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One from the heart
Dick Waterman’s blues archives
Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive
By Dick Waterman. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 176 pages, $29.95 paper.

Dick Waterman’s life has been a blues fan’s fantasy.

Waterman fell in love with folk music when he was a young sportswriter living in Cambridge in the ’60s. His passion became a career after he decided to promote a concert by the singer/guitarist John Hurt, who’d first recorded in the 1920s, and was befriended by the elder Mississippian. Hurt asked Waterman to manage him, and Waterman found himself embarking on an enduring journey into the blues’ holiest inner sanctum, which was then occupied by such profound and powerfully influential artists as Son House, Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup, and Skip James. He shared stories, confidences, hardships, and whiskey bottles with these men, who were his clients and friends. And as Waterman’s fledgling Avalon Productions grew, he expanded its boundaries to embrace the music’s younger disciples, including Magic Sam Maghett, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, and Bonnie Raitt.

It was hard work, especially in the beginning, when there was no existing circuit for country-blues players. But it was also a source of joy and the kind of rewards that transcend anything material. Waterman — who today lives in Oxford, Mississippi, closer to the still-beating heart of the blues — shares that sense of joy and some of the spiritual gold he’s accumulated in his elegant and moving new book Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive. The volume is a graceful and balanced blend of his photos and reminiscences. Both reveal their author’s love for the music and, more important, the people who make it.

As a photographer, Waterman is a natural. He began shooting to accompany his sports reporting, and when he started investigating the Cambridge folk scene, he brought his camera along. It was Waterman who took the classic photo of Dylan on stage at Club 47, his back pointedly turned on a terribly sad Joan Baez, minutes after they’d had a dressing-room argument. Although that photo is part of Between Midnight and Day, it’s Waterman’s pictures and his recollections of blues artists from the ’60s through the ’90s that are its bulk and bounty, providing a gateway into the richly human dimensions of the genre.

To this day, Waterman, who remains a fixture at blues festivals around the country, his thick glasses resting on his nose and a long-lensed camera swinging from his neck, shoots only in black and white. That’s one reason his character studies are so effective. Lacking the distracting element of color, the photos make you concentrate on telling details — creased skin, the skewed angle of a mouth, posture. His images of the elfin Hurt and the imperial House, especially those shots taken off stage, capture their souls: Hurt a joyful man; House brooding and troubled, yet gifted with wry humor.

Waterman’s fly-on-the-wall presence through the portion of blues history he helped make allowed him to photograph many artists in private moments. Arthur Crudup signs a publishing contract that he hoped would right his royalty troubles. Howlin’ Wolf and his mentor House bask in each other’s company. Sweat glistens on the dark black face and shirtless torso of Will Shade as he summons the elements that once fueled his Memphis Jug Band. And a handsome, youthful Junior Wells gives a harmonica lesson to Mick Jagger in an arena dressing room. Waterman is also a terrific concert photographer, and his shots of Janis Joplin afire at Harvard Stadium, Buddy Guy laying into his guitar on Cambridge Common, Luther Allison, Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and B.B. King in his prime, singing with clenched fists, and later jamming with Bonnie Raitt while attired in one of his resplendent glittered stage jackets, capture the energy and openness of these performers.

Between Midnight and Day would be an excellent photographic record, but it’s the tales Waterman spins about each of his subjects that make it so intimate. Whether he’s recounting happy times with John Hurt or delivering a blow-by-blow of his sparring with leather-tough Big Mama Thornton, he zeroes in on just the right details. For Hurt, the most revealing is his goodbye to a devoted fan in a New York Club: "Now that I have met you, I have taken you down into my heart as my friend. And I hope that if I am your friend, that you have me in your heart. So any time you want me to be with you, all you have to do is think of me and I’ll come right up out of your heart. If you have taken me to be your friend, I will always be with you because good friends live forever in your heart." Thanks to Waterman, the 47 artists in Between Midnight and Day can find a place in readers’ hearts as well.

A gallery of Dick Waterman’s photography is at www.dickwaterman.com

Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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