The best thing about this blues documentary is that it doesn’t speak for itself. It has no narrator; instead, it organizes interview clips (real clips, not just sound bites), photos, and archival footage into thematic, approximately chronological segments about everything from the early founders to the state of the art today. It’s also better than any of the recent Martin Scorsese Presents series of blues documentaries, generating enthusiasm for the topic even as it educates. This is the sort of documentary that could create blues fans.
What defeated Martin Scorsese’s series was the stifling reverence the directors had for the artists they profiled. They should have realized that warts-and-all portraits do not slight either the artists or their work. Instead of simply admiring what seemed too often like bloodless aesthetic beauty (which blues, even in comparison to other arts, has most definitely never been about), the directors should have celebrated their favorite artists in the full flush of their variously inspired, generous, selfish, violent, inconsistent lives.
I was disappointed, for instance, that the lengthy segment on Skip James in Soul of a Man offered no anecdote nearly as memorable as several of the ones I had read. Nothing at all like when James, remembering his days as a music teacher, declared his students had all been “dummies” who hadn’t learned anything because “I didn’t want them to.” In the movie, the most memorable thing said of James was that he had been “a poor man, but a proud one.” True enough, but it’s arguable whether just being told that, along with what amounted largely to a list of dates and place names, would make James intriguing enough for someone to go out and buy his CD.
Thus, what’s especially effective about having smart editing replace the presence of a narrator is the amount of social history that can be taught with a minimum of fuss or enjoyment-killing portentousness. Take, for instance, Robert Lockwood, Jr.‘s account of one of his club, bar, and juke joint performances after scoring a “hit” with “Take a Walk with Me”.
A woman, without knowing whom Lockwood was, asked him to play “Take a Walk with Me”. Flattered, he told her that that was his song. She shrugged incredulously and said, “If you can play ‘Take a Walk with Me’, I’ll take you home with me.”
In those days, Lockwood relates, black artists recorded on the fly for various companies. If the company liked a song, the artist would be paid a lump sum for it and sent on his way, often without getting a copy of his own record or even hearing how it sounded. Thus, Lockwood couldn’t be sure if he could even remember, much less play, a note-for-note version of the “Take a Walk with Me” he had recorded. Still, he figured, it was his song.
He looked at the woman. “I can play it,” he said.
It’s only afterwards that one realizes just how much education was packed into the Trojan Horse of Lockwood’s anecdote. Instead of a grave voice-over narrating how underpaid black blues artists were and how little, if any, artistic control they had over their own work, Blues Story allows an actual blues artist (and Robert Lockwood, Jr., no less) to weave knowledge of those things seamlessly into the context of an anecdote. Just as importantly for appreciating, rather than simply knowing about, the music itself is that Lockwood’s anecdote is so earthy and personal. As much as the blues is about the racial discrimination, about how the suffering of blacks was triumphantly transcended through art, or about having a spiritual crisis at the crossroads, the blues has also always been about being paid and getting laid (Lockwood was able to replay a note-for-note version of “Take a Walk with Me”, by the way).
Stories like Lockwood’s abound here, especially in the profile about the King Biscuit Flour’s radio show and its star, Sonny Boy Williamson, who stole his identity wholesale from the other Sonny Boy Williamson (and who, as revealed by Hubert Sumlin, got Howlin’ Wolf so mad that he waited a whole year for him with a double barrel shotgun). Which isn’t to say that human interest or “feel” (The advertising copy says that the film is “impressionistic”; it’s actually much better organized than that blurb had made me fear) is slighted for historical perspective. For the latter, aren’t you at least curious about hearing B.B. King’s take on the historical importance of Muddy Waters?
Even if you’ve already heard the various arguments about why the blues either are dying or will never die, both positions seem to mean more when the artists themselves are expressing them in the epilogue segment. Especially interesting is when Ruth Brown declares flatly that kids today can’t sing the blues. And that she’s glad. The blues, she says, came from suffering and oppression, from a system that’s over and will hopefully never come back.
Well, if the blues are over, they had a helluva run. This documentary provides ample proof of that.