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Topic: The PBS "Blues" documentary Return to archive
09-22-03 04:33 PM
sandrew I've seen it. It sucks. A huge disappointment, I'm afraid. Don't get excited about seeing the Stones in it, either. Nothing new on that front.

In "Red, White and Blues," one of the later installments of the weeklong series, there's an arrogant British pseudo-intellectual talking about the influence of the blues in early-60s England.

The Beatles, he said, were "inventive," but the Stones "less so."

He's right, of course. And wrong, too.
09-22-03 04:35 PM
steel driving hammer Seems this tv special will be six long days.

I can't watch it that long, when are the Stones going to be on!?!?
09-22-03 04:38 PM
sandrew They're on "Godfathers and Sons," the one about Chicago and Chess Records. They're also on "Red, White and Blues," about early British blues.

Like I said, though, nothing special. You've probably seen all the footage.
09-22-03 04:39 PM
steel driving hammer Word.
09-22-03 06:12 PM
Martha So how did you end up seeing it already sandrew?

I have a hard time believing it sucks. Can you elaborate?
09-22-03 08:39 PM
David Opinions, Assholes...
09-22-03 09:44 PM
lonecrapshooter hold on....this review from the Times is not so good....nobody can do a movie better than Bll Wyman judging from his book..that book and XM Satellite Radio ch74 Bluesville is all you need...just heard Ventilator Blues preceded by Muddy Waters, Etta James, T. Bone Walker, Lavelle White, Eddie Clearwater, Joe Williams, Bobby Bland

The New York Times
September 21, 2003
Is It a Happy Birthday for the Blues?

AN a media blitz save the blues? Do the blues need to be saved? And if the blues were to be saved, what would be their 21st-century role?

Those are some of the questions raised by the Year of the Blues, which began, by Congressional proclamation, on Feb. 1. Concerts and club gigs have been tied to it all year, and beginning next Sunday, PBS is to broadcast "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey," a weeklong series of documentaries. Meanwhile, recording companies have been reissuing every blues track they can digitize, blues-concert DVD's are appearing and the Experience Music Project rock museum in Seattle is about to begin its own Year of the Blues series on Public Radio International.

All this history mongering suggests that the blues needs preserving, though it hasn't disappeared. A few younger rockers have made their own discovery of the blues, particularly jam bands and the White Stripes. But most contemporary rock and pop is at least a generation removed from the classic electric blues that inspired musicians like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Bonnie Raitt. Lead guitarists tend to prefer heavy-metal shredding or punk blare to the patient tension and release of the blues. And the street-level perspective once claimed by the blues, along with the hard-living gangster and hustler archetypes that date back to Stagolee, have long since moved into hip-hop, which has its immediate roots in funk and rarely even samples a blues track.

Still, any night of the week, in big cities and rural outposts, blues bands continue to play. The 12-bar, three-chord structure of the blues feels ingrained and familiar; it shows up every so often in a pop hit like Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." Proficient blues singers like Shemekia Copeland (the daughter of the bluesman Johnny Copeland), Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb' Mo', Chris Thomas King and many others still work a circuit of clubs and colleges. In Mississippi, blues and Southern soul are still regular radio fare.

Yet their audience isn't getting any younger. And the blues, once fierce and disquieting music, is often marketed as something comfortable, good for selling jeans and beer. The Year of the Blues risks becoming another attempt by baby boomers to enshrine the pleasures of their youth, as they have with rock and soul museums in Cleveland, Seattle and Memphis.

But the blues should not be a nostalgia trip. The music is imbedded in American and world culture, and it earned its place with beauty and guile, gaining traction with every misreading. Guitar solos and letting the good times roll were part of it, but by no means the whole story. The blues was once as audacious as hip-hop, as intimate as emo and as insubordinate as punk.

So there's never a bad time to recognize the blues. The pretext for declaring 2003 the Year of the Blues is that in 1903, a bandleader and cornet player named W. C. Handy heard a man at a train station in Mississippi, playing slide guitar with a knife and singing a plaintive blues about the railroad junction "where the Southern crosses the Dog." (The Dog was the Yazoo Delta Line.)

