New views of the blues
It would be hard to miss the much-touted national and even intercontinental “Year of the Blues” festivities that have been unfolding through 2003. The end of the year brings an armload of DVD releases related, officially or less so, to the celebration, which was set to mark the hundredth anniversary of the time W.C. Handy supposedly saw a street musician in Mississippi playing this strange new music and then began to adapt it — and copyright it — for general consumption.
That this is the centenary not of the music but of Handy’s intervention is a reminder that, that, from the very moment blues was defined as a recognizable form, somebody has always been volunteering to “present” this most powerfully influential of American music to us wrapped up nice and “palatable,” according to their own sense of the matter, and their sense of the marketplace.
For a long time, inevitably, the intermediaries were almost exclusively white and middle-class, even while the music stretched out from a base that was relatively down and out (if always part of show business) and black. Blacks and whites, intellectuals and hucksters, have used the blues every which way — as a political symbol, as a vague brand identity, as a means to advertise an expansive sensibility, and especially as the pinning of a more primal predecessor to whatever other music the producer or performer (or reviewer) really likes — be that jazz, folk music, hip-hop, or rock ‘n’ roll.
The blues is a national Rorschach test. And when the medium for presenting it is as visual as film and video, the opportunities for interpreting the inkblots to death are enormous. With the availability of DVDs on this subject so limited, there was reason for a certain trepidation about this year’s onslaught.
So I want, first, to bring special attention to a couple of less-publicized new offerings which do that least likely thing of all: They offer up the blues as its makers have made it, without heavy-handed intervention, tendencies to turn blues into a museum curio, or self-aggrandizing pronouncements about how they’re preserving a dying form “for us” before it’s too late.
The best of these is a remarkable two individual volume collection, The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 (Hip-O). Culled from performances of the biggest and best names in blues as they toured Europe in those key revival years, often from forgotten, quality black-and-white German TV shows taped in the studio as the acts came through, this set has the likes of Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson II, even as the MCs! The performers are visibly thrilled and feeling liberated to be treated with this respect, and to be performing in such a professional, downright classy context.
And what a lineup of performers it is. Muddy Waters takes on “Got My Mojo Working” in a slow, ghostly version very different from the well-known Newport show, with Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) on harmonica, Willie Dixon on bass, and Otis Spann on keyboards. Just the chance to watch Spann at work makes this worthwhile for me. (There’s really not much “folk” about this, despite the tour’s title at the time.)
Such hot ’60s blues guitar hands as Magic Sam (as much a big sound innovator and direct predecessor to Hendrix as Buddy Guy), Otis Rush, Matt Guitar Murphy and Hubert Sumlin are joined by electric blues founder T-Bone Walker and master Lonnie Johnson. On harp, there’s Big Walter and Junior Wells; on piano are Spann, Sykes, prime-time Memphis Slim and Sunnyland Slim. Among the blues shouting women, we get Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, and Big Mama Thornton. To these riches add such classic acoustic performers as Fred McDowell (with his extraordinary presence) and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
And one last thing: there are three full-throttle performances by Howlin’ Wolf, powerful enough to define rock (“Shake For Me”), and quietly smoking (“I’ll Be Back Someday”). Just standing up full-size and nodding in rhythm, the man is scary. The studio performances are on sets that for once aren’t cheesy — juke joints and clam bars and front porches populated by what looks like whole southern towns brought over for the occasion. And note, twang fans: Earl Hooker provides a rendition of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You”! A third volume is slated for next spring.
A blues history documentary that lets the performers speak for themselves — including such articulate and recently deceased masters as Othar Turner, Rufus Thomas, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson and the always fascinating Johnny Shines — is Blues Story (Shout! Factory). It’s an extension of a program that has managed to play on PBS without the usual “Official Noble Obligation That’s Good For You” tone. It was produced and directed by video veteran Jay Levey (of Weird Al video fame!), with Living Blues magazine co-founder Jim O’Neal consulting.
The talking-head approach works unusually well here, delivering a sense of the experiences that lay behind the performances — from plowing behind mules for 38 cents a day to singing for passing shoppers on Chicago’s Maxwell Street. The history sticks rather closely to the myopic, oversimplified “blues was born in the Delta, then moved through Memphis just long enough to be electrified in Chicago” popular narrative. But it has room for a closer look at Mississippi hill country music, for instance, often left out of that familiar tale, and for the living (and often quite political) work of bluesman Willie King. Happily, it also takes the outgrowth of urban R&B from rural blues in stride. As Ruth Brown puts it, “it was just mainstream race music before they called it rock ‘n’ roll.”
The very title of the much-ballyhooed Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues suggests a fearsome level of proprietary attitude for those nevertheless awaiting the arrival of this major 13-hour TV series airing on PBS this fall. It’s been expanded into a DVD box set (on Sony Legacy) with additional material added to each part.
