Scorsese's <i>The Blues</i>: Forward (?) into the Past

Scorsese's The Blues
Forward (?) into the Past

by David Whiteis

copyright © 2003 David Whiteis

This is not a documentary, Martin Scorsese has taken pains to tell us. Rather, he said, he envisioned a collage of blues-based themes, as conceptualized by a diverse cadre of filmmakers who were free to impose as much of their own personalities as they saw fit onto the story of the music from its early days to the present.

Some of the installments in this much-ballyhoo'd seven-episode PBS series almost live up to the hype. In other cases, though, the directors seem to have interpreted Scorsese's carte blanche as permission to show the world how much more interesting they are than the subject at hand. More disturbingly, with only a few exceptions none seem capable of discussing the blues comfortably in the present tense. With the notable exception of Corey Harris, precious few blues artists under 50 are showcased at all -- except for two whose roles are limited to silent portrayals of musicians who recorded before 1935.

But first, the good news. Each episode features magnificent -- in some cases, freshly unearthed -- footage of legendary musicians, some at the height of their careers, others during their "rediscovery" years. We get to savor clips of, among others, Son House, Leadbelly, Mamie Smith, Professor Longhair, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and -- perhaps most stunningly -- Skip James (on both guitar and piano). Frustratingly, most of the clips are cut short so various talking heads can keep talking. Nonetheless, it's the rare blues lover who won't experience at least one heart-in-the-throat encounter with history in each of the seven films.

In terms of contemporary blues, Richard Pearce's The Road To Memphis is by far the most effectively drawn. Featuring southern soul/blues stalwart Bobby Rush in all his rakish (and occasionally meditative) glory, it affords us a rare glimpse into the modern blues life "on the road": endless eye-glazing hours staring out of a bus window, interspersed with adrenaline-infused bursts of energy when showtime comes around. Laid alongside these modern-day images, crisp narratives from figures like B.B. King and the late Rufus Thomas provide a valuable historical portrait of Memphis as a mid-20th Century Mecca for rural southern African-Americans: historical footage of the brutality of southern conditions, interspersed with the glitz and glamor of Beale Street, help bring this history to life with uncompromising vividness. (Veteran producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim Dickinson, characteristically acerbic, adds some pithy comments on the destruction of Beale Street and the uneasy but undeniable passing of the Memphis blues torch, in the '60s, from the older generation of black originators to an earnest young crowd of white aficionados.) In this context, the overriding blues theme of travel -- as escape, as sanctuary, as lifestyle, even as trap -- comes through eloquently.

Wim Wenders' The Soul Of A Man pays earnest tribute to three artists: Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, Wenders' favorite bluesmen, and Blind Willie Johnson, his favorite spiritual singer. I make that genre distinction advisedly, because Wenders fudges it: he's chosen to create a fictional Johnson character as narrator and, although it's made clear that Johnson himself sang strictly sacred material (and would probably have been appalled to hear himself associated with the blues), the script continually conflates his music with that of his "fellow" bluesmen. In stylized, silent black-and-white recreations of Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King) and James (played by Keith B. Brown) as young men, they perform for their fellow townspeople, they savor their brief moments of glory as recording artists -- King and Brown lip-synch and pantomime-play over the original recordings -- and they stare down trouble and disappointment with the classic bluesman's fusion of resignation and resilience.

Aside from the implied genre-blending of Wender's approach, one wonders why he bothered enlisting two such talented blues artists if he wasn't going to let them be heard. He did, however, unearth some remarkable mid-'60s footage of James in concert at the Newport Folk Festival, and of J.B. Lenoir both at home and in simulated performances. Unfortunately, the Lenoir segment ends up being as much about the experiences of his documentarians as it is about the man himself, and the "performance" clips are synchronized (more or less) with soundtracks lifted from records. "Tribute" performances by contemporary artists are interspersed throughout, and they range from the execrable (Jon Spencer, apparently miming an epileptic seizure, spits gobs of phlegm all over James' "Cherry Ball Blues" ) through the elegant (Cassandra Wilson's satin-sheened readings of Lenoir's "Slow Down" and "Vietnam Blues" showcase her vocal virtuosity at its most understated; Bonnie Raitt turns in characteristically classy-yet-sassy gender-bent takes on James' "Devil Got My Woman" and Lenoir's "Elevator Girl"). In a rare nod to progressive-minded younger artists, James "Blood" Ulmer and Vernon Reid tear off an appropriately hellfire-laced version of Lenoir's "Down In Mississippi."

