Some years ago Martin Scorsese put together a documentary series on the blues, seven episodes, each by a different director. I reviewed five of the seven and published those reviews on line. As those reviews have long since gone to that great virtual-reality heaven in the clouds I’ve decided to republish them here. I did it in two segments, 1,2&3 first, then 6&7. Here’s the first segment.
I note in passing that, according to the website for the series, the phrase “the blues” has been trademarked. Needless to say I am not going to put a little superscripted “TM” following each use of that phrase.
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The Blues in Three
The series has been extravagantly uneven so far. Richard Pearce’s very fine study of B. B. King and the road is all a reasonable man, woman, or child could want in a blues documentary (The Road to Memphis). But the pieces by Wim Wenders (The Soul of a Man) and Scorsese himself (Feel Like Going Home) are self-indulgent monsters that disrespect the blues and cast doubt on the craft of filmmaking.
Though I do not recall hearing “authenticity” mentioned in either of the segments by Scorsese and Wenders, the idea dominates and ultimately destroys their work. They want the blues to Mean Something, and that something has got to be Very Cosmically Deep. In contrast, Pearce focused on the music and the people and let meaning fend for itself.
Scorsese trips over his damn feet
Scorsese’s basic conceit sank him from the get-go. The idea seems to have been to follow Corey Harris, a contemporary bluesman from Denver, on a journey to discover the roots of the blues. The problem is that, whatever Harris’s virtue as a young bluesman playing in old styles, he’s not a scholar and, on the face of it, not very sophisticated about roots and history, either personal or cultural. So, either you take him at face value, and thus saddle your piece with his limitations, or you present him in an ironic light, which would be a tricky, dangerous and churlish thing to do.
It’s as though Scorsese wanted to present the Authentic Negro Blues from the mouth of an Authentic Source. Since Scorsese is white he can’t be that source, such are the ways of Authenticity. So he found himself a suitable black voice. But Corey Harris’s ideas about the blues didn’t come to him as passed down through some Secret Black Tradition. They come to him from a complicated century-old public discourse that has been very strongly shaped by white men seeking the Authentic Soul of the Natural Man in various forms of black music. This authenticity is thus in the eye, ear, and desire of the seeker and only contingently a property of whatever that desire happens to fix upon.
Yes, I do know about Magical Performances. I’ve seen and heard them, and I’ve even participated in them. They are important, very important. But they are only obliquely related to this intellectualized Authenticity. The magic begins and ends in the time and place of the performance itself. It has little to do with the pedigree of either the performer or her material. It doesn’t matter who the performer learned from, who they listened to, or who they most admire. The magic cares only for the performance.
Pedigree, however, seems important to Harris and, by implication, to Scorsese. Thus half way through the piece we find ourselves listening to an old player of the cane flute, Otha Turner. His fife-and-drum music certainly deserves documentation; but it’s not the blues no matter how generously conceived. At one point Harris asked him about the blues and Turner cleverly deflected the question. He said that, as a performer, he had to play music his audience wanted and that music mostly wasn’t blues. But, yeah, he’d sneak a little blues in there at the end of the evening.
What I suspect is that, at that moment, Otha Turner became the Native Informant telling the Anthropologist what he figured the anthropologist Wanted to Hear. Why? Because he’s polite, that’s why. He didn’t want to embarrass the anthropologist by revealing the man's ignorance.
Still, how did we get to Otha Turner in the first place? Mystic Negro Nonsense, that’s one factor. Turner has been cast in the role of a Wise Old One infused with the Wisdom of the Cosmos.
To that I’d add Charlie Keil’s discussion of moldy figs from Urban Blues. As you may know, the term was coined by musicians to designate those white experts who seemed to believe that Black Authenticity was the Special Preserve of Decrepit Old Black Men with One Foot in the Grave. In this case, Corey Harris has assumed the moldy fig role, a real change up that: moldy fig in dreadlocks. Add to that the apparent fact that Turner is the last proponent of the cane flute and he becomes irresistible to Seekers of Authenticity.
Never mind that he’s not much of a performer these days, that the drummers backing him were more interesting than he was. Never mind that there wasn’t a blues lick or feel anywhere in his playing. Whatever the blues Really Is, it isn’t necessarily the blues, is it? It’s become something else, the Touchstone of Authenticity.
