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Augusta Palmer’s insightful documentary The Blues Society screens as the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival Opener on Friday, January 26!

By Al Nigrin

originally published: 01/16/2024

Augusta Palmer’s insightful documentary The Blues Society screens as the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival Opener on Friday, January 26!

Augusta Palmer screens her third film at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival and I wanted to talk to her about the amazing new documentary The Blues Society which she has just released. Here is my interview with her:

Nigrin:  Your feature length documentary film The Blues Society focuses on a group of blues masters and beatniks who created a legendary Memphis Blues Music Festival that took place in the 1960s. Tell us a bit about the history behind making this film.

Palmer: Both my parents were involved in organizing the Memphis Blues Festival in the 1960s. My dad, Robert Palmer, a musician, critic, and scholar had written a book called Deep Blues, and talked about the festival from time to time, so his involvement was no surprise. What really got me hooked on telling the story was when I heard a recording of my Mom giving what she claims is her only public speech in 1969, when she begged gatecrashers to donate funds to pay blues Masters like Furry Lewis and Robert Wilkins for their performances.

Nigrin:  We screened your first documentary The Hands of Fatima -- a film which tells the story of New York Times music critic (also your father) Robert Palmer's friendship with a legendary Sufi band called the Master Musicians of Jajouka -- at our New Jersey International Film Festival back in June of 2010.  It is nice to see how both of your documentaries keep the memory of your dad alive. Was that a primary motivation to make this film?

Palmer: My dad's been dead for over 25 years, but I still meet people pretty regularly that remember him fondly, so I feel like his memory kind of keeps itself alive. But sometimes I feel like people idolize him a bit too much and read history backwards. People sometimes say the Memphis Blues Fests were important because people like my Dad organized them, but I feel pretty confident that he would have said the festivals shaped him more than he shaped them, and he was a huge fan of the big collective of folks who made the fests happen. So, I like keeping his memory alive and seeing him onscreen, but I also like putting him in context and thinking critically about his legacy. His writing and thinking about the blues is brilliant and accessible, but it was also produced 30-40 years ago, and we understand so much more about systemic racism and the ways white scholars defined much of what was written about blues - A Black art form - for so long. So, giving voice to that was very important to me, as well as showing the major role women like Nancy Jeffries and my Mom played in creating the festivals.

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Nigrin:  Tell us about the animation sequences and flourishes that you use in your film.

Palmer: Almost all my films have animated sequences, and I've been lucky enough to9 work with great animators like Hongsun Yoon, Sabina Hahn, and now, Kelly Gallagher. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, particularly her piece Pearl Pistols, which  pairs the voice of Civil Rights leader Queen Mother Moore with cut-out animation.

Nigrin:  Why do you call your film a “mix-tape"?

Palmer: I call my film a mixtape first to emphasize that, like all histories, mine is selective. I chose the voices and images you hear when you're watching out of hundreds of other choices. Calling it a mixtape foregrounds my selections and lets prospective viewers know that I've made it for them with love and intentionality. I also see the film as a kind of return mix-tape for one my dad made me when I was first getting to know him, in 1986. He called that tape "The Real '60s, Man," and wrote a note on it that I should think of it as the 1980s version of the 60s. so my film is the 2020s version of the 60s.

Nigrin:  Was it difficult to secure the archival footage for your film?

Palmer: There are over 300 archival elements - photos, footage and more - in the film, and getting permission to use them all has been a HUGE task, especially since I'd been collecting material for almost 10 years, which had its own challenges. My co-producer, J. Tinneny really helped make that happen over the last year. Our legal counsel, Jaszi & Butler PLLC, were also vital to helping me us understand which items could be considered fair use. Another challenge was that almost all the moving images of the festival were from 1969, and I wanted to tell a story that stretched from 1966-1969, so Editors Laura Jean Hocking , Sarah Enid Hagey and I had to get pretty creative about how we used the archival elements.

Nigrin:  How long did it take to make The Blues Society and were there any obstacles in finishing it? 

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Palmer: It took 7 years to make the film and the biggest obstacle was really figuring out how to structure a wealth of stories into a cohesive narrative that allows viewers to create their own understanding is what really took the longest. Of course, raising the funds to complete the film was also quite difficult and time consuming, but I'm so grateful we won support from both the NEA and the NEH after 5 years of getting many rejections and relying on the smaller amounts I could raise through crowdfunding.

Nigrin:  There are so many great interviews in your film. How were you able to track everyone down? 

Palmer: Often, one interviewee led us to another, which was great. There was also a wealth of oral histories out there we were able to draw on so viewers could hear the voices of Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White, Fred MacDowell, Nathan Beauregard and others.

Nigrin:  What I like about your film is that I am also turned on to a whole range of Blues music that I knew very little about. Was that also a goal of your film?

Palmer: That's definitely been the goal all along. The music is just so beautiful. As the writer Jamey Hatley says in the film, "it puts the joy and survival on record". And, hopefully, it also makes you want to move, to dance and sing along.

Nigrin:  Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us?

Palmer: Wow, so many stories. Here's one. A wonderful supporter of the film, Andy Schwartz, sent me a DAT tape in 2019 that he'd transferred from a reel-to-reel Nagra or Uher tape that was labeled 1969 Memphis country Blues Festival. I didn't have a DAT player and I had a lot of material from 1969, so it took me a long time to transfer it. When I finally did, I realized very quickly that it was actually from 1966, which we had almost NO archival materials from, so it was very exciting, and you hear it in the film several times. It really took a lot of time, and a lot of generous donations like Andy's to make this film happen.

The Blues Society will be opening film of the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, January 26 – Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. The Blues Society Director Augusta Palmer will be on hand to do a Q+A after the In-Person screening! For more info and tickets go here. 



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Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.



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