Scorsese's own episode, Feel Like Going Home, after a somewhat scattershot introductory segment on the history of the blues, settles into a smooth-running groove as it follows Corey Harris -- a young bluesman whose repertoire ranges from Delta-styled acoustic pieces to contemporary, R&B/hip-hop flavored creations -- on a quest for ancestral spirits. We sit with Harris alongside nonagenarian fife player Otha Turner [who has since passed away]; in Old Memphis, Alabama, musician and social activist Willie King, who looks and sounds every bit the modern-day griot, relates the history of the blues as music of resistance and liberation, both personal and political. He then shows how it's done by leading a joyously ragged-edged set at Bettie's Place, the Prairie Point, Mississippi juke that serves as his home base. Harris finally hops a plane to Mali, where Ali Farka Toure takes him and us on an eloquent living history tour of the of the timeless traditions that represent the core of the blues as music and cultural expression.

Unfortunately, things run downhill pretty rapidly from here. Marc Levin's Godfathers And Sons, ostensibly an attempt to place rap and hip-hop in the blues continuum by showing how these more recent forms tie into the Chicago tradition, ends up being mostly an opportunity for Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess, to deliver a smug 35-years-later "I told you so!" to critics who trashed his neo-psychedelic Muddy Waters experiment, Electric Mud, back in 1968. After some entertaining scenes of various contemporary Chicago blues artists in performance, the story devolves into a drawn-out vignette concerning a reunion of the Electric Mudband (re-christened the Electric Mudcats) with rappers Chuck D and Common at the helm, an event that was apparently masterminded by Chess after he'd received a fawning e-mail from Chuck. Chicago blues history, both vintage and current (to say nothing of the rich legacy of Chess aside from Electric Mud) is seriously downplayed -- for that, your best bet is still Harley Cockliss' 1972 film Chicago Blues, dated though it may now be.

The main problem, though, is that even on its own terms, Levin's film falls short. For all their protestations, neither Chuck D nor Common seems very comfortable in a blues setting. Their rhymes and rhythms sound stiff, and their vocal dexterity seems oddly constrained (Chuck's performance with the Mudcats at the 2003 Chicago Blues Fest was marred by similar problems). Which, of course, raises the question: are there, in fact, important differences -- musical, aesthetic, cultural -- between blues and hip-hop? If so, how can (should?) they be overcome? An answer might have been more forthcoming if Levin had focused on people like Corey Harris, Louisiana's Chris Thomas King, and other unabashedly self-proclaimed blues artists who've expanded their musical vision to include contemporary R&B and hip-hop, and have achieved considerable success in doing so. By remaining focused on the labored attempts of Chuck, Common, and the aging Mudcats to forge a common bond, this segment comes close to defeating its own argument.

Red, White, And Blues, Mike Figgis' look at the '50s and '60s-era British blues explosion, provides valuable insight into the historical continuum from trad jazz through skiffle to electric blues, and an admirable crew of veterans are on hand to provide first-person accounts. But aside from some savory historical footage (including a torrid guitar break from an on-fire Sister Rosetta Tharpe), this will probably seem more like a side trip than meaningful history to most U.S. aficionados. Better, and long-overdue, would have been a serious inquiry into the ongoing two-way "crossover" between blues and white U.S. southern music from the earliest days to the present -- a theme that's tantalizingly suggested by Dickinson in Pearce's film but mostly unmentioned otherwise. Hold onto your jaw, though, for the final moments: Lulu, of all people -- Miss "To Sir With Love"! -- takes the mike and croons an astoundingly world-weary and bluesy "Drown In My Own Tears."