We’ve now got the beginnings of a nice Russian doll of authenticity, with Otha Turner inside Corey Harris inside Martin Scorsese. Scorsese uses a bit of film magic to insert a doll inside Otha Turner. Scorsese’s particular bit of magic has a name; it’s called a match cut. Perhaps the best-known match cut in film history is the moment in 2001 where Kubrick cuts from a bone tumbling in the air to a space ship cartwheeling above the earth’s surface. A very effective maneuver.
Scorsese used it to cut from a clip of Turner playing his flute to a West African man playing a similar flute. The distance between Africa and America has now been miraculously erased and African has been cast in the role of Ultimate Source. Harris goes to Mali where he talks to three contemporary musicians, Salif Keita, Habib Koité, and Ali Farka Toure.
Keita has one of the great soaring voices in the world; Koité’s guitar style seems to span the Atlantic, encompassing African, European, and American elements; and Toure has learned from the Authentic American Acoustic Blues. Each of these musicians is a contemporary artist strong enough to bear the weight of a program devoted to their music alone. But there is no sense of that in this piece, where they are reduced to bit players in a misguided and ill-informed search for the Roots of the Authentic African Blues. There is no Authentic African Blues, but there is much fine contemporary African music.
As for the American Blues, it got jammed into the beginning of Scorsese’s segment. I enjoyed the archival footage of John Lee Hooker, Son House, Muddy Waters, and Leadbelly. I was especially taken with the shots of Son House’s right hand guitar technique; he really flailed away, yet the resulting sound was crisp and precise. Perhaps that should have been pointed out in the voice over. While it’s an easy thing to see, not everyone would specifically notice it. Why notice it? Because music is technique; even when it summons the cosmos, technique matters.
It would have been helpful, as well, to point out that Lead Belly’s best-known song, “Good Night Irene,” is not a blues. But, the moment you point that out, you might be tempted to point out that Lead Belly’s repertoire was full of tunes that were Not Blues. If Leadbelly sang all kinds of music then how could he possibly be a Dyed-in-the-Cotton Bluesman? And if Leadbelly isn’t the Real Deal, who is?
Wenders spins old wives tales
Frankly, it would be better to drop this whole tangled authenticity mess. But, no, Scorsese just handed it to Wim Wenders. And Wenders turned it into a film school exercise.
Before entertaining that rant, however, let me say that the last half of Wenders’ piece, featuring recently discovered footage of J. B. Lenoir, was a treasure – though he should have cut the agonizing interview with the couple who shot it. I particularly enjoyed hearing Lenoir sing about the war in Vietnam. The blues for the most part has avoided political commentary, so it was a minor revelation to hear a bluesman with different ideas. And I enjoyed hearing Lenoir give devotional lyrics a blues setting; that too was new to me, if not to the blues.
But bringing this footage to light hardly redeems Wenders from the first half of the segment. Here authenticity took the form of shooting contemporary footage that’s been tricked-up to look Authentically Old. This footage has Chris Thomas King and Keith Brown playing, respectively, Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James, two classic bluesman whom Wenders much admires.
As Scorsese told us that Wenders was doing this, and that he used an old hand-cranked camera to shoot this fictionalized film-within-the-film, it’s a bit difficult to cry “foul” on that account. But I’m going to do so anyway. I can understand wanting to do this as a technical exercise, but I don’t see what this technical exercise tells us about the blues. I fear we’re being given more Authenticity, that the old-timey look is supposed to give these myths a sheen of Deep Truth they do not otherwise merit.
What worries me most, however, is the music within these fictions. While watching the segments I had assumed the music consisted of archival recordings by Johnson and James. When I went to the website to verify this, I ran into difficulties. Skip James is credited with archival performances for this segment but Blind Willie Johnson is not. Was Chris Thomas King singing for Johnson? If so, that needs to be made clear in the film itself, before we saw the first frame of this fiction.
It gets worse. A bit later I looked up the credits for Carl Burnett’s episode and was surprised that T-Bone Walker wasn’t mentioned, though footage of him certainly was in the program. In this instance the website credits are wrong. Maybe they’re wrong for the Wenders episode as well. As it is, I don’t know who I’ve been listening to.
I can’t blame that on Wenders’ aesthetic judgment, but the blame has to fall somewhere. This kind of negligence does seem of a piece with the organizational arrogance that asserts trademark ownership over “the blues.” It undermines the integrity of the whole project. I shouldn’t have had to consult the website in an effort to determine the veracity of material presented in the program.
But I digress.
