The United States Congress declared the year 2003 the "Year of the Blues" to coincide with the 100th anniversary of WC Handy's first written account of the blues. In The Blues Series at the 17th Singapore International Film Festival (April 15-May 1), executive producer Martin Scorsese and seven filmmakers (including Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders) take an impressionistic look at the blues. By Vinita Ramani.

Richard Pearce's Road To Memphis

Martin Scorsese's Feel Like Going Home

Public Enemy's Chuck D in Marc Levin's Godfathers And Sons

Mike Figgis' Red, White And Blues

Clint Eastwood's Piano Blues

In Curtis Hewston’s painstakingly detailed account of the blues and its history, he pays tribute to William Christopher Handy, the man who is said to be the father of the blues. Handy is the reason behind the United States Congress’ declaration that 2003 was the "Year of the Blues," marking the 100th anniversary of Handy’s first-ever written account of the blues.

As Hewston tells us, the story goes that Handy wasn’t a Delta man or a blues musician himself, he played with brass bands, string quartets and traveling minstrel shows. He heard the striking sound we call the blues probably sometime as early as 1892.

But it was in 1903, stuck at Tutwiler Mississippi train station waiting on a late train that he heard a man playing the slide guitar and singing about the railroads and winding routes down South and around Mississippi. The sound was so unearthly that Handy was compelled to start copyrighting and recording the songs for the sake of posterity.

Like his other passionate and fastidious counterpart John Lomax (and later, son Alan Lomax), these collectors and record-keepers of history were the historical spine behind the blues. They make us remember the truth behind Willie Dixon’s unarguable declaration that "the blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits".

What reverberates outside of all the attempts to document, transcribe, re-define and remember the blues however is the core of visceral emotion that led to its inception. There is something startling in the raw perfection of translating jagged bits of life into something worth hearing, repeating and remembering.

After all, even the Lomax father-son field recorders and Handy came long after what historians point out is the roots of the blues. Those roots being the oral tradition carried over in the hulls of ships from West Africa, transplanted into the fields and later into the penitentiaries of the South from as far back as the 1860s, if not earlier.

This is the music of suffering that begins with field hollers, which then wondrously mutates into African-American spirituals when religion and faith meld with West African indigenous traditions to produce a uniquely idiosyncratic hybrid.

The sound that we admiringly refer to and universally recognise as the Mississippi Delta blues has its core in abject servitude. It was paradoxically conceived and birthed in a landscape of excess labour, slavery and eventual death. That excess never leaves the heart of the music, the dark edge that lingers over even the most sly love song.

Slammed into penitentiaries, even in these circumstances John and Alan Lomax recorded the enthralling sounds of volatile bluesman Leadbelly who did not serve his full sentence on account of his brilliant musicianship. Preacher-turned-guitarist Son House served time for killing a man in self-defense and defined a style of playing that literally looked like a bare-handed assault on the guitar, slapping it into life and feeding his wailing words.

Bessie Smith’s street corner song-and-dance numbers in Chattanooga to earn a meagre living and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s distinctly passionate gospel tunes (and no, she wasn’t the prudish quiet type) all make up the kaleidoscopic landscape of a musical tradition that simply sounds right so long after and so far from where they were sung and played.

In this PBS Blues Series, acclaimed filmmaker and executive producer of the series Martin Scorsese rightly decided to approach the blues in an angular, almost elliptical way. A straight-up, chronological history of the music would have been a gargantuan task. Especially if it’s considered in light of the fact that Handy’s contributions and the exhaustive documentations for the Library of Congress that the Lomaxes undertook still do not cover the full breadth of the music.

Rather, Scorsese approached other filmmakers with a love for music within their own cinematic landscape and simply asked them to respond to the music in as personal and subjectively honest a way as possible. The result is a seven-part series in tandem with the 100th anniversary of the blues that brings rare archival footage together with contemporary musicians reflecting on how the blues is at the heart of their own music.

The series begins with Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home — From Mali to Mississippi, setting the tone for the link between the Mississippi Delta, Chicago and the roots of the blues in West Africa. Contemporary blues musician Corey Harris journeys to Mali and plays with Ali Farka Touré — possibly one of the most empowering and beautiful scenes in the series.

Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club) pays tribute to his favourite blues artists, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B.Lenoir by incorporating his own impressionistic footage created using a hand-cranked silent movie camera in The Soul Of A Man.

Mike Figgis’ brilliantly detailed and rigorous historical account of the influence of the blues across the Atlantic in the UK is captured in Red, White And Blues. Similarly, Marc Levin’s Godfathers And Sons is an important contribution that looks at how the famous Chess label and the city of Chicago fed into the distinct evolution of the blues in that city.

While Richard Pearce’s Road To Memphis hones in on BB King and Bobby Rush, Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues strikes a different direction by tracing the influence of the piano in blues music. Charles Burnett — the only African-American director in the series — takes the road of history with Warming By The Devil’s Fire, weaving a simple narrative of a boy meeting with his blues guitarist uncle who takes him on a journey through the music and the cities that housed the fathers and mothers of African-American musical culture.

Paying tribute to something as overwhelmingly immense as the blues can only be done with the modesty and intimacy that is reflected in this series and a century down the road, there is a tangible resonance within these films that history will generate a passion for the contemporary blues scene.

Click here for screening and ticketing details to The Blues Series.

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