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.)
Music documentaries that aren’t necessarily concert films generally come into the world with a couple of strikes against them. First, they’re only as good as the back story, the narrative that has to sustain the viewer’s attention if the style of music is unfamiliar. As a genre peopled with characters who in some instances adhered to a strict outsider’s code and were often exploited for their trouble by well-meaning record men–the only people outside their audiences, ironically, who understood what they were doing–the blues seems like a natural for exegesis.
But despite the montages of chain gangs that pepper a couple of films in the series (a reminder that artists like Lead Belly, Bukka White and Son House actually served time), that part of the history is largely missing from the series. Levin’s film, Godfathers and Sons, probably commits the most egregious transgression. Ostensibly a history of Chicago blues, the film follows Marshall Chess, son of the legendary blues label Chess Records’ co-founder Leonard, and lets him get away with some noxious comments about Chess artists’ incessant money problems and taste in fine clothes and cars. A little while later he says something in an aside about the “chunk of money” he acquired when his father sold the company, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the two things are connected by, say, the twenty-plus years of financial inequities Muddy Waters endured at the label. Worst of all, Chess often does this with the blessing of his sidekick in the film, none other than Public Enemy’s rap politico Chuck “Fight the Power” D. (Please, don’t ask why.)
To their credit, Scorsese and series producer Alex Gibney were not interested in a string of films that stuck to a straitlaced chronology. But their desire for a throng of personal pictures that rambled like the earliest blues men and women has also resulted in a series that at times feels unwieldy. The same footage of House and Howlin’ Wolf recurs in more than one film. (Waters also turns up again and again, but the clips vary and are often priceless.) Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire, potentially significant both because he was the lone African-American director commissioned and because his take invites uppity early blues women like Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey to the pervading country-blues party, turns out not to be a documentary at all. It’s a re-enacted slice of autobiography that sags slightly under its own weight. Wenders’s The Soul of a Man also uses actors for the director’s silent-film-like dramatizations of the lives of Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James, but then morphs into a somewhat kooky reminiscence of the late J.B. Lenoir that stars a Chicago-based European couple who befriended him shortly before his death–obviously as charmed by his custom-made zebra-print tuxedo as by his music. The whole is salvaged somewhat by the modern, live-in-the-studio renditions of classics performed by, among others, Beck, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, Marc Ribot and Cassandra Wilson.
Interesting enough, the two films that are the most fascinating to watch and listen to are not only the most straightforward but also happen to have the most to do with racial issues. Figgis’s Red, White and Blues chronicles the history of the idiom in England, where the blues bug hit so hard that bands like the Rolling Stones (named after a Waters tune) and Cream were driven to reach back across the Atlantic and show stateside kids what they’d been neglecting for decades. None of the articulate talking heads in the film, though–not John Mayall, Mick Fleetwood, Eric Clapton, Georgie Fame or Tom Jones–actually answer he million-dollar question: “Why were you so moved by the music of rural and ghettoized African-Americans a whole world away?” And yet, with the exception of Van Morrison’s flat-out dismissal of the whole subject (“the blues isn’t black or white, it’s the truth”), you get the sense that most can’t answer because they’re still actually looking for the answers themselves.
What makes Richard Pearce’s The Road to Memphis the unadulterated gem of the bunch, however, is the way the director carefully peels back layers of legend and preservationist nostalgia in order to reveal the blues as it exists today. Pearce’s film follows the brouhaha surrounding a particularly star-studded edition of the annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards; the evening functions as a homecoming of sorts for former Beale Street stalwarts B.B. King and Ike Turner. And yet, it’s Pearce’s decision to juxtapose the red-carpet travels of King the Blues Icon with the no-frills touring of raunchy, chitlin-circuit veteran Bobby Rush that provides the film’s center. All at once, this allows the director to draw a vivid portrait of Memphis during its postwar years as a black mecca and give a glimpse of why leaving the South was ultimately an imperative for any blues act with bigger aspirations. Had these artists stayed put, there’s no telling when their music would have reached the Senate floor.