By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Every Sunday from May through October, some of the best blues musicians and singers in Detroit gather to jam at John’s Carpet House, and hundreds come out to hear them.
They’re not coming to a house, though. It’s actually an open, grassy field on Frederick Street just off Chene Street on the eastside in the Poletown neighborhood.
Each week 700 to 1,000 people set up folding lawn chairs, tents and tables in a semi-circle to watch the musicians perform on a small wooden stage. They drink favorite beverages, grill burgers, and dance on the lawn. Nearby vendors in food trucks, vans and pick-up trucks sell everything from cowboy hats, fried catfish and collard greens to belts and barbecued ribs.
The jam session organically grew from a tradition that sprouted more than 20 years ago when local musicians gathered on Sundays at 2133 Frederick in a wooden shed John Estes – a junk man by vocation, drummer and blues lover by avocation – built in front of his house and padded with carpet for better acoustics. The neighbors and a few musicians, about 20 to 30, gathered.
Unfortunately, Estes died and his house burned down and the ones across the street were torn down. Eventually, Pete Barrow, a fellow blues lover, bought land across the street, built a stage and acted as emcee and DJ with his immense blues collection.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Barrow says. “I know a lot of the musicians, and I know they enjoy it.”
Among them are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoree and legendary guitarist Billy Davis, who was Jimi Hendrix mentor. T. Pablo Lowman shows out on the harmonica and people beg house band keyboard player, drummer and bass guitarist Willie “Willie-Willie” Harris to sing his signature cover of Johnny Taylor’s “Just Because.”
The scene looks like a large family reunion. On Frederick and surrounding blocks it’s a festival. Along with vendors, cars are parked for blocks. People mix and mingle in the streets. The event dually serves as a biker’s rally with lit up, tricked-out custom-painted motorcycles, engines roaring. Motorists cruise in classic and old-school cars. Barbecue smoke wafts through the air and music blares from the rides.
The blues jam that runs from about 3:30 p.m. until dark is a dream to the people, but to city officials and new developers sprouting up in the area, it’s becoming a recurring nightmare. City officials, area businesses and residents have been meeting to come up with a way to continue holding the event but without the excessive noise, traffic, illegal vending and public urination.
Barrow, better known as Big Pete, is a man with a commanding presence who keeps everything orderly. Those bikers act as his security force, and he says that’s why it’s peaceful.
He asks people to “put a ducket in the bucket” that’s passed around. The dollars cover the $500-$600 he says he uses for upkeep, portable restrooms, and to share a few bucks with the musicians. Otherwise, it comes from his pocket.
He’s seen some hard days with recent citations and having the event shut down one Sunday last summer and is concerned about the event’s future.
“I got two tickets last week,” he says on a recent Sunday. “They are trying to run me off from over here. They want this property. I’m in the thick of things.”
He’s referring to Recovery Park Farms, which grows specialty produce, selling it to fine restaurants such as Midtown’s Selden Standard. The venture’s mission is to transform a blighted 22-block area and create up to 500 jobs for ex-offenders and recovering addicts and a locally-based, self-reliant food economy.
The $15-million project’s 60 acres includes more than 35 acres of city land, running north from I-94, Chene Street to the east, St. Aubin Street to the west and south to Forest Avenue. Barrow’s property is in the midst of all this.
Recovery Park CEO Gary Wozniak says he’s tried to work with Barrow. He applied for and won a $40,000 Knight Arts Challenge matching grant for Barrow to help him relocate or to upgrade with electricity and more portable restrooms. Barrow turned it down, viewing it as a way to push him off his land. Wozniak says he just wants Barrow to work with the rest of the community.
“It’s a wonderful event,” he says. “But there’s no way his property can hold 1,000 people and the event naturally spills over onto the adjoining areas.”
Barrow insists he’s done what he can to comply with city officials who want less noise, more sanitation and licensed vendors. It’s difficult, he says, to control what’s going on down the street.
“I’ve met with the city council, police two or three times,” he says. “They say my music is too loud and I don’t have enough port-o-johns. It’s all I can do is keep fighting, but it’s hard to fight city hall. But they can’t push me off my property, and they can’t make me sell.”
City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield has been meeting with Barrow, Wozniak and area residents to figure out how everyone can get along. She says the city can’t risk someone getting sick while allowing the event to operate without food licenses, and residents are tired of seeing people urinating.
“I love John’s Carpet Blues,” she says. “I’ve been there myself, and it’s an amazing event.” But, she adds, Barrow, the vendors and others must have proper permits and licenses or the event eventually will be shut down. For now, she says, warning tickets will be issued before stiffer penalties.
“This is a new day and age in the City of Detroit,” she says. “Things that people in the past have gotten away with are not happening anymore. If you want to keep it going, you are going to have to come in compliance. I’m very supportive of both projects, and I do think they can co-exist.”
Barrow built the field, purchased amps, generators and speakers, and the people came. He just wants it to stay that way, but he says it’s getting hard and expensive with the fines.
“The people out here don’t know what I go through,” he says, shaking his head. “I have a lot of money tied up out here.”