Blues Interpretations: Seven Films from Martin Scorsese

By Bolden, Tony | The Crisis, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Blues Interpretations: Seven Films from Martin Scorsese


Bolden, Tony, The Crisis


television Blues interpretations: Seven Films From Martin Scorsese

"The blues is the truth. If it's not the truth, it's not the blues," says Willie Dixon, a blues musician featured in Martin Scorsese's new seven-film documentary series called The Blues. "The blues are the roots [and] everything else is the fruits."

In examining the history of American music, perhaps no truer statement has ever been uttered. The invisibility and misrepresentation of the blues can be read as a metonyin of the disenfranchisement of Black folk in the United States. Though African Americans have played central roles in the construction of American popular culture, Blacks' contributions have been largely ignored. Congress' recent declaration naming 2003 as the year of the blues was a welcome change. The announcement helped set the tone for this new documentary, which will be aired on PBS Sept. 28 to Oct. 4.

Since its beginning in the late nineteenth century as the music of oppressed people in the rural South, blues has drawn opposition from Blacks as well as Whites. Many mistakenly associate the blues with coarseness or political subservience. As a result, blues musicians have been trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place - shunned by working-class church communities and abhorred by members of the Black elite. Hence, B.B. King's feeling of being "Black twice" after being booed by a Black crowd in Baltimore during the early days of rock 'n' roll.

Scorsese's series explores the early days of the blues, the musicians who lived the music and the impact it has had on other musical genres, such as gospel, jazz, pop, rock, rap and R&B.

The series opens with the film, Feel Like Going Home, directed by Scorsese himself. This insightful film analyzes the historical and political conditions that produced the blues idiom. Musician Corey Harris interviews musicians in Mississippi and Alabama before traveling to Mali to explore common features between Malian music and the blues.

In The Soul of a Man, German director Wim Wenders introduces viewers to relatively obscure musicians like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and J.B. Lenoir. The latter recorded overtly political songs like "Vietnam Blues" and "Alabama" in the 1960s, while the former performed on guitar, blending gospel and blues. The title of the film is taken from blues musician Blind Willie Johnson, who poses the profound question, "Just what is the soul of a man?"

Richard Pearce's The Road to Memphis traces blues musicians' trek from anonymity in the Delta to fame and success in Memphis. There is rare footage of the great Howling Wolf, as well as discussions with B.B. King, Bobby Rush, Ike Turner and Sam Phillips, the man who's credited with discovering Elvis Presley. Turner and Phillips debate whether Whites "copied" Black musicians. Phillips explains, however, that Whites "didn't copy, they borrowed heavily. That's what it took to make what you all were doing absolutely accepted."

Charles Burnett is the lone Black director in the series. His film, Warming by the Devil's Fire, set in 1956 Mississippi, looks at the ideological conflicts between the Black church and the blues community. Godfathers and Sons, directed by Marc Levin, brings together hip-hop and blues, while Mike Figgis' Red, White and Blues examines how blues musicians Ray Charles and Muddy Waters influenced performers such as Tom Jones and Cassandra Wilson. The film also looks at the evolution of the blues in the United Kingdom. Spencer Davis recalls being told to "forget about Fats Domino" if he wanted to succeed in a conservatory, and Eric Clapton discusses the interrelationships between various genres of Black music. …

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