Riffing on the Blues: America's Rootsiest Music through Filmmakers' Eyes

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, September 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Riffing on the Blues: America's Rootsiest Music through Filmmakers' Eyes


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

One night in 1903, W. C. Handy was standing on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Miss., waiting for a train, when he heard a man playing a guitar using a knife for a slide on the strings. Handy, who would later write "St. Louis Blues," the first great blues pop song, said he'd never known anything like it. He called it "the weirdest music I had ever heard." One hundred years later, the blues still sounds... not weird, maybe--it's too familiar and ubiquitous now--but still utterly distinct, almost otherworldly. And while it's astonishingly influential--this brainchild of black American musicians has supplied the roots of jazz, rhythm & blues, rock and rap--amazingly, none of this dalliance with other musical forms has diluted the original. In the right hands, the blues retains the same raw, elemental power that startled Handy on that railroad platform 100 years ago. In "Feel Like Going Home," Martin Scorsese's new documentary about the blues, he subtitles the less decipherable songs as they're being sung. Was this his way of emphasizing the inscrutability of the music? (The songs, after all, are in English.) Scorsese replies, "Exactly."

Scorsese's is the first of seven films in "Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, a Musical Journey," which will air on PBS during the week starting Sept. 28. Of all the CD re-releases, blues festivals, concerts, books and calendars created to celebrate and cash in on what Congress has designated the Year of the Blues, Scorsese's series is the keeper. (Sure, this project has its own merchandise, too, including a CD set and a book, but miraculously they're just as good as the movies.) All these films wisely blow right past any attempt to define the blues and try instead to capture its feel and flavor. Scorsese dismissed the idea of a unifying format. "There's no way I could tell Wim Wenders or anybody else how to make their picture." Instead, he invited six other filmmakers, including Wenders, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood, to join him in interpreting the blues as they saw fit.

Their approaches are as diverse as the music itself. …

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