Richard Pearce's Road To Memphis
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
Curtis Hewstons 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 Handys first-ever written account of the blues.
As Hewston tells us, the story goes that Handy wasnt 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 Dixons unarguable declaration
that "the blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits".
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
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.
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
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 Smiths street corner song-and-dance numbers in Chattanooga
to earn a meagre living and Sister Rosetta Tharpes distinctly
passionate gospel tunes (and no, she wasnt 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.
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 its considered in light of the fact that Handys contributions
and the exhaustive documentations for the Library of Congress that
the Lomaxes undertook still do not cover the full breadth of the
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.
series begins with Scorseses 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 Levins 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 Pearces Road To Memphis hones in on BB
King and Bobby Rush, Clint Eastwoods 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 Devils 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.