One bit of Wenders’ mythologizing is particularly revealing. Toward the end of the segment the voiceover says something to the effect that, unlike Skip James, Johnson had little desire for fame and fortune. He was content to live out his life in obscurity and play his church music.
Is that true, or is that a sentiment that Wenders attributed to Johnson because that’s what he wants to believe of this Authentic Black Bluesman? One romantic fiction is that of the over-arching and ultimately self-destructive genius, such as Goethe’s Faust. Another is that of the Noble Peasant, content to live his life in tune with the world in his humble circumscribed orbit. That seems to be the fiction Wenders is placing on Johnson. Maybe the real man would have worn it well. But I don’t know.
And I have the strong impression that Wenders doesn’t care, that he’s more concerned with the fabrication he can weave from bits and pieces of Johnson’s life and music. In what way does Wenders’ preening self-importance honor the blues, its musicians, and its fans? How does the memory of Blind Willie Johnson, and Skip James too, benefit from having their lives and music turned into a virtuoso piece of film school juvenilia? How can such fakery reveal the truth of any blues?
Pearce honors the blues
Given that both Scorsese and Wenders became lost in their search for authenticity, I was not expecting much from Richard Pearce’s segment, “The Road to Memphis.” I was thus completely surprised when I saw this well-crafted, respectful, joyous and loving documentary unfold. Pearce creates a sense of music as lived experience rather than music as a canvas on which an auteur paints his own picture about the meaning of it all. This is a rich piece of work, far in excess of my ability to comment on it.
Above all else, it gives us a sense of how the blues resides in various overlapping communities of people rather than existing as a cosmic essence that somehow oozed up out of the Mississippi delta. We see the musicians interacting with one another on the bus and rehearsing before a gig. We see them talking to club owners and signing autographs for fans. Toward the end there was a marvelous segment where Bobby Rush is buying a shirt for the evening’s performance at a big bash in Memphis, the W. C. Handy awards. He and the clothier traded down-home clichés for a minute or two and then exchanged an elaborate handshake. Much of it was probably an act for the camera, but it was an act that only amplified the essential ease and familiarity of their interaction.
Perhaps the most telling single conversation was one between Sam Phillips and Ike Turner that took place in Phillips’s old studio. Both men have secure places in the history of American music; both broke new ground in the DMZ running between white and black Americans. Few black performers worked harder to bring their music to a white audience than Ike Turner; once he hooked up with Tina, he succeeded big-time. Sam Phillips had been a small-time studio owner in Memphis until he found Elvis Presley, the kind of musician he had been looking for, a white singer who sang black. Before that Phillips had recorded many black musicians, Ike Turner among them. Ike made it emphatically clear that he always felt comfortable in Phillips’ studio.
Phillips clearly believed that, however much Elvis may have learned from black performers, he was, himself and in his own right, a worthy performer (my words, not his). Though not an Elvis fan, I do believe Phillips is correct; Elvis had the magic. In contrast, Turner insisted on the derivative nature of Elvis’ style. I believe that Turner is correct as well. The two men were unable to negotiate a formulation that suited them both, so Turner simply left the room.
That conversational stand-still speaks volumes about the complicated weave of black and white that has determined the course of American music for over a century. What it says, alas, exists only in the interaction between those two proud and accomplished men, their words, postures, and expressions. That too is authentic. In giving us that conversation Pearce showed us the peculiar problem that crippled Scorsese and Wenders. If you know nothing about the blues, that conversation has lessons for you. If you have advanced degrees in cultural studies, that conversation has lessons for you. If you’re setting out to document some music, the fact of that conversation has lessons for you.
Moving on, it was good to see so much attention given to the story of WDIA, the radio station in Memphis where B. B. King got his first job. Radio has played a critical role in American music, so it was good to see Pearce give so much attention to this particular station, one that once reached a tenth of black America. Aside from its role in broadcasting the music to millions, WDIA itself was and remains a venue where musicians, DJs, record people, and fans meet and talk to one another. By presenting WDIA as the setting for and subject of a rich set of interviews throughout the segment, Pearce encompassed the blues community on both the large scale – millions of people over decades of time – and the small, conversations between, e.g. B. B. King and a DJ.
And then there were the performances themselves. We heard complete songs, not fragments. We saw Bobby Rush working his audience, heard a preacher in full voice, and B. B. King as well. “The thrill is gone.” The thrill is gone. Yes indeed it is, and for the umpteenth time. Richard Pearce honored the blues.