Martin Scorsese’s PBS series ‘The Blues’
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
Soundtrack of their lives: ‘The Blues’ on CD
The recordings released in conjunction with "The Blues" make the sprawling scope of the seven-film project seem almost unambitious. Altogether 25 discs are being issued, including a five-CD historical overview of the genre, soundtracks for each film, a single-album compilation, and 12 collections devoted to individual artists. What’s surprising is how well they play. Even a sampler devoted to Eric Clapton, whose work has often been repackaged and jammed into collections pegged to his hits, his bands, and the various eras of his career, distinguishes itself. Representing the first time his blues playing has been put into perspective, it traces his ascent through Chicago guitar mimicry in the Bluesbreakers, psychedelic fury in Cream, passionate exploration in Blind Faith, payback in Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions (Chess), and his finding his true north in the genre with Derek and the Dominos.
The five-CD set Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey (Hip-O/UMe) is the best and most complete introduction to recorded blues available. It begins with field hollers and works up to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Peggy Scott Adams, and Susan Tedeschi. Along the way the music’s early female hitmakers, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the great acoustic country bluesmen, the Memphis jug bands, the piano kings, the electric innovators, the genius songwriters, the soul-blues inventors, the rock forefathers, the white torchbearers, the psychedelic infusers, the juke-jointers, African master Ali Farka Toure, and the music’s ’80s and ’90s bestsellers all get at least a nod. Missing is the raw electric sound of modern Mississippians like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, whose amped-up country blues have taken the music to a new generation of college students. But the one truly serious error is the absence of the leading contemporary innovators Otis Taylor, Corey Harris, and Chris Thomas King, who are pointing the music in new directions with African fusions, daring storytelling, and — in the case of King — the sonics of hip-hop.
The single-disc The Best of the Blues (UTV Records/UMe) is a cheaper alternative, but it’s impossible to compress a 100-year-old form into one album. Nonetheless, essential entries from Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, Vaughan, and others make good listening. The presence of Keb’ Mo’, however, seems more a sop to Sony Music, which is distributing the recordings, than a necessity, and Cassandra Wilson’s version of "Vietnam Blues" should have been shouldered aside by J.B. Lenoir’s original, since Lenoir’s version also appears on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’s movie.
Of the soundtracks, the best of those available at press time are Godfathers and Sons (Hip-O/UMe), which captures the lively music of Chess Records, and Warming by the Devil’s Fire (Columbia/Legacy), with its emphasis on upbeat down-home material. The Soul of a Man (Columbia/Legacy) is wildly uneven, eschewing the best music in the movie — old tunes by Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James — in favor of having contemporary performers cover their work, sometimes quite badly. Lou Reed’s two cuts are unlistenable; in a singing style where bent notes and passionate phrasing are the lifeblood, he’s a deadpan vampire. And Beck’s take on James’s "I’m So Glad" is lazy. But Lucinda Williams turns in a nice, languid live version of James’s "Hard Time Killing Floor" and Nick Cave rages through "I Feel So Good" with authority.
PICKS AND PANS
Besides the enjoyable Clapton set, "The Blues" discs devoted to single artists include the following. The titles of all albums in the series begin with Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues.
(Two and a half stars) The Allman Brothers (Chronicles/UMe). A solid representation of live and classic cuts, with a surprising concert version of John Lee Hooker’s "Dimples."
(Two and a half stars) Jimi Hendrix (Chronicles/UMe). Obvious choices ("Red House") with unusual cuts ("It’s Too Bad") and the previously unreleased "Georgia Blues."
(Three and a half stars) Son House (Columbia/Legacy). This disc is the first domestic release to include both material from House’s 1941 Library of Congress field recordings and studio takes from his ’60s comeback.
(Two stars) Robert Johnson (Columbia/Legacy). Notable from earlier collections only for versions of "Hot Tamales" performed by Cassandra Wilson and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" done by Keb’ Mo’ that seem like distracting ads for these Columbia artists.
(One star) Keb’ Mo’ (Columbia/Legacy). Although he’s a charming performer, the jury’s still out on whether he merits much of a place in blues history. To judge from this album, which gets dull halfway through, the verdict may be "no."
(One star) B.B. King (Hip-O/UMe). A disappointing collection that concentrates on Kng’s singing rather than displaying his complete artistry.
(Two and a half stars) J.B. Lenoir (Chronicles/UMe). Enjoyable introduction to this Chicago songwriter whose premature death ended his career just as he was reaching his full powers.
(Three and a half stars) Taj Mahal (Columbia/Legacy). A near-definitive collection of Mahal’s playful, scrappy virtues as a contemporary bluesman with a deep grasp of history.
(Two stars) Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy). Oft-collected material, but a good, quick introduction to her red-hot artistry that includes the gangsta-hard "Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair."
(Two stars) Muddy Waters (Hip-O/UMe). A quick capsule of his recording life, from Stovall Plantation to his late career reignition, featuring "Rolling Stone," "Mannish Boy," and more of the greatest songs in blues.
(One star) Stevie Ray Vaughan (Epic/Legacy). This comes too soon on the heels of the reissue of Vaughan’s albums — all of which are superior to this CD — buoyed by extra live tracks and demos. Hardcore fans will have everything except a missable "Mary Had a Little Lamb" from an ’87 Philly concert.
Martin Scorsese has described the seven films in his PBS-TV series " The Blues " as an impressionistic musical journey. Rather than cover the history of the genre with the meticulousness of Ken Burns, whose 20-hour 2001 documentary Jazz managed to be both dazzling and dull, he assembled a group of blue-ribbon directors to essay the music he loves, giving Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Richard Pearce, Clint Eastwood, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and himself free rein to explore any aspect of blues in any manner.
