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$1,401 pledged of $25,000 goal
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By Anne Marie Hudak
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About this project

  Uncle Jessie White - Portrait of an Influential Delta Blues Man

Uncle Jessie in Dresden, Germany
Uncle Jessie in Dresden, Germany

  Please watch our video at the top of this page.  This project has been 15 years in the making and a lot of effort has gone into creating this documentary by local Detroit musicians, film and sound volunteers, Detroit blues enthusiasts and an award winning professor at the University of Michigan film department. We are near the end of the project and need to complete by professionally funding the editing. The money raised by this project will pay for the editing, polishing, coloring and a premier to the city where the film began - Detroit.
      The life and music of local Detroit Blues musician, Uncle Jessie White, is told through interviews with the people who have been touched by his musical integrity and warm personality. Interwoven throughout are intimate discussions with Jessie and the footage from many performances. Archival photographs, footage from his hometown of Terry, Mississippi, interviews with family, blues historians and short news features done on him, play a large role in revealing aspects of his early life; while interviews with his family, friends, professional musicians, DJ’s, local club owners and blues museum curators and experts reveal much about his adult-professional life and how he kept the blues alive in Detroit.

      The project includes several very animated interviews of Uncle Jessie White, as well as several interviews from friends and musicians who have launched their own musical careers by playing and learning from Uncle Jessie. There is also video footage from Germany where he played at Dresden University, video and photographs from several festivals and television and radio interviews conducted with Uncle Jessie by many blues DJ’s, footage from the Delta Blues museum, University of Mississippi, cotton fields, professional studios, junk yards and Jessie’s own home.

      All of the artists were very eager to tell their stories about how they know and have worked with Uncle Jessie. It is not hard to get someone to talk about him – he was a very kind, well-known blues player in Detroit. Each interview was completely unscripted and unfolded as each person told their stories, and their thoughts of Jessie’s influence and life.

      The project mixes art, humanities and the moves forward through the use of a documentary film that portrays the life of an 87-year-old Detroit blues musician. The journey carries us from a concert in Dresden, Germany to abject conditions in the South, through small juke joint roadside bars, on the assembly lines of Detroit’s auto industry, to the music and mature artist known to Detroiters as Uncle Jessie White.
      Uncle Jessie, as known to many metro Detroiters, moved to Detroit in 1950. He moved here from Terry, Mississippi where he worked as a sharecropper, whiskey runner, and gambling man. He cared for his parents until they passed and moved his wife and children to Detroit, for promise of a better future – away from ‘the bossman,’ who hung ‘niggers’ caught in town on any other night but Saturday, and farm owners who kept their sharecroppers working on slave wages so they could never afford the opportunity to go elsewhere. Uncle Jessie came from a tragic simple life to the promise of the big city.
      Uncle Jessie worked hard and began frequenting nightclubs throughout Detroit to play some of his blues music, as he had done as a child in the Deep South – at local juke joints and street corners. His family was growing rapidly and he did not have much time for his music, but met many black and white musicians that appreciated and respected each others’ cultures and music, while playing in the clubs.

      Uncle Jessie kept alive a spirit in Detroit’s darkest days of riots during the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, by hosting legendary blues sessions that lasted all night for days on end. Musicians and assembly line workers would come from hundreds of miles in order to play at his house and re-live their delta traditions and teach others. Blues luminaries, such as John Lee Hooker, the Butler Twins, Eddie Burns, Harmonica Shah, Johnnie Basset Jr., and many others, would drop by this remarkable music scene at Uncle Jessie’s house on 29th street in one of Detroit’s riot ravaged neighborhoods. People who wanted to forget the political and racial strife that surrounded them, immersed themselves in music and camaraderie during those long fun-filled weekends. Detroit clubs were deserted by the suburbs and those that heard of the weekend jam sessions and loved music, made their way to 29th street. The music built a bridge through the culture and racial tensions.

      In 1974, the old Detroit music venue, The Soup Kitchen was purchased by a suburban resident, Brian MacDonald. The ‘Soup Kitchen,’ hosted nationally renowned acts like John Lee Hooker and Mose Allison, and its Tuesday night open jam sessions were legendary among the local music elite. Uncle Jessie ran many of the open jam sessions and became well known for his demeanor and music.
      A local musician heard Uncle Jessie and asked him to move to the Attic Bar to start his own band. Uncle Jessie took his integrated group which had become very loved and appreciated, and he played every Saturday night for 15 years at the Attic Bar in Hamtramck. Crowds came from all over the area to listen to Uncle Jessie and enjoy the company of the diverse cultures. Through his music, Uncle Jessie helped to bridge the strife between residents in the Detroit region. The culture of Detroit’s music has been an agent of integration since the riots. Uncle Jessie White did his part to keep humanity alive in a not so humane time and it is important to tell his story so that Detroit, Michigan and the world know that our region is not completely lost. We must rebuild through stories like Jessie’s and the celebration of culture, diversity, inclusion and most of all, the music that unites us and moves us forward.
      We have been given permission by friends, families and Detroit Blues Society to tell the story of this wonderful man. The Detroit Blues Society is a non-profit organization that perpetuates blues music throughout the country, and is a sponsor of this documentary. The Michigan Roundtable works to address inequality throughout the region and believes that achieving trusting interpersonal relations, which bridge racial, religious, ethnic and other cultural boundaries is critical to building diverse, inclusive and prosperous communities – and they also support this film to further relationships and move the city of Detroit and the region forward from a history of segregation toward reconciliation. The City of Detroit Cultural Affairs Department has also supported the making of this documentary. 

Production Timeline
Editing timeline will begin January1st and be completed April 1st. At this time, we will do a community screening in Detroit and distribute to Diversity and Inclusion programs and Blues for Schools throughout Michigan and the US.

Risks and challenges

Our challenge is to create a compelling story that indicates just how significant Uncle Jesse White has been to the Detroit blues community. This project has been accomplished by many talented and creative people in the metropolitan Detroit area. Some of the challenges to our project include finding an editor that appreciates the importance and significant creativity of our documentary. We have many hours of film and trying to pare that down will also be a challenge. University of Michigan's Professor Stashu, has years of experience in creating documentaries and under his guidance, we are confident we will be able to overcome those challenges. We will keep moving forward until we complete this important story. We will also keep all backers and participants informed of our project status.

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Funding period

- (50 days)