Hendrix was able to take the blues and put them on steroids,” says Chuck D in Godfathers and Sons, one of seven documentaries that are part of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, which will air on PBS beginning Sunday, September 28th. “You don’t copy his techniques, you copy his mind-set.”
That statement could serve as the guiding principle for these movies. Just as Jimi Hendrix transformed the blues into genre-shattering psychedelic rock, these films attempt both to honor the history of the music and to demonstrate its ongoing life and significance. Most provocatively, they look at the music’s complex racial history — its African origins, its rural roots in slavery and share-cropping in the American South, its urban electrification after World War II in Chicago, its key function in the creation of rock & roll in the Fifties and its revival by British musicians in the Sixties. In the course of that journey, the audience for the blues shifted from black to almost exclusively white. This series not only examines how and why that happened, it is determined to rectify it.
In Godfathers and Sons, Chuck D and Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess, one of the founders of the Chicago blues label Chess Records, orchestrate a jam between Chuck, the rapper Common and the musicians who backed Muddy Waters on Electric Mud, the bluesman’s controversial 1968 venture into psychedelia. In Feel Like Going Home — directed by Scorsese, who is executive producer of the series — guitarist Corey Harris travels to Mali to tie the binds between African and American musicians. Chris Thomas King, who played Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and who has long explored the links between blues and hip-hop (his most recent album is called Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues), takes the role of holy bluesman Blind Willie Johnson in Wim Wenders’ The Soul of a Man, which includes historical re-creations as well as archival and contemporary footage.
While responsible to the facts of blues history, these films are also idiosyncratic, a testimony about the impact of the blues on the directors’ lives. In relating the stories of Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, for example, Wenders teases out connections between spirituality, obsessive love and social consciousness. “Some of my all-time heroes from the history of the blues had remained in the shadow of public acceptance,” he says. “I didn’t know much about their lives myself. That seemed like two great incentives: I could pay homage to them and find out more about them at the same time.”
Harris, too, was surprised by the linkages that he found. “There are cats over in Timbuktu who listen to James Brown, Bobby Bland and Otis Redding,” he says. “Me and [guitarist] Jamal Millner were hanging out with [Malian guitarist] Ali Farka Toure. He has satellite TV and suddenly Ol’ Dirty Bastard comes on. He was like, What is this shit?’ So we explained to him, ‘Have you ever heard of Wu-Tang?’ ” Harris laughs at the incongruity. “The point is that things are global now. You can be in the desert, but ODB is on your TV.”
That international perspective lends a freshness to British director Mike Figgis’ Red, White and Blues. The film restores the strangeness and exhilaration that artists such as Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, John Mayall and Mick Fleetwood felt when they heard the music and encountered legendary performers including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The most meaningful result of that culture clash? “Robert Johnson is a household name now,” Clapton says.
The appropriation of the blues by white artists and businessmen gets addressed as well. “It’s that whole aspect of how blacks create the beginnings of the music, and then we toss it away,” Chuck says. “And then it doesn’t mean anything until somebody else goes to the gutter and picks it up and shines it off. I look at rap music the same way I look at the blues or jazz. A kid might not even know A Tribe Called Quest today. Who the hell is Muddy Waters to the average black kid? But I can go to a twenty-five-year-old white kid, and they might know Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf.” In The Road to Memphis, directed by Richard Pearce, Ike Turner and the late Sam Phillips alternate between tension and affection as they debate whether black musicians were properly acknowledged and compensated in the Fifties.
The Road to Memphis also offers a gripping portrayal of life on the “chitlin circuit,” the loose agglomeration of African-American social clubs and recreation halls that formed during segregation in the South. Sixty-eight-year-old Bobby Rush delivers a series of galvanizing performances, stealing the film from its primary subject, B.B. King. Rush’s peerless showmanship may well deliver him the crossover success he has worked for his entire life. “Do you see how free I am?” he says. “I’m true to what you see, and I’m the last of the kind doing it.” Well, maybe not the last. “When you hear Mystikal say ‘Shake Ya Ass,’ well, Bobby Rush may be older, but all of that comes out of the chitlin circuit,” Chris Thomas King says.
Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues celebrates 2003 as the Year of the Blues, an honor that Congress declared to acknowledge the music’s hundred-year history. A coffee-table book and a crateful of CDs including soundtracks for each film, a one-disc overview, a five-CD history of the blues and individual artist compilations will be released to accompany the series. “The blues is about African-Americans in this country, our story and who we are,” says King, who views these films as a blow against blues purism. “This series tells all those stories. Robert Johnson sang about the phonograph; he maybe would have sung about the Internet if it was around. If Hendrix had digital technology and sampling, he probably would have used it. The music continues to evolve.”