The films they made, which will be shown nightly at 9 p.m. (with repeats at 11) on WGBH Channel 2 starting this Sunday, are both dazzling and dull. Nonetheless, this deeply rooted style of American music is at a crossroads. The stale economy has shuttered many blues clubs. Radio has diminished its commitment to the music as programming has become more corporate. And the sales of blues CDs have trickled down to less than one percent of the ailing retail music market. Many in the blues business are hoping that Scorsese’s movies will give this lively slice of African-American culture the boost it badly needs.
Certainly there’s hope. Several of the films are outstanding, and so far Congress’s declaration of 2003 as the " Year of the Blues, " somewhat arbitrarily marking the music’s 100th anniversary, has seemed like nothing more than a tie-in for the series. Plus, there’s a saturation of related products — 25 CDs, a book, a PBS radio series that begins October 11 and runs into January — that just may draw enough attention to this durable style to raise its profile to something akin to its ’80s popularity, when artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray appeared on the mainstream charts.
The best of " Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, " for which I served as a research consultant in the development phase, are Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire, Scorsese’s Feel like Going Home, and Pearce’s The Road to Memphis. (Eastwood’s promising Piano Blues was still in post-production at press time and will air last.) Burnett, who directed Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger, frames the history of the music’s first half-century within the story of a boy who travels from Los Angeles to visit his family in Mississippi in 1956. Through his blues-loving uncle, he discovers his roots — and the depth and beauty of many of the music’s pioneers — in the small towns, churches, juke joints, whorehouses, and kudzu-gnarled countryside they visit. Like many of the period’s blues performers, he also feels the tug between the bar room and the temple — between pleasure and piety. Well acted and filmed with an eye for the charms of the rural South, it’s an entertaining tale full of Mississippi vibe. The film also incorporates vintage footage of Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elizabeth Cotton, and other greats in action.
Scorsese uses contemporary blues innovator Corey Harris as a link between the music’s past and present in Feel like Going Home. Harris, an exceptional singer/guitarist with a passion for exploring the blues’ African roots, travels between Mississippi and Africa, encountering the now-dead fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, fellow genre explorer Taj Mahal, Mali’s Ali Farka Toure, and others as he investigates the ancient and modern connections between the music and its makers.
The most profound images may be the archival films that Scorsese incorporates early on. We see a labor gang felling cypress trees in the swampy mire that once covered the entire Delta and singing the call-and-response work song " Poor John. " It’s in these lands — full of vipers and panthers and teeming with malaria — that the blues were truly born, since they had to be cleared before the plantations were laid out. There’s also marvelous footage of Niafunké, Toure’s village, and an old Mississippi fife-and-drum band laying down a pattern of rhythm and reed lines that sounds older than the soil.
Richard Pearce, who directed the civil-rights drama The Long Walk Home, takes a more conventional documentary approach in The Road to Memphis. Against the backdrop of Memphis’s rich musical and cultural history, he contrasts the lives of B.B. King, who rose from the chitlin circuit to become the blues’ biggest star, and Bobby Rush, who’s spent 50 years playing to almost exclusively black Southern audiences. Both men are extremely charismatic and generous, and it’s obvious from Rush’s delightful, strutting concert performances that he’s preserving a ribald style of down-home entertainment that disappeared in the North decades ago.
Rosco Gordon, Ike Turner, Sam Phillips, and Little Milton also spend time on screen. We witness the vitality of Gordon as both a man and a performer when he returns to his old Beale Street stomping grounds; later, we witness his funeral. It’s a poignant reminder of how few of the early generation of R&B and blues artists we have left, and how precious they are. Phillips, who appears with Turner at his old Sun Studios, where both men had cast their futures early on, is also dead now. But he comes off as feisty and determined, and he gets into a scrap with Turner debating how racial issues played in their early recording experiences.
Wenders’s love letter to some of his favorite artists, The Soul of a Man, begins brilliantly, then crumbles. Against the backdrop of a space capsule that includes some of his raw music, we hear the voice of the Texas blues evangelist Blind Willie Johnson. Then, better yet, we see him — or at least the musician Chris Thomas King playing Johnson — performing on the streets in beautiful sepia-toned footage patterned after silent films to capture the flavor of the 1930s South. This sequence is followed by another that’s equally spellbinding, in which Wenders re-creates the early career of the Delta’s Skip James. These are the most dramatic sequences in the entire series of films. All is good — despite somewhat uneven transitions to modern-day performers doing these artists’ songs that includes excruciating manglings by Lou Reed — until Wenders’s obsession with the relatively minor Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir, which is explored in poorly shot archival footage and seemingly endless conversation with the couple who shot it, turns the film’s second half to lead.
Godfathers and Sons, which endeavors to show how the blues is passed between generations, is so terrible that even performances by Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, and Otis Rush can’t save it. This attempt by Marc Levin (White Boys, Slam) to tell the Chess Records story pivots on the reunion of the band who cut Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud to support Public Enemy’s Chuck D for a new recording. Levin’s indulgence of the utterly self-absorbed Marshall Chess, son of label founder Leonard, is as tedious as D’s explanation of what Electric Mud meant to him becomes as he repeats it almost every time a new musician enters the film. At the conclusion, D, fellow rapper Common, and the band are all lame in the studio.
In Red, White and Blues, Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) turns his attention to the British scene. Although there’s some marvelous footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe wailing on guitar and other nice vintage performances, a staged studio session featuring Tom Jones, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, and others does little to interrupt Figgis’s dull parade of talking heads. It’s too bad, because some of them — including Eric Clapton — have important things to say about how touring American musicians opened the gates for early British jazz and blues, and how it then blossomed.