Time sure flies. This past February, when the 107th Congress declared 2003 the official “Year of the Blues,” it was nearly impossible to take in the news without a titter of amusement. The war drums were beating louder. The economy was screeching to a halt. Was Congress merely kidding or had the resolution’s sponsors, among them Bill Frist, decided that the time had finally come to drop the flatteringly lit facade and tell the country what most already knew, that things kinda suck? Here we all were just a year and a half after September 11, the day that was supposed to announce the end of irony as we knew it, and yet there was ol’ irony sitting on top of the world and grinning like a satisfied hoochie-coochie man, getting the Congressional seal of approval while joined to a style of music noted for telling it like it is. Such providence could justifiably bring tears to a blues fan’s eyes–if, that is, crying (and its cousins moaning and hollering) were not already high on the list of activities most blues people do regularly anyway.
Of course, it’s pretty safe to say that irony was not Congress’s intent, however amusing the sentiment. On behalf of the Seattle-based Experience Music Project rock museum and the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the Year of the Blues resolution was meant to usher in the centenary celebration of what has become one of the most far-reaching musical idioms to come of age in the twentieth century, the root element of just about every form of Western popular music from jazz and country to rock and hip-hop. As an act of institutional charity buoyed by a host of synergistic offerings, including a PBS television series executive-produced by noted filmmaker and blues fan Martin Scorsese, Congress’s boosterism addresses the fact that the imposing shadow the blues casts over world culture has done little to keep the public interested in the music in its original form.
Does it matter, however, that there’s even an irony in pronouncing the blues 100 years old?–1903 is certainly not the first year they bubbled up from the Mississippi Delta, woven together from the strands of work songs, spirituals and other folk forms prevalent among the black poor during Reconstruction. It turns out to be the year, however, in which William Christopher “W.C.” Handy, a classical-leaning African-American musician from Memphis who’d get rich eleven years later off of the publication of the composition “St. Louis Blues,” claimed he first overheard an itinerant slide guitarist at a Mississippi railway station. Nearly forty years later, in 1941, Handy would name his autobiography Father of the Blues, overstating his case, on the one hand, because documentation (expressed in copyrights and royalty statements) was on his side and, on the other, because by that time there were few in the rarefied circles he ran in who could call him on it.
Perhaps the best thing one can say about the seven films in the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey is that each one is populated by scores of individuals descended from the nameless guitarist Handy witnessed at that Tutwiler, Mississippi, train depot. They gave themselves titles like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, names that seemed to spring from some mythic Southern hamlet that Zora Neale Hurston might have chronicled in a story or novel. Scorsese’s knowledge of their histories is extensive, profound even: His catalytic use of music as more than a mere scene-setter in films like Mean Streets and GoodFellas is well-known, and in 1976 he captured some of the last concert footage of Waters during the show that became The Last Waltz, a stunning documentary about the folk-blues ensemble The Band’s final concert.
As a boomer child of the period in the 1960s when college kids throughout America were getting hip to rock’s debt to the music of aging black men and women (“the music behind our music,” the director has written), Scorsese grasped instantly that the story of the blues is about three things: race; catharsis born of both good times and conflict; and migration (of blacks from Africa to the American South, and then on to points north, east and west). “It’s tragic that racism continues to thrive in the western world,” Scorsese writes in the preface to the handsome companion volume to the series, just published by the HarperCollins imprint Amistad. “It’s also utterly ridiculous, because there’s no one who hasn’t profited from the spirit that animates this music.” If the series is any indication, Scorsese brings this point home by making only one of the films himself–the Mississippi-Delta-to-West-Africa travelogue Feel Like Going Home–and handing the others to an astonishingly diverse array of popular directors: Charles Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Marc Levin, Richard Pearce and Wim Wenders. (Eastwood’s Piano Blues was not available for review at press time.)