Clint Eastwood's Piano Blues, although again graced with some marvelous archival snippets (Longhair, Phineas Newborn Jr., Art Tatum, the obscure but flamboyantly gifted boogie woogie pianist Martha Davis), seems designed mostly to remind us how hip Clint is. He brags of his lifelong love for black music and hangin' in the 'hood; he drops names at every opportunity; he showcases clips from some of his own projects where he's included blues or jazz themes (though nothing, oddly, from Bird). After chatting with Ray Charles in what looks like Charles's home studio, Eastwood moves to a sterile soundstage where a line-up that includes Jay McShann, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Gray, Dr. John, Marcia Ball, Pete Jolly, and Dave Brubek turn in workmanlike but mostly unremarkable performances at a grand piano. When they're not playing they wait in the background, seated on stiff-backed chairs (during Jolly's set, Gray gets up and leaves). Dr. John, in particular, both plays and looks as if he'd rather be someplace else.

Brother Ray's final in-concert performance of "America The Beautiful" is stunning, but given the context and Eastwood's own history, there's an unsavory whiff of opportunism about it, as if Eastwood has appropriated Charles to serve his own ideological agenda ("Even patriotic songs can become the blues," Clint dutifully instructs us). Moreover, thematically the overall film is a mess, and historically/factually it's questionable: Eastwood's brief historical exegesis seems to collapse "piano blues" into a single genre that was born in cottonpatch barrelhouses and "settled in New Orleans" -- and what's Brubeck doing here, anyway?

But the biggest disappointment is Charles Burnett's Warming By The Devil's Fire, which presents a nostalgic look at Burnett's own childhood introduction to the blues, courtesy of a roguish uncle. It's an unrelievedly sentimentalized view. Uncle Buddy, although he's supposed to be the embodiment of the transgressive, devil-tempting blues outlaw, turns out to be a soft-spoken, clean-shaven country philosopher whose sins consist primarily of genteel sips of whisky and a few jolly trysts with various women, all of whom love him for his scampishness. The inside of his Delta shack, with blues posters cluttering the walls and vintage 78s strewn about, looks like an early-'60s hipster's college dorm. When we finally get inside a juke, almost no one is smoking; when a fight breaks out, there's no blood. In fact, almost everyone in the Delta looks clean, healthy, and unscarred.

Historical and factual anomalies abound: Uncle Buddy and the boy cross the state line into Arkansas, and we immediately see a clip of Texas blues patriarch Lightnin' Hopkins playing acoustic guitar. We're told, portentously, that Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson "all died violently" (technically true, but disingenuous: Wheatstraw died in a car crash; Williamson, according to most accounts, in a street mugging; only Johnson, stereotypically, at the hand of a jealous husband or boyfriend). Buddy informs his young acolyte that most of the best-known blind blues guitarists came from the Southeast, then proceeds to lump Texans Blind Lemon Jefferson and Willie Johnson (a sacred singer), as well as Tennessean Sleepy "Joe" [sic -- "John"] Estes into the mix. The obligatory archival clips, ranging from studio performances by Willie Dixon and others through glimpses of Ida Cox and Dinah Washington to a heartfelt but shaky "Freight Train" picked gamely by a frail-looking Elizabeth Cotton, seem thrown together almost at random. And many are taken from performances that took place after the story allegedly happened, making for a weird discontinuity.

I won't tell you who shows up at the crossroads when the wide-eyed kid and his uncle finally get there -- but it ain't who you think it is. The closest thing to the Devil in this film is "Woman" incarnate -- the one who, we're told, married the boy's fun-loving grandfather and subsequently "took his spirit;" the ones who've warned him, harpy-like, against the temptations of his uncle's world ("Lesson No. 1," Buddy intones in his best Blues Guru voice: "Never believe anything a woman tells ya!"); and, most importantly, the one who clasps him, wide-eyed and terrified, to her fleshy body as a vintage blues 78 plays on the turntable.

