Known for its melancholy lyrics and repetitive, foot-stomping chord progressions, the blues is a unique American art form rooted in slavery and emancipation. Now entering its 25th year, the George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival – an event that draws roughly 200,000 people to Jacksonville Beach – is also standing the test of time.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” says the festival’s founder and director Sam Veal. “A quarter of a century.”
Rated by Down Beat magazine as one of the top 50 Music Festivals in the World, the blues fest takes place near the oceanfront at the SeaWalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach. This year the festival will run from April 17–19. It now generates an estimated $5.5 million for the local economy – far from its humble beginnings as a 6-hour show attracting 6,000 people to a band shell.
Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, the world’s largest independent blues label, ranks it up there with the Chicago Blues Festival on Lake Michigan.
“It’s a very well respected festival,” Iglauer says. “Among free festivals those are two of the top in the country.”
This year the audience can expect shades of country, roots, boogie, soul, gospel, zydeco, and Chicago barrelhouse blues, Texas swing blues and West Coast blues, Veal says. The headliner will be Chubby Carrier with his zydeco-style, Grammy award-winning Bayou Swamp Band.
“It’s one of the most exciting festivals I play,” Carrier said from his home in Duson, La. “I can’t wait to get back.”
Getting people excited about music is the mission of George’s Music, says George Hines, the store’s owner and title sponsor of the festival.
“Springing the Blues exposes a lot of people to great music,” Hines says. “We like to celebrate something that’s uniquely American.”
To ensure the future of the indigenous art, he launched Blues in the Schools as an extension of the festival to expose children to the blues.
“There certainly is a concern that kids aren’t getting exposure to music,” says program coordinator Lisa Hines, George Hines’ wife. “If they don’t get inspired in some way, see a musical performance, or learn what music is about and how much pleasure people derive from it, they may never take on that interest themselves.”
Working with a blues musician, they present the age-appropriate blues program to a dozen schools in four days prior to the festival. The performer blends music with history and culture, taking students from the plantation workers’ call-and-response songs to Chicago blues and Elvis.
“We combine entertainment and education so you don’t see that glossed-over look,” Lisa Hines says.
A group of Fletcher High students were so inspired by the Blues in the Schools program in 2013, that they formed their own blues band and played in the festival to earn money for uniforms.
In fact, the Springing the Blues festival has helped launch many musical careers. Based on Iglauer’s recommendation, Veal brought new talents like Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood to the festival stage. Their performances secured contracts with Alligator Records.
JJ Grey & Mofro, the Southern rock, funk, and blues band from Jacksonville, also signed with the Alligator label after wowing the festival audience.
“For these artists, this is their major festival in the country,” Iglauer says. “If Springing the Blues is booking them, they must be good.”
Tinsley Ellis, an Atlanta-based blues-rock guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, gained exposure at the first Springing the Blues Festival to an audience of thousands, his largest crowd in a Florida venue.
“That was one of the turning points for me,” Ellis said. “It was my big break in Northeast Florida.”
Ellis will be back at the festival this year with songs from his brand new CD, Tough Love, an album about rigorous honesty.
“That’s what the blues is about,” Ellis said. “Tough love is ripping off the Band-Aid instead of pulling it off slowly.”
George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival includes lots of other activities, too:
A band competition will take place a week or so before the festival. The winner will earn a slot in the festival lineup.
Children can take harmonica and ukulele lessons and experience rock-wall climbing, harnessed bungee jumps and other fun activities.
Vendors will be offering an array of food, original art, jewelry, clothing, palm reading and other services.
Surfing the Blues Spring Surf Fest
Running the Blues 5K Run/2.5K Walk
Sam Neal: Festival founder and executive director
It all started with a crazy idea, a reverence for the blues and a knack for throwing a good party. George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival is entering its 25th year. But its founder, Sam Veal, had no background in event planning. Nor was he a musician. In fact, the 62-year-old Jacksonville Beach native had previously been a professional ballet dancer. And he owns an insurance company.
Sometimes all it takes is a dream, or a “crazy idea,” as Veal puts it. More importantly, the festival reflects Veal’s passion for sustaining and promoting the blues, an indigenous form of music that arose from freed slaves in the South. Veal was raised in the 1950s with a live-in southern black maid, Marylou Hayes.
“She would sing these wonderful blues spirituals,” Veal says. “It was my earliest influence in call and response music. Her face was so strong and she presented her faith musically.” That image stayed with him.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Veal joined the American Ballet Theatre in New York City, then later danced with ballet companies in Tehran, Paris and Tel Aviv. He returned to the Beaches and started a non-profit dance school in a former roller skating rink. It closed after 18 months.
A growing interest in the blues led Veal to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas, which opened his eyes. It was around 1989, and inflation and unemployment were high. Riding in a car with his childhood friend Reid McCormick, who was running for Jacksonville Beach mayor, Veal blurted out, “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s put on a blues festival.”
McCormick won the race and lent political support for the festival, which Veal promoted as a destination event that would spur downtown redevelopment. Veal’s reputation for hosting fabulous parties with great live music didn’t hurt.
“Sam tends to bring artists who can start a party,” says Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records who collaborates with Veal on new talent. “Everybody enjoys working with him. Music is the center of the party. Boy, it’s a lot of fun.”
For more details about George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival, visit springingtheblues.com.