Blues at Bridgetown is an incorporated association established 1993. Its continued success is, without question, due to the dedicated volunteers who keep the organisation running day-in day-out, year after year to deliver the annual event along with the local community groups, organisations and businesses. Blues at Bridgetown just doesn’t happen to be in Bridgetown – Bridgetown presents Blues at Bridgetown. The distinction may be subtle, but it makes a world of difference.
Mix in the uniqueness of the local region and the result is an event and organisation that hasn’t been consigned to history like so many others. Ray Purvis from Rhythms Magazine captured all this very well in October 1996 when just prior the fourth festival he wrote …
RHYTHMS MAGAZINE • 1996
Set in the magnificent surrounds of the Blackwood River Valley, The fourth annual Blues At Bridgetown festival will once again live up to the boast of “Fine Blues … Breathtaking Views.” W.A.’s original blues festival this year turns the spotlight on acoustic and traditional blues.
The sleepy township of Bridgetown – located 260 kms South of Perth and best known for it’s annual apple harvest – will come alive on the 8th, 9th and 10th of November for three days of acoustic and electric blues at the Blues At Bridgetown festival.
Now in its fourth year, Blues At Bridgetown is pulling out all the stops to consolidate its reputation as one of the countries finest showcases for established Australian blues artists and as a launching pad for up-and-coming blues talent of the future. It is a reputation that was enhanced last year when ABC-TV took their cameras to the festival and beamed the musical highlights over a late-night, eight week time slot across Australia and South-East Asia.
Bridgetown has strong musical and cultural ties with the blues. In the late ‘70s it was the home of the jug, folk and blues influenced band Bungarra
and lately has become a haven for all kinds of artists, potters and musicians. The popularity of the annual blues festival has grown tremendously over the years, particularly since the demise of the knockabout (read beer soaked) Bindoon Rock Festivals that concentrated on electric hard rock and blues.
There are not many places in Australia like Bridgetown that can boast such splendid scenic attractions for their performing venues. The town’s main street is fronted by verandahs on both sides that date back to Federation and give the area a distinct Bourbon Street appeal. The town is nestled in a valley so that no matter where youstand you are looking at hills and trees that are always a pristine green during the early part of November.
One of the other factors that makes Blues At Bridgetown such a unique event is the hospitality the town extends to all visitors. All efforts are made to maintain a much needed balance between community and artistic ideals. It is little wonder that local retailers and community leaders feel a sense of ownership when they play such an integral part in the festivals success.
That was 19 festivals ago, and some things haven’t changed – the Blues are still fine, the views still breathtaking. The town is not so sleepy anymore though … maybe there’s a veranda or two less on the main street (but there are still quite a few!) and it’s not so much about apples these days … but we are definitely still in a valley!
In 1996, after only three years, Blues at Bridgetown was leading the way not only in terms of showcasing blues music and being one of the first blues festivals in Australia, but shutting down regional main streets was not commonplace and having any festival performances broadcast Australia-wide let alone internationally was unheard of. It’s not so common today either. Blues at Bridgetown truly established themselves as cutting edge and it all laid the foundation for today – the event is still going strong, showcases some the best musicians in the world alongside amazing up-and-coming talent and has become a significant contributor to the economic growth and vitality of Bridgetown and the Warren-Blackwood district.
So how did it all start? Let’s go back a few years.
Around 1986 Pip Mills, Sheila Howat and a small group started to develop a festival that would re-establish and empower the arts in the region through music. They progressed in an ad hoc fashion bringing a very wide range of music performances into the town. Fast forward to 1993 when Chris Hughes and the WA Tourist Commission offered support for the development of a Blues Festival that could be promoted as an attraction to interstate and international visitors.
A public meeting was called with representatives from all community interests to find out if the town would support such an idea. The answer was a resounding yes and a committee was formed to develop an event that would position itself as a leading music festival and attract large enough audiences, but not too large for the town over a three day period. That first committee – Pip and Sheila with Doreen Harkins, Jenny Greatwich, Tom Scott, Joan Krauze and John Roberts – delivered the inaugural Blues at Bridgetown event in 1993 which was put together in six months and attracted approximately 5,000 people. In its second year, the audience grew to around 12,000 people.
Over the 25 years that Blues at Bridgetown has been around many people have come and gone – within the organisation, within the community, within the music scene. No doubt some “up-and-coming blues talent of the future” from those early years made it, some perhaps not.
So. That’s how it all started 25 years ago, seeded from an idea a few years before that. What is it that has Blues at Bridgetown still here and going strong after all this time? Vision, passion, great music, community … and the individual people who have been a part of something special along the way, adding their special little bit of magic to it.