To judge by the description Handy published years later, all the hallmarks of the deep Delta blues were already there: the lines of lyrics repeated, the European instrument that had been taught new ways to moan, the uncanny vocal style, the thoughts of distance and loneliness. The song even invoked a crossroads.

Handy later described it as "the weirdest music I ever heard," and he didn't forget it. He became the first composer to publish a blues song when he reworked his "Mr. Crump," a 1909 mayoral campaign song, as "The Memphis Blues" and published it in 1912. Handy's 1903 discovery was the beginning of the blues' relationship with the music business, as vexed a liaison as anyone has ever thought to celebrate.

The paradoxes of the blues begin with its very existence. It was born twisted, as music that repaid a bitter historical injustice — slavery and racism in America — with generous gifts: a contagious joy and a profound transformation of what art can mean. And it grew up to teach America, and the world, about mixed messages.

The blues came out of a particular place and time, yet spoke to an audience that would never pick a cotton boll. It was a remnant of African cultures among people forbidden to express those cultures openly. Yet the blues is also unmistakably American music, linked to hymns, parlor songs, country tunes, military bands and dance combos. That's because it had the ability to infiltrate nearly anything in its path.

In the PBS documentaries, fans and musicians describe the music as "the truth." Yet despite the blunt, unvarnished lyrics and elemental structure, the blues is rarely a straightforward confession or chronicle. Sharp-dressed men sing about hard times; threats arrive sweetly, accusations with a laugh, sorrow with matter-of-fact acceptance. In Mr. Scorsese's documentary, "Feel Like Going Home," the bluesman Willie King says that the early blues' tales of mistreating women may well have been veiled complaints about the boss.

Compare the blues to the straight-faced Tin Pan Alley pop from before World War II, and the blues may use fewer chords, but it sounds infinitely more wise and adult, full of secret clues and sly sexiness. The blues' legacy is not only its unflinching stories, but the levels of subterfuge and indirection that were essential to its survival.

The blues has found itself on various sides of America's divisions of race and class. It has been treated as a symbol of innovation and of backwardness, of evil and of righteousness, of times best forgotten and of lore that should never be lost, of frivolity and of revelation. It has been repeatedly discarded by listeners both black and white, only to be reclaimed by unlikely benefactors. The makers of the PBS series long to join the ranks of blues disseminators from Handy to Alan Lomax to Moby.

Every artistic revival repudiates the present by creatively distorting the past, and the blues revivals that carried the music out of the backwoods and ghettos were no different. In the 1950's, earnest collegiate folkies heard a lost rural purity in the blues, and they enforced their vision of the music by pressuring plugged-in bluesmen to abandon the latest styles and go back to their acoustic guitars. In the 1960's, the next bunch of blues converts embraced the noise. They heard raunch and rebellion in electric Chicago blues, and responded with crude imitations, histrionic frenzies, extended guitar solos and, when Jimi Hendrix came along, psychedelic fantasias.

The latest blues revivals are more limited. They treat the blues as a throwback, a way of making music by hand in an era of technology. Jam bands have been salvaging the blues along with other American roots styles, tossing them into a party mix. And back-to-basics rockers like the White Stripes — whose drums-and-guitar lineup echoes Mississippi juke-joint holdouts like T-Model Ford — prize the blues as something primitive, to be reclaimed alongside garage-rock and country.

None of the revivals have captured the subtleties of the blues originals. That, along with the racial barriers that early blues recordings faced, is why these revivals had so much more commercial impact; they spelled out implications for an audience that wouldn't sense them otherwise. The blues has always slipped free of definitions. It's a set musical structure — three basic chords, 12 bars, a line of lyrics repeated and answered (AAB) — that the greatest blues musicians often ignore. It's a lexicon of recurring lyrics and of musical inflections that have traveled far and wide. It's a feeling and an attitude; it's also an exacting discipline. It's easy to find blues songs played at the local club, but it's far more difficult to hear them played right.

The PBS series doesn't offer guidelines for what makes great blues, or for what makes the blues great. The films are not made for novices who don't have at least a vague idea of who Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf were. And they seem likely to satisfy no one. Unlike Ken Burns's chronological PBS overview of jazz, "The Blues" is fragmented and impressionistic: seven auteurs rambling through more than a century of music.

