The Great Lakes Folk Festival is getting under way in East Lansing, with the music, dance, and cultural activities that have been a such an essential part of summer in mid-Michigan for 11 years. WKAR’s Melissa Benmark has the story of one of the Festival’s Heritage Award Winners.
The MSU Museum presents the Michigan Heritage Awards to people who are master practitioners of the folk traditions of their families and communities.
One of this year’s awards will be awarded posthumously. Detroit Blues Guitarist Johnnie Bassett, who appeared at the Festival in 2003 and 2011, died last Saturday night of cancer at the age of 76. He spent a life in music, playing in a backing band for blues artists like John Lee Hooker, and later touring and recording with his own band.
Area resident Ron Eggleston is active in the Capitol Area Blues Society and has volunteered at the Folk Festival for as long as it’s been in existence. He saw Bassett perform a number of times, spent time with him during his Folk Festival visits, and nominated him for the Heritage Award this year. Eggleston has some memories to share of Johnnie Bassett.
“Johnnie was a master of subtlety and grace,” Eggleston says. “He’s called the ‘Gentleman of the Blues,’ and he definitely was a gentleman—the way he played, the way he carried himself. I had a lot of respect for him.”
Eggleston says he is grateful to have nominated Bassett for this year’s award.
“He knew about it and I talked to him on the phone. He was very pleased and this was back before he knew he was ill. And I…you know, I’m just thankful that he was aware he was getting that award before he passed.”
Johnnie Bassett played for decades as a session musician as a member of the Fortune Records house band, the Blue Notes, and in later years found his individual voice with a band of his own. Ron Eggleston spoke of Bassett’s musical voice.
“(It was) sweet,” Eggleston says. “Just a real classic pro, and it’s a wonderful mix. He was like a sponge. He listened to all different kinds of things. He even played in a country and western band at one time for a little while. He said, ‘If you’re a working musician, if you’re going to get jobs, you have to play what people want to hear.’ So he was able to absorb all those different things, and yet he was able to put his own spin on things, his own brand. So he could take somebody else’s song that everyone was familiar with and he would make it his, and that was the wonderful thing about him.”
Johnnie Bassett and his band released the album I Can Make That Happen earlier this year, with two tracks that celebrated his love of his hometown—"Proud To Be From Detroit," and "Motor City Blues." He was Detroit’s Gentleman of the Blues, and he’ll be honored for who he was and the music he played at this year's Great Lakes Folk Festival.