Detroit — A grassroots blues jams held every Sunday in an open field in east Detroit returned this week after being shut down last month by city red tape.
Now the many fans of John’s Carpet House hope it is the last of the troubles for the legendary event. Every Sunday from May to October, the blues jam named in honor of a dead junk man is testimony Detroit still burns with a raw creativity.
“I just felt really sad when they shut down the blues,” said Ruby Coney, 78, who was there on Sunday, dancing up a storm, just as she has tried to do every Sunday for the past five years. From 3 p.m. or so to sunset, a live jam takes place featuring Detroit’s blues royalty. The event has being going on for 15 years and now routinely attracts up to 3,000.
“Why would the city come and shut something down that gives so many people joy?” Coney said.
It’s held on the corner of St. Aubin and Frederick in a well-manicured patch of grass that’s surrounded by blocks of huge weedy lots where homes used to be. Its closest neighbor may be the city’s waste management plant.
Three weeks ago, Detroit police unexpectedly told organizer Albert “Big Pete” Barrow, a retired auto worker and deejay, to pull the plug on the event. “They said I didn’t have the proper permits — that’s crazy. It’s my property. They said that there were too many vendors that set up on the side streets and were selling everything from alcohol to food and they didn’t have the proper permits.”
Barrow and his legions of fans fought back. Fans like Coney were among the hundreds of fans who signed a petition and took it to city officials. Barrow went before the City Council last week and explained he had bought the property where the event takes place from the city several years ago.
“A few years ago, the city told me I don’t need any permits and now they’re saying I do, so I went to remind City Council that I didn’t,” Barrow said. Some of his fans are attorneys and they offered their services to help, Barrow said.
On Sunday, the vendors were gone and Barrow hopes that settles the situation.
“To me, it’s resolved but I hope the city thinks so,” he said.
On Friday, representatives for the Detroit Police Department and Mayor Mike Duggan’s Office said they would look into the situation but didn’t have enough information to comment.
Many in the crowd on Sunday said they knew the roots of John’s Carpet House. John Estes was a junk man and drummer, sometimes singer, who lived across the street. About 25 years ago, he built a wooden shack, decorated it with scraps of carpet and invited blues musicians to play every Sunday.
Estes died about nine years ago; his house burned down about five years ago. “So we brought it over here,” to the empty field, Barrow said.
Artists such as Harmonica Shah, Howard Glazer and Kenny Miller show up and wait their turn to play on the patch of carpet, their instruments powered by a generator. National media outlets such as Rolling Stone, Canadian Broadcast Co. and PBS have spotlighted the event.
People of all ages dance unabashedly. Most seem intent on forgetting about their troubles instead of starting any.
“If there’s any time in Detroit where people need to cut loose in a healthy way and celebrate blues, it’s now,” Barrow said.