THERE are overlaps (an irresistible clip of Son House singing "Death Letter Blues") and broad swaths of omission. Apparently by coincidence, the series does bring out the kinship between blues and gospel, which deliver contrary messages in a shared style.

All that unites the PBS documentaries is their adherence to the series' subtitle: "a musical journey." Mr. Scorsese's film follows Corey Harris, a dreadlocked blues singer and preservationist, on two trips. He goes to Mississippi to visit Otha Turner, a nonagenarian farmer whose family preserves an ancient African-American tradition of fife-and-drum music, and to Mali to visit Ali Farka Toure, whose electric-guitar music is clearly kin to the blues. Mr. Toure heard Malian roots in John Lee Hooker's modal boogies.

Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner's "The Road to Memphis" takes the tour bus with Bobby Rush, who's in his 60's and still singing his cheerfully raunchy blues on the chitlin' circuit of Southern clubs. He puts on his Sunday suit to go to a gospel church, where, he says, he sees the same people he saw at a club on Saturday night. The directors Charles Burnett and Wim Wenders both ruminate over early Mississippi blues: Mr. Burnett with a stiff childhood reminiscence framing history lessons, Mr. Wenders with stylized, sepia-toned silent-movie-style recreations of Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James that end up looking more like alienated Europe than desolate Mississippi.

Too much of the series focuses on intermediaries rather than the musicians themselves. Marc Levin's "Godfathers and Sons" visits Chicago to reconvene the 1960's psychedelic-jazz-funk band that made albums with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Trying to forge a contemporary blues hybrid, they cut some new tracks with the rappers Chuck D and Common. But the segment's central figure is not a musician but a producer, Marshall Chess, whose father Leonard and uncle Phil started Chess Records, the label that made pivotal recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others. Without rebuttal, Marshall Chess rationalizes the low royalty rates the label paid those pioneers, saying: "It wasn't about record royalties. If we got it on the radio you could work that weekend." Mr. Diddley might disagree.

Mr. Wenders spends excruciating minutes with a couple that made well-intentioned films in the 1960's of Mr. Wenders's favorite bluesman, J. B. Lenoir, which were rejected by Swedish television. (Luckily, an album of Mr. Lenoir's recordings has been reissued on MCA/Chess.)

Mike Figgis's "Red, White and Blues" is a historical survey, but it's of British blues, which were a crucial but second-rate intermediary. In the 1960's, British musicians helped introduce Americans to their own heritage. But British blues rarely stand on their own, and the glimpses of American blues and soul performances in the segment easily overwhelm their British imitations.

The best parts of the documentaries are the finds from the archives: films and videos of musicians like Skip James, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Bill Broonzy, Pinetop Perkins, Lenoir and others at work. And the impact of the series may register best offscreen in the flood of CD reissues. The branding is oppressive; does a Robert Johnson reissue really need "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues" above the title? And yes, that Robert Johnson collection is mighty skimpy, a mere 42 minutes of music. But the five-CD set named after the series, on Hip-O Records, and the inevitable spinoff book add up to a more organized introduction to the blues than the documentaries themselves.

With the reissues, listeners can discover the blues on their own, without intermediaries. In the desolate, otherworldly voice of Skip James or the feral growl of Charley Patton, in the virile arrogance of Muddy Waters and the pain masked as joviality in Fats Domino, in the flirtatiousness of Memphis Minnie and the regal ease of Bessie Smith, the blues still sounds as magnificently weird as W. C. Handy thought it was.

And it still has lessons to teach. In the wake of the blues, hip-hop's "keeping it real" and indie-rock's scruffy purism seem one-dimensional, even naïve. With its cunning and adaptability, its complex emotions encoded within a basic structure, the blues shouldn't disappear without a fight.

09-23-03 11:34 AM
sandrew Martha, I got advance copies 'cause I work in the press.

The problem with the series is that it's all over the map. Instead of having one guy -- say, Ken Burns -- organizing the narrative, from chronological beginning to end, it has seven different guys doing their own thing.

