Bucks County Herald

Blues society’s R&B Picnic strikes a chord with music fans

REGINA YOUNG

Thomas Cullen III likened it to having an “epiphany” – the “it” being the transformative moment his ears heard blues legend Muddy Waters for the very first time.

“I was 16 years old,” the Levittown resident recalled. “My life changed. I didn’t want to listen to kids music anymore.
“The music came from a deep, dark, other-worldly place, and I was never the same after that – hopefully for the good.”

Several decades after this musical revelation, Cullen continues to promote the influential and inspiring power of rhythm and blues music through his efforts as the co-founder of the Bucks County Blues Society (BCBS), whose mission is to present and preserve the blues genre across the Delaware Valley.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, BCBS is one of the oldest blues society in the country and has presented more than 1,000 blues events over the course of its history. Among these concerts and performances, the annual R&B Picnic, the society’s premier event, is one of the oldest bluest events in the country – predating the Chicago Blues Festival, according to Cullen, and almost every other major blues event in the United States.

This year’s 35th annual R&B picnic takes place 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 15 (rain or shine) at Snipes Farm on Route 1 South in Morrisville. Gates open at 9 a.m. and music starts on the main stage at 10:30 a.m., with music on the Back Porch Stage getting underway at noon.

The R&B Picnic lineup features: L’il Ed & the Blues Imperials (Chicago), Slam Allen (New York City), Albert Castiglia (South Florida), Mikey Junior Band (Bucks County), Dikki Du & the Zydeco Krewe (the Bayous), Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe (Trenton, N.J.), and Sister Blue & Mark Furman (Philadelphia). The latter four acts will also perform on the Back Porch Stage, bringing the day’s total number of music sets to 11.

Advance tickets are a donation of $40 per (adult) and $20 for children ages 3 to 13 (under 3 are free). Advance tickets to the R&B Picnic may be purchased at Positively Records, Music Forte and Hong Luck Restaurant, Levittown; McGonigal’s Music and Studio, Perkasie; and Dacey’s Pub. Any tickets available at the gate on July 15 will be $45 for adults and $20 for children ages 3 to 13.

Picnic fare – hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, salads, watermelon, beverages, etc. – are included in the donation. Attendees are encouraged to bring a nonperishable food item for a local food bank.

The event is BYOB (21 and older). Picnic goers are encouraged to bring chairs, tables, blankets and picnic supplies. Carpooling is suggested as parking is free but limited.

Two-time recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis (1983 and 2002), the Bucks County Blues Society is the second oldest blues society in the country, well-known for its “Blue Thursday” series (1995-2010), Halloween Shows, Spring Fever Footstompers and R&B Picnics. Over the years, these events have not only introduced Delaware Valley listeners to new artists and fresh talent, but have also provided opportunities for local music fans to see some of the biggest names in Blues perform, including John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.

First introduced to blues as a young boy by way of his father’s extensive music collection, Cullen and two friends – Lou Wolfenson and Alex Hastie – founded BCBS in 1977 and held their first concert, featuring the James Cotton Blues Band, at a firehouse reception hall in Levittown.

“We decided we needed to raise money for a softball team so we decided to have a blues concert,” Cullen explained.

Dually focused on promoting the blues and supporting BCBS softball teams, several concerts were held in support of men’s and women’s slow pitch during the society’s early years, though gradually, “we got into other things, doing all different types of shows – mainly to keep the music alive and have some fun,” Cullen said.

In the ensuing decades, hundreds of blues societies have emerged, but none, accept for the Santa Barbara Blues Society in California, have roots that run as long or as deep as BCBS.

“We were at the vanguard of a movement, which we weren’t aware was starting,” Cullen surmised. “We were just music fans who were looking to support softball teams.”

While the landscape of music has changed since 1977, the honesty and sincerity with which a blues artist plays a chord or sings a song continues to resonate with music lovers, Cullen included.

Exploring the spectrum of human emotion, rhythm and blues is many things – soulful, raw, playful, celebratory and even cathartic, said Cullen, who recently found solace following the death of his mother in the voice of Sam Cooke.

“There’s a lot of honest emotion in the music,” Cullen said. “It tugs a chord inside my soul. It speaks to me. It speaks about the human condition.”

And as evidenced by the popularity of the R&B Picnic – which is expected to attract 1,000 to 1,200 fans – it speaks to others as well.

For information, call 215-946-4794, email thomasjoseph3@comcast.net or visit facebook.com/buckscountybluessociety.

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