OXFORD — As the Vietnam War raged and rock ‘n roll reeled from the breakup of the Beatles, a ragtag group of enthusiasts put out the first edition of what they hoped would become a showcase magazine for the blues music they loved.
The 1970 debut issue of Living Blues was peddled at a popular Chicago record store, at nightclubs and from the trunks of cars.
Living Blues, now owned by the University of Mississippi, is the country’s oldest magazine dedicated to the genre. Its current 40th anniversary issue features images from more than 90 past covers, including some of the biggest names in the business.
The magazine, published every two months, has an international distribution and circulation of more than 25,000. Many fans are hardcore traditionalists who like their blues tinged with the grit born of the Delta region.
Brett Bonner, the magazine’s fifth editor in four decades, attributes its longevity to a formula from which it rarely strays: allowing the artists to describe how their culture drives the music.
Bonner said it’s a style that works whether they’re profiling a legend, such as Honeyboy Edwards, or a relative newcomer like Marquise Knox.
“We’re far more interested in telling the life story of a musician, the culture that created him, than we are in telling the kind of guitar that he plays or the strings that he uses,” Bonner said. “People who don’t live in Mississippi are fascinated with the culture.”
Blues music arose under the South’s plantation system, fueled by the poverty-plagued existence of many of the early black artists who sang about their condition.
In the magazine’s first quarterly issue in 1970, Howlin’ Wolf said he chose to play the music because, “I never could make no money on nothin’ but the blues.”
Bonner and the writers travel across the country and abroad, but it’s a skeletal crew. He operates from his home about 20 miles east of the Oxford campus.
Writers and photographers get paid, but not much, Bonner said. He said the other national blues magazine is Blues Revue which, according to its website, this month began celebrating its 20th year in business.
Blues historian Jim O’Neal, one of Living Blues’ founders, said he and a few others borrowed $300 from Bob Koester, owner of Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, to get started. The record store was an information center for blues lovers.
The concept was to publicize music that had been popular in Chicago nightclubs in black communities, said Bruce Iglauer, another magazine founder and who is also founder and president of Alligator Records.
Iglauer had just moved from Wisconsin to Chicago to be near the blues scene and he worked at Jazz Record Mart.
“The first meetings were at my little apartment,” Iglauer said. “We had this passion for blues and we were frustrated because there were British blues magazines and French and Swedish magazines, and here in the home of the blues, there was no magazine.”
O’Neal recalled that Iglauer once told him, “in five years, we would have published all the information people would need to know about blues and that would be it.”
Four decades later finances are still an issue, said Bonner, but that hasn’t stopped the presses.
Ever since the magazine was acquired by the university in 1983 for $1 from O’Neal and his then-wife, Amy, it’s been classified a not-for-profit entity.
O’Neal, who lives in Kansas City, said he decided to transfer the magazine to the university after talking with Bill Ferris, who was director of the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. O’Neal said he recognized the potential of the magazine at Ole Miss. But there was another motivation: The magazine would be housed on a campus where a landmark civil rights battle was fought when the first black student, James Meredith, enrolled in 1962.
“Just because of the history of racial tension at Ole Miss I thought that it would be an important statement if the university could publish a magazine about African-American music and show how much things were changing in Mississippi,” O’Neal said.
For many blues artists, who often live from hand-to-mouth waiting on the next gig, being on the cover on Living Blues is like a rock star’s dream of being on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Singer Bobby Rush said Living Blues was the first to support him as he tried to cross over to white audiences.
“Living Blues was one of the few that embraced me as a blues legend. Many men like myself had to cut records for white people, and then cut another kind for black people. I didn’t do that,” Rush said.
Charlie Musselwhite, a Sonoma County, Calif., bluesman who was born in Kosciusko, Miss., said he’s never been on the cover of Living Blues, but doesn’t feel slighted. Musselwhite, who is white, said the publication dubs itself “the magazine of the African-American blues tradition.”
Musselwhite, 66, said he’s collected every issue of the magazine.
“I’ve got them in boxes. I just can’t seem to throw them away,” Musselwhite said. “I’m just real happy for them that they’ve stayed in business all these years. Other blues magazines have folded. It’s preserving an important history of an American art form. You can’t find that information hardly anywhere else.”
Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press