An early look reveals that Scorsese clearly intends for the seemingly overpossessive and even P.T. Barnum hustle-like title simply to emphasize the personal, and therefore limited, even humble scope of the presentation. With the seven episodes developed as personal responses by a range of musically-inclined filmmakers, from Wim Wenders and Clint Eastwood to Richard Pearce and Charles Burnett, the trap of Ken Burns-style “final word/put it to bed authority” is avoided, and the possibilities for surprise — sometimes even delivered — are opened up.
But there’s no mistaking the Scorsese stamp on this project, and not just on his own episode (arguably the most effective one). The blues is presented as a form of intense personal statement made by long-suffering immigrants who retain their essentially foreign character, and who hand down this tradition of expression father-to-son in the family (every now and again, even father-to-daughter). Those familiar with Scorsese’s work of the past 30 years will not be shocked that this interpretation of the blues inkblot emerges.
His own film, Feel Like Going Home, uses knowledgeable contemporary acoustic blues practitioner Corey Harris as an effective interlocutor to take us to Mississippi and to the coast of Mali, where the “always essentially African music” and “father-to-son” themes are established. Indie filmmaker Burnett’s Warming By The Devil’s Fire takes the generational idea into the fictional (and didactic) tale of a young kid introduced to the blues and “hot women” by a roguish uncle.
The personal-statement approach yields hit-and-miss episodes, but there’s no announced intention to sell the discs in the box separately. Marc Levin’s Godfathers & Sons is a pretty charming and revealing look at a recording encounter between Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess of Chess Records, along with old Chess backup hands and members of contemporary band the Roots. Just listening to these guys interact with the musicians speaks volumes about the working blues experience, and about the complexity of race relations in this area. Wim Wenders’ film The Soul Of A Man, on the other hand, which is supposedly looking at the relation between the sacred and the profane in blues and gospel, is a mess — really an excuse to bring up several high-voiced singers he likes (Skip James, J.B. Lenoir) and air some footage of them he found. It’s nice to see, but muddy in the telling.
Mike Figgis’ film Red, White & Blues is devoted to the story of British blues, but it never confronts the issue of whether anyone in that continuum has made the contributions the African-American innovators have — or even whether this stuff, with its sometime minstrelsy, is even all that good.
Regularly, the series returns to a comment by Willie Dixon that “the blues are the roots; everything else is the fruits,” but it never quite shows how blues fertilized jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway pop, country and bluegrass. (They do a bit better, predictably, with rock ‘n’ roll.)
There’s no acknowledgment at all, in any of these personal statements, of how Dixon’s quip was plain misleading. The blues has lived always in a dynamic, changing, very American context, influenced itself by those other music varieties it changed, impacted by the need to perform for those varied audiences who “liked other stuff” better. While some geographical and political and spiritual context surfaces in this well-intended project, for all its length and resources and star power, it never gets at the lively, complicated working showbiz performance reality that leads Earl Hooker to sing Ernest Tubb in the American Folk Blues Festival video.
If the films have avoided being precious, and sometimes let the bluesmakers reach us unmolested, they are, finally, considerably thinner on ideas than they think they are — and have opened up less territory than they imagine.
Two other blues entries of note are just out on DVD for the first time, from Vestapol/Rounder. On Mance Lipscomb In Concert, the influential acoustic songster takes on everything from “Motherless Children” to “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” (which he apparently thought was a place called “Temporary”) in charming color footage from 1969 originally broadcast on Texas TV. And on Texas Blues Guitar, performances by old-timers Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins are supplemented by rarely seen electric explosions from both Freddie King and Albert Collins — which is enough said for electric lead aficionados.
Vestapol has a significant new entry on the twang guitar side too. Legends Of Western Swing offers not only vintage performances by western swing guitar stalwarts Junior Barnard of Bob Wills’ Playboys and Zeke Campbell of the Lightcrust Doughboys, but latter-day appearances by the great Eldon Shamblin, with enough close-ups for guitarists to pick up the approach.
Just out also is a touching bio documentary on a unique performer and writer — Roger Miller: King Of The Road (White Star DVD), which contains enough performance footage, hilarious interview clips, and touching commentary by Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Sheb Wooley and Minnie Pearl to leave fans of mainstream and alternative country alike teary-eyed. And Roy Orbison’s widow, Barbara, has assembled video versions, often very strong ones, of his key songs from performances across the years on Roy Orbison: Greatest Hits (Eagle Vision).
One last live show entry of another kind: Marshall Crenshaw: Live From The Stone Pony captures one of the power-pop vet’s charming latter-day shows at the legendary club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hits you want to see him do (“Someday, Someway”, “Cynical Girl”, “Whenver You’re On My Mind”, etc.) are all on tap.