Every Picture’s Told A Story
This column has always been called “Film At 11,” in part for its location here in the “back of the book.” This last edition in print feels more like “Film at Five Before Midnight.” It has been a privilege to get to use this space regularly to address a topic that never stops intriguing me, and apparently others too — and one that hasn’t been looked at very much elsewhere: how the intersection of American roots and pop music this magazine has been exploring has come to the screen, has come to be seen.
The unstated assumption here has been that seeing performances, and of this music in particular, matters. It’s a commonplace notion that roots music acts are best seen live (and notice how casually that gets said instead of “heard” live), but Mssrs. Alden and Blackstock have actually dedicated much space in these pages over the years both to reports on live shows — dismissed by many publications these days as too “after the act,” as if say, sports reporting wasn’t as well — and to these video reports and reviews, which has provided perspectives on the performers and their performances that would not otherwise have been there. Audio recordings do what they do, and can be made, of course, to do much — but there are limits to what they are “records” of when you want to get at what a performer is really all about.
It’s conceivable, just barely, that a few of you may have noticed I’ve done a bit less feature writing and reporting in these pages over recent issues than has usually been the case. I’ve been at work researching, interviewing more than 80 performers, occasionally thinking, and writing to completion a new book on the musical legacy of Jimmie Rodgers, across musical genres, from his day to ours. (It’s going to be called Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, and it’s set to be published by Oxford University Press, very early next year.)
That Jimmie starred in the short film The Singing Brakeman in 1929, just barely technologically possible in that very early sound era, has been an extraordinary gift in attempting to nail why he had the impact he did — particularly the live impact. A very lean print of the nine-minute film can be seen on the DVD Times Ain’t What They Used to Be (Yazoo/Shanachie), which collects major early country, cowboy, and early jazz film artifacts on one invaluable disc.
We see Rodgers looking upward, contemplating, reminiscing, recalling, and seeing the place as he sings “he put me off in Texas, a place I dearly love,” an intimate gesture that adds to the sense of credibility, that sincerity his audiences talked about. It also shows you something about Jimmie’s with-it awareness of his audience and of show business that the man is adapting to this new and fairly crude medium of “sound movie performing,” even as the camera rolls: taking and using a close-up, which has barely been done before by anybody in music, let alone by him. And there are glimpses of his easy stage manner, his stage joking, even if it’s not exactly an Academy Award performance.
There happens to be a bit of cinema history question about the film that I’m still delving into. The print on the DVD is a 1930 redo of the 1929 original cut; there are actually different takes and Jimmie “comments” tossed in than were on the first version, which is also in circulation, and a different set of credits assigned to the two versions of the film. How and why that happened is not entirely clear, but that it’s the only short in the “Columbia-Victor Screen Gems” series that had reason to be printed again may tell us something about his popularity at the moment. No one with reason to know has been able to account for this so far — and it’s hardly been noticed before, so if you know something, get in touch!
Meanwhile, since I’m looking at performance adaptations and evolution of Rodgers’ songs over 80 years, the filmed and taped performances of some fascinating moments along the way have been key: Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong recreating the Armstrong-Rodgers “Blue Yodel #9” duet; Doc Watson presenting his turns on Rodgers guitar runs; Marty Robbins (who barely recorded Rodgers tunes at all but was masterful at singing them) doing “Mississippi River Blues” on his short-lived TV series; Lynyrd Skynyrd performing “T For Texas” before a southern-rock crowd that shows, in its very response, what the number had come to mean in that context; folk singer Odetta’s and punk-vamps the Cramps’ rather different taped turns on “Mule Skinner Blues”. Even with all of the limits of the visual media — and all media have them — images of performances are the scene-setter and reality-seeker’s special friend. Some of the clips I’ve just referenced pop up on YouTube and such places without warning these days — but they’re out there, preserving and revealing what performers and performances were like.
With only inches left in this print column’s life, I don’t want to ignore the last releases I can bring up — particularly since they’re remindful of what visual sensibilities keep on bringing to the show. British filmmaking heavyweight Ken Russell, who’d once specialized in flamboyant dramas about classical composers, brings a practiced, knowing eye to the Anglo-Celt pop-folk scene, and the difficulties of defining it, with In Search Of The English Folk Song (Kultur). He brings in such luminaries as Donovan, June Tabor, and members of Fairport Convention to try to find out if there’s actually a difference between immersing yourself in Anglo folk-rock and simply getting drunk in a decent pub. He provides great fun and wit doing it. While we’re across the water momentarily, a word should be said for The Clash Live: Revolution Rock (Epic/Legacy), which takes particularly good live versions of the key Clash songs and delivers them with what appears to be cleanly upgraded audio. The material is fresh, not a repeat of performances commonly seen on earlier Clash-related films or videos.
How a good eye brings us closer to a subtle, smart, unique performer is much on view in Mark Finkelpearl’s superb, intimate portrait and performance film of Jon Dee Graham: Swept Away (Freedom). This is not a big-bucks production, but it’s one more proof that there’s no substitute for knowing what you want to show and how to show it — in this case, whether Graham is working acoustic in a quiet room or rocking out at Austin’s Continental Club.
In the “glad it’s documented at all” category would be Reverend Gary Davis: The Video Collection (Vestapol), which brings together all available footage — much never seen before — of the warm, wonderful and occasionally nearly raunchy master of sweet acoustic blues, rag and gospel. And, finally, there’s the surprise arrival of Mink DeVille Live At Montreux 1981 (Eagle Eye). If you don’t know this band, which brought a very New York “Loisaida” Spanish tinge to pub rock right on the edge of downtown punk, bringing Phil Spector-related, sax-diven wails to the mix that were very competitive with and comparable to the early version of Springsteen’s E Street Band — catch this now. Definitely regional roots music — of a certain region and vintage.
Video like these will keep on coming, as will the performances, and they’ll be seen and distributed by whatever means happens to come along next. That you can count on. Maybe I’ll be able to discuss them with you some place up the road. For now though, as rural film star Porky Pig so aptly, repeatedly put it — that’s all folks.