Twenty two years in the making, the documentary film, Uncle Jessie White – Portrait of a Delta Blues Man in Detroit, will premiere on Sunday, September 25th, at 2 p.m. in the Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 East Milwaukee Ave., in Detroit, Michigan. White’s story is told by one of his piano students, Anne Marie Graham-Hudak of Canton, and includes interviews from musicians who jammed with him throughout his career.
White was born in Terry, Mississippi in 1920. The son of share-croppers, he worked the cotton fields of the Delta with his parents and siblings. At age nine, he first began playing harmonica, and by the time he was sixteen, he was making as much money per night, blowing harp, as he was for a week’s work in the fields.
In his twenties, he moved to Jackson. There he found work in a saw mill, ran a gambling house, and played in the local juke joints. In 1950, after the death of his parents, he moved his family to Detroit in search of a better life. Eventually he began a junk business there. He soon became a hugely popular act in the local clubs, playing barrelhouse piano, and singing with his harmonica attached to him via a homemade rig he built out of salvaged parts.
It was in the 1960s that his story became the stuff of legend. The city was torn with racial strife, and the local club scene was dying. In order to keep the blues alive, he and his family began hosting parties at their home on 29th Street, near Tiger Stadium. However, these were no Sunday afternoon jam sessions. The music would last from Friday evening until Monday morning. In fact, the only reason they stopped at all was so the auto workers could return to their jobs for the week.
These jam sessions, that continued into the 1980s, spawned some of Detroit’s most famous, and favorite artists, and brought musicians and fans alike together from miles around. Johnnie Bassett, The Butler Twins, Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones, Eddie “Guitar” Burns, and John Lee Hooker, were all known to have taken part in the weekend-long parties. For many years after the Detroit uprising, Uncle Jessie White and his racially diverse jam sessions, demonstrated how music and culture could keep the communities together.
In 1986, White and his 29th Street Blues Band took up residence at the Attic Bar in Hamtramck, where they remained the Saturday night fixture for 20 years. They also played an array of other clubs and festivals from the Ann Arbor Blues Festival to the Detroit Soup Kitchen. In 1991, Blues Factory Records released a CD of his music.
White passed away on January 29th, 2008, at the age of 87, leaving nine children, 24 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a host of Detroit blues artists to whom he had become a father figure over years.
The documentary film, co-produced by award winning film maker, Stashu Kybartas and Douglas Drummond Jr., has received funding from the Detroit Blues Society, Detroit Cultural Affairs Department, the Detroit Filmmakers Coalition, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and a great many individual donors.
After this premiere showing, the film will be sent to various film festivals, and the Detroit Blues Society‘s “Blues in Schools” program will use it in a nationwide effort to teach children about the history of blues music and its people.
The $20 ticket to the premiere showing on Sunday, also includes hors d’oeuvres, and live music from the Delta Blues Band. Tickets will be available at the door.