Sometime between voting to destroy — then spend billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars reconstructing — a foreign nation and passing not one but two tax cuts that mostly benefit the richest 1 percent of Americans, the U.S. Congress decreed 2003 to be the Year of the Blues. (Insert your own joke here.) Tossing a little more irony into the fire, on consecutive evenings several weeks back, the (partially) government-financed Public Broadcasting System aired Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, featuring seven films by as many directors.
If you missed any or all of the episodes, there’s no need for blueswailing. The entire series was recently issued as either a DVD or VHS box set. These DVD/VHS packages join the five-CD box set, the seven films’ soundtrack albums, the 12 discs by individual artists, and the hardcover book that landed at retail a month before the initial broadcast dates. It’s a deluge of blues that’s destined to leave aficionados and casual listeners alike drowning on dry land.
Each of these items has its own merits and demerits, as might be expected when anyone tries to shoehorn about 80 years of recording history into individually wrapped slices. Instead of a linear historical approach à la Ken Burns’ 2002 Jazz series, Scorsese opted for the “let’s have seven blind men each grab a part of the elephant” method. Which is fine, inasmuch as blues is like cooking collard greens; because the form is so basic, it allows for an almost infinite number of individual interpretations. Scorsese’s own Feel Like Going Home kicked off the series. Directed with a surprising minimum of visual flair and hosted by young black modern bluesman Corey Harris, it connects the cane fife and marching drums of the recently deceased Otha Turner and the freeform modal blues of John Lee Hooker to the same West African roots that nurture the similar yet dissimilar music made by Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure. Great if you don’t know this stuff; curiously flat if you do.
The accompanying soundtrack album fares better — none of the interview segments, all background info confined to the liner notes, and all full-length performances versus abbreviated clips — highlighted by juke-joint veterans Willie King & the Liberators’ scarifying live rendition of “Terrorized,” a superb modern blues that contrasts the events of 9/11 with a lifetime’s worth of inhumanity.
Wim Wenders’ The Soul of a Man focuses on Blind Willie Johnson, whose music straddles gospel and blues; idiosyncratic country bluesman Skip James; and Chicago blues cult hero J.B. Lenoir, whose premature 1966 death precluded his reaching a wider audience. Wenders’ hand-cranked, black-and-white re-enactments are gorgeous, and that freshly unearthed, mid-’60s home footage of J.B. Lenoir is truly eye-popping, but his decision to repeatedly interrupt all this with modern performers covering the trio’s tunes bears wildly uneven fruit. It’s as if Wenders doesn’t trust the power of the original art, which has already transcended time and space. For example, Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” figures prominently in Ghost World. When an awestruck Thora Birch asks Steve Buscemi’s record geek for “another record like that,” he truthfully responds, “There aren’t any other records like that.”
Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner’s vibrantly photographed The Road to Memphis contrasts the world of blues elder statesman B.B. King with that of still-on-the-chitlin’-circuit Bobby Rush. The latter may be a journeyman, but his is the far more interesting story. Yet this all gets derailed by the need to detail the admittedly significant role Memphis played in the music’s history, and the result is rather schizophrenic. The soundtrack album is tipped more toward the historical side and holds together better.
Charles Burnett — the series’ sole black director — contributes Warming by the Devil’s Fire, and it’s far and away the best film per se. Drawn from Burnett’s own experience as a young boy whipsawed between the religious and the profane members of his family, it’s more like a short story with the blues as an almost flesh-and-blood character. Witness this deathless dialogue: “I can’t tell our mother that you’ve taken this boy to juke joints, so I’ve got to lie to her. Now you see how the devil works?” (The soundtrack is a mixed bag of classic female blues vocalists, jazz, gospel, and country and urban bluesmen.)
Marc Levin’s Godfathers and Sons attempts to link hip-hop and the blues via Public Enemy front man Chuck D.’s affection for Muddy Waters’ generally reviled psychedelic-blues experiment, Electric Mud. While the two styles certainly share far more DNA than is generally acknowledged, this one album is just too thin a thread on which to hang a thesis. And the post-WWII indie labels’ role in the music, as well as the tectonic shift from solo acoustic performers to the electric-band sounds of ’50s Chicago, gets overshadowed in the process. But then we wouldn’t get the footage of the now mostly jazz ’n’ session pros who played on Electric Mud reunited in the studio with Chuck D. and Common etc., in another attempt to connect wit da kidz, which is, after all, the same role the indie-label crew chiefs played the first time around. The soundtrack corrects the historical balance.
Mike Figgis’ Red, White & Blues explores the ’60s British blues boom, breaking up the parade of how-it-all-happened interviews with new, live-in-the-studio performances by Van Morrison, Lulu, Tom Jones and a Jeff Beck–led band. Jones and Lulu are more capable R&B singers than commonly thought, but the results are erratic, making the soundtrack an uneven affair.
Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues blurs the lines between jazz and blues, with knuckle-busting vintage performance clips — Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, Oscar Peterson, Professor Longhair, and two fistfuls of boogie-woogie pianists — that more than make up for the all-too-hoary stories and some questionable choices of interviewees, which means the otherwise eminently playable soundtrack severely tapers off when you get to the newly recorded material.
The DVD version of the series sports three hours of additional material, divided between the usual “making of” footage, artist and director interviews, director commentaries, and at least 10 performances that didn’t make the final cuts. Owing to the morass of licensing rights, the individual film soundtracks and the individual artist albums are split between Sony/Legacy and Hip-O/Universal, with the latter getting the five-CD box set. This 116-track package has to be considered in all but the squarest circles as the holiday gift of the year. Cool photos and solid notes — albeit some odd discrepancies between the sessionography and the liners and a 10-year gap from 1971 to 1981 (!) — aside, the best thing about this set is that it fills in most of the innumerable holes in the series’ history: Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Slim Harpo, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Blind Willie McTell, Guitar Slim and many more are present and accounted for.
Edited by Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Christopher John Farley, the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues hardcover anthology (Amistad/HarperCollins, $27.95) fills in most of the remaining holes, balancing vintage pieces from such black literary giants as Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes with material composed specifically for the project. This roughly 300-page opus comes packed with choice photos and is more than a bit uneven, but the righteous stuff — the Mike Bloomfield on the road with Big Joe Williams excerpt from Me and Big Joe; Robert Palmer’s account of witnessing Howlin’ Wolf, then age 55, performing live in 1965; James Marshall (let’s-get-drunk-and-truck “party” blues), John Edgar Wideman (Sterling Plumpp’s poetry), Stanley Booth (Furry Lewis’ day gig sweeping the Memphis streets), and former J. Geils Band front man Peter Wolf’s
“I used to let Muddy Waters and his band stay at my
apartment” segments — is well worth the wade-through. It’s also the obvious holiday gift for everyone on your list who already owns that five-CD box set.
As for those 12 single-artist albums, Sony/Legacy has Son House, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, while Hip-O/Universal has J.B. Lenoir, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band. Each is a fine introduction to the artist’s oeuvre and, in the case of the more rock-oriented acts, heavily skewed toward the blues side of their repertoires.
So, the blues . . . One of the fundamental building blocks of American music . . . The soundtrack to countless beer commercials . . . Not-so-mute testimony to the enduring power of artistic expression from people who were living in hell and were told they were going to hell, too. And, as such, an inspiration to us all.