The result is that stuff gets overlooked, and nothing hangs together. A couple of the movies are partly fictional, with dramatic reenactments -- which is a complete waste of time.

It repeats certain things -- quotes and archival footage -- while omitting others. It misses the forest for the trees ...

This is my opinion, of course, and we all have them, along with that most famous of orifices, as the above post says.

All I can say is watch for yourself.
[Edited by sandrew]
09-23-03 11:48 AM
steel driving hammer Scorsese is going to film an all star jam session w/ the Stones.

Martin Scorsese is to film an all-star rock and blues jam session with musicians including Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and BB King.

Scorsese will film the session at London's Abbey Road Studios this weekend for a television documentary.

He hopes to get 20 tracks on film for America's Public Broadcasting network's documentary Feels Like Coming Home.

09-23-03 04:29 PM
sandrew wrote:
Martha, I got advance copies 'cause I work in the press.

The problem with the series is that it's all over the map. Instead of having one guy -- say, Ken Burns -- organizing the narrative, from chronological beginning to end, it has seven different guys doing their own thing.

The result is that stuff gets overlooked, and nothing hangs together. A couple of the movies are partly fictional, with dramatic reenactments -- which is a complete waste of time.

It repeats certain things -- quotes and archival footage -- while omitting others. It misses the forest for the trees ...

This is my opinion, of course, and we all have them, along with that most famous of orifices, as the above post says.

All I can say is watch for yourself.
[Edited by sandrew]

Ok, I get ya'. Thanks for explaining a bit further. I appreciate that. I dig film and filmmakers so I will be interested in seeing the entire series.
09-23-03 11:33 PM
lonecrapshooter Ken Burns did a great job with his Jazz documentary. I bought almost all of the 22 cds from that series and enjoy all of them. However, I recall reading a fair amount of criticism from some so-called experts.
09-24-03 01:25 AM
FPM C10 I think the problem, if that's what it is, is that something as big as The Blues or Jazz can't be shown completely in ANY series. It's dangerous, I think, to let ONE guy decide what gets in (ala Ken Burns)- and that's true of ALL of his work, because he left out some key events of the civil war and the history of baseball too- and I like the idea of a bunch of diverse views. And I really like some of those film-makers. Having said THAT, I'm sure I'll have plenty to bitch about if they don't do it MY way!

As I was typing "Ken Burns", Conan O'Brien said "Come on back, folks. Ken Burns is here." That happens to me ALL the time.

I liked the article above, and really - just knowing there's a film of Son House doing "Death Letter" makes it worth MY while.

Wait - is this one of those shows where they TALK over every song? Man, I HATE that.
[Edited by FPM C10]
09-24-03 06:40 AM
stonedinaustralia lonecrapshooter - thanks for posting that article
09-30-03 01:07 AM
FPM C10 Having seen the first two installments, I gotta say: you are NUTS, sam. So far it's 98% footage I've never seen, and the directors (Scorsese for the first and Wim Wenders tonight) are among the best working, doing VERY good work.
My ONLY complaint is that I want to see all of the complete performances without anyone talking over them. The Son House footage was riveting, Skip James is a ghostly god, and I've really liked most of the contemporary performances too. The Wenders film was fucking incredible, starting in outer space and encompassing J.B. Lenoir in an unseen Swedish film, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Lucinda Williams (who was fucking magnificent)...what exactly DIDN'T you like about this stuff? It's not MEANT to be an all-encompassing history. It's all about the blues, but it's not ALL about the blues.
09-30-03 10:01 AM
Joey " It's not MEANT to be an all-encompassing history. It's all about the blues, but it's not ALL about the blues. "

Well said Fleabit ( Er , .....I mean Paul ! )

Kins !
09-30-03 11:24 AM
fxconway Last night's installment was GREAT!
09-30-03 01:20 PM
riffian I like the old footage -I had never seen that particular Son House clip before. In some guitar stores and instrument shops they have a few of those old clips on compilations. I got one from I think the Newport Festival in '65 or '64. Son House, Skip, Bukka, Howlin' Wolf. No bullshit-Just them gittin' drunk and playing. It's also possible to find some of those Lomax films which are really incredible. It would be great if the whole series was "hey look at all these old movies we found!"