Meanwhile, oppression and poverty are locked safely in the past, courtesy of black-and-white film footage of chain gangs, cotton field laborers, and other images of hard life. By the early '60s, apparently, the Mississippi Delta was an idyllic garden spot full of smoke-free jukes, wizened elders abrim with folksy wisdom, and lusty but pure-hearted manchildren ready to break out the whiskey and git-fiddles, steal a kiss or two, and break into dance at the slightest provocation. This is the blues life as middle-class bohemian fantasy, more idyllic than anything Kerouac could have dreamed up at his most addled; it makes Cabin In The Sky look like a Black Panther manifesto.'

In terms of the series as a whole, one hesitates to be too critical of a project that was obviously a labor of love for all concerned and which will probably, despite its faults, help focus some much-needed attention (and dollars) on the blues. And, in fact, the parts that work, work splendidly. Nonetheless -- and this may be inevitable in projects of this nature -- an aura of patronization permeates most of this series, as if Scorsese and Co. had deigned to descend upon the blues and legitimize it with their imprimatur. With the arguable exception of Burnett (and despite Eastwood's hipster posing), none of these directors have had much personal involvement in the blues before now, as either music or culture; one of the reasons Scorsese's own segment succeeded as well as it did may well have been the educative presences of Harris in front of the camera and writer Peter Guralnick behind it. The result is that, in most cases, we've gotten films based primarily on things people have read, heard about, listened to, or maybe seen in concert; we don't get the "living culture" element that can only be acquired through day-to-day interaction with the people who live, work, worship, and party in the communities where the music still thrives. Thus, perhaps, the emphasis on historical figures and/or older-generation carriers of the torch. Most of the musicians who toil their craft in jukes, nightclubs, and show lounges in neighborhoods from Mississippi to Chicago and beyond haven't made it into the history books yet; contemporary younger-generation soul/blues artists, who may revere Bobby Rush as an elder statesman but have begun to blaze their own, eclectic trails through the modern-day enchanted forests of hip-hop, R&B, world music, and more, have not "crossed over" into white consciousness enough for most of the directors and writers of these films to even know of their existence. Even artists like Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King, who pride themselves on their universalist vision of what "the blues" can and should be, are shown here primarily in their personas as acoustic revivalists.

The limitations imposed by this resolute, if mostly implied, insistence that "history" is something that happened only in the past, rather than a continuum in which we participate daily, may also lie at the root of some of the series' omissions. The lack of an in-depth consideration of women in the blues -- in its full historical context, from antebellum days into the present -- represents an egregious oversight, one that could only have been committed by men who view "history" as a tale told by the winners. Likewise, the repeated implications that oppression, racism, and other social horrors are artifacts that can be safely tucked away in a long-gone, black-and-white past; likewise, for that matter, the continued emphasis on the blues singer as lone storyteller, instead of a participant in a community ritual of affirmation -- an inherently Anglo-European view of the role and function of the artist, and one that ignores many of the most important and historically significant dynamics of the blues as a music of social cohesion, political resistance (whether implicit or explicit) and, above all, affirmation and worldly faith.

Given these limitations, which are limitations of vision more than craftsmanship or style, perhaps we need to reformulate the aphorism, expressed in different ways by Harris and others at various points in this series, that the blues needs to "change" or "grow" with the times if it's going to survive. As Dr. John has told us, "Ya can't shut the funk up" -- the music will change, because the musicians have the ears, eyes, and muses to make it do so. It's the thinking, and the scope of understanding, of critics, theorists, and pundits of all stripes that needs to change and grow, in order to keep up with what the music is already doing -- indeed, what it has already done. Today, no less than in Big Bill Broonzy's or Little Walter's time, the blues will continue to "leave here runnin', 'cuz walkin' is mos' too slow."

David Whiteis wrote this piece for Jazz Notes, the JJA's quarterly journal, where it appears in shorter form.

C o m m e n t s

Scorsese's The Blues 1 of 2
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October 20, 03

The Year of The Blues based on the Centennial Year(100 YR.) Anniversary of W. C. Handy hearing the blues at a train staition in MS. Hense giving birth to the blues, because he was Musically Educated or TRAINED as per Resolution 316. Charles Barnette's film was about his own experience, not W. C. Handy's. It appears it was an after-thought to stick Handy in there after all filming was completed! If we want the true story on the BLUES we need to do it ourselves!

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