Mullen visits local schools to teach students about the origins of blues music.
“There wasn’t much of a market for this type of music before,” Mullen says. “But it was part of our culture anyway, so it was an easy connect for folks.
“Marietta and the blues are a natural fit.”
Musicians and music lovers alike agree in late winter, when blues performers convene for the River City Ohio competition, the oldest and largest such event in Ohio, with 18 slots filled by regional unsigned blues acts. Performers sometimes travel from afar to compete for cash prizes and a chance to be sponsored in the Memphis blues challenge. One solo/duo act and one band move on.
The Lafayette sells out months in advance of the competition and a year in advance of the festival. The riverboat-era hotel, built in 1918, sits at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers and in the heart of Marietta’s boutique shopping district. The competition is held in the hotel’s grand ballroom, which can accommodate 400 grooving blues fans.
“It seems to give off the perfect essence for this type of competition, as blues is a part of history, just as the grand ballroom itself,” says Sheila Rhodes, general manager of the Lafayette Hotel.
The music society receives about 40 applications and demo tapes from prospective acts. The board reviews the tapes and selects the 18 best performers. Five judges choose the winner based on content, talent, originality and stage presence.
There are no geographical restrictions on where the bands can come from, says Steve Wells, vice president of the Blues, Jazz & Folk Music Society and emcee of the competition. A few years ago a band from Tel Aviv, Israel, competed.
The competition draws talent such as Mojo Theory, a five-man band from Columbus that produces percolating rhythms. The group took first place in 2008 and will advance to Memphis this year in the band category.
It also drew soloist Charanghat, who adopted the Walkin’ Cane moniker after using a cane to get around for years because of a congenital disorder. In 1996, his left leg was amputated below the knee. A year after that surgery he was back playing and recording with his band.
Charanghat says that after hearing about Marietta’s reputation, he had to be there. He wanted to compete in 2002, but his wife was about to give birth, so he postponed entering the competition for a few years.
In 2006, he played a 20-minute set of his brand of original and classic Delta blues, working the slide guitar and belting out songs in his signature baritone. He won that year, and represented the Marietta blues society in Memphis. In 2008, he was again voted the top solo act and will enter the 2009 competition in Memphis.
Charanghat says he is grateful to the people in Marietta and what he calls its “unification of spirit to keep the blues alive.”
“I was surprised that a small southern Ohio river town could have so many blues music aficionados,” Charanghat says. “The blues as a whole is dying off with the elders of the genre, and these small pockets of America need to keep it on their dusty phonographs and CD players for generations to come.
“I hope to make the Blues, Jazz & Folk Music Society proud.”
The Marietta competition has influenced other events in Ohio such as the Columbus Blues Alliance’s Blues Challenge. But the historic river city with the small population and big soul has carved its blues reputation in stone.
“Several blues acts have come to the International Blues Challenge from Marietta and then come back under different sponsorship and placed in the top-10 finishers,” Sieleman says. “That’s an example of the level of talent that comes through Marietta.”