Mojo still workin’
Though a PBS video series that commemorated 2003 as the Year of the Blues was a mixed blessing, three absolute blues gems were released on DVD this year
In case you hadn’t noticed, 2003 was the Year of the Blues.
Marking 100 years from the point where composer W.C. Handy encountered a musician on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Miss., playing what Handy described as the weirdest music he’d ever heard, according to the Web site at www.yearoftheblues.org, the Year of the Blues was an ambitious promotion. It was established via a congressional proclamation and was organized by the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Blues Foundation in Memphis.
Of course, with the kind of real-life blues material coming out of Washington, D.C., daily, from a southbound economy to the war in Iraq, no one in America had to be reminded that 2003 was the year of the blues. If you were paying attention, you already knew that.
Nevertheless, the Year of the Blues, promotionally speaking, offered a rare opportunity to focus attention on America’s great indigenous musical art form not named “jazz.” There was an entire new generation of music fans to be seduced by the music’s sinful charms. And from a business standpoint, there were wonderful synergies offered for catalog exploitation. Universal Music, to cite the largest major-label group, now owns a number of prime blues catalogs, from old-line race-record majors Decca and Mercury to erstwhile indie labels Chess, Excello, Duke/Peacock and Black Top. What a great opportunity to repackage some of those choice titles in a new context, to take advantage of a new marketing bonanza, which Universal did, as did the other major distributors.
If the Year of the Blues had a culminating point, it was in late September and early October, when PBS aired a week of blues programming—seven films by seven different directors over seven nights, overseen by director Martin Scorsese.
Those expecting the kind of narrative arc offered by, say, the Ken Burns-directed PBS series Jazz, most likely were disappointed by The Blues. The problem was that Scorsese allowed the various directors way too much leeway, which resulted in a lot of overlap and at least one glaring omission.
The overlap can be summed up in one word: Chess. The venerable Chicago independent label, along with its banner artists Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, was featured prominently in several episodes. Yes, the story of Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess and the label they started is integral to the development of the blues. This is where the person overseeing the project should come in, to ensure that there’s a sense of continuity. Apparently, Scorsese was asleep at the switch.
Other choices were curious, too. The Scorsese-directed opener worked well, as did the Richard Pearce-directed segment on Memphis. But a Charles Burnett-directed fiction about a boy encountering the blues while traveling with his uncle through the 1950s South didn’t. The Wim Wenders-directed segment covered Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, two bluesmen better known in Europe than America, and spent too much time with a strange old couple, he an American and she a Swede. A Clint Eastwood-directed segment on piano blues belonged in a jazz overview, and a Mike Figgis-directed segment on the British blues invasion of the 1960s featured Tom Jones and Van Morrison singing blues, along with plenty of skiffle. The strangest segment was a Marc Levin-directed film in which Marshall Chess, son of Leonard and onetime president of the Rolling Stones label, attempts to rewrite history by repositioning Electric Mud—an abysmal 1968 acid-rock-blues fusion album by Muddy Waters that young Marshall had produced—as a groundbreaking work of blues genius. (For the record, it isn’t; it’s a godawful mess.) Marshall hooks up with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D., who agrees with him on the brilliance of Electric Mud, and they bring rapper Common in to cut some new sides with some classic Chicago blues musicians that attempt to meld blues and hip-hop forms. The whole thing makes for interesting cinema, especially for those of you who are slow-motion train-wreck fans.
As for the glaring omission? Putting together a seven-night series on the blues and not devoting one episode to Texas’ contributions to the music is the kind of oversight that borders on the completely clueless. Let’s see: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Freddie King, Charles Brown, Pee Wee Crayton, Mance Lipscomb, Amos Milburn, Esther Phillips, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds … nah. Aside from that, not a whole lot going on in the Lone Star State.
The entire series is available on DVD from Sony, so you can judge for yourself now. And there is plenty of great footage in the various segments. The series may not be the kind of thing you’d give to Dad to bring him up to speed, but it offers plenty of gems for anyone who’s a serious blues fan.
But if you really want to put a smile on the face of a blues fan, pop either of the two volumes of The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 into a DVD player. Both of these volumes, released by Reelin’ in the Years Productions through Experience Hendrix/Hip-O Records/Universal Music—with a third volume coming next March—contain well more than a dozen songs, performed live by (now well-known) blues artists who either were at the peak of their powers, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, or were relics from the 78-rpm blues era who were still vital, like Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey.
What’s striking is how good these performances look, and how good they sound. They were taped for a German television show called Gehört und Gesehen (Heard and Seen) to document American blues musicians touring Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival put together by Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, two German promoters.
At the time, in the early 1960s, African-American blues players were treated like second-class citizens at home. In Europe, however, they were worshiped as important purveyors of exotic music and recognized as the carriers of true American culture. The mostly Chicago-based players here (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, bassist Willie Dixon, guitarist Matt Murphy, pianist Otis Spann, harpist Rice “Sonny Boy Williamson” Miller, et al) on Gehört und Gesehen were used to playing hometown gin mills, and the regal treatment they were accorded in Europe surprised them and, as is quite apparent, energized their performances.
The sets are often quaint; imagine an all-black episode of The Lawrence Welk Show, with homey-looking porches, a mid-’50s Buick Roadmaster and backdrops painted to look like stock urban Chicago and rural Southern scenes. The introductions, when they happen, are stiff and stilted, but mostly, it’s just music on these DVDs, performed before audiences of 1960s German hipsters.
And what music. Volume 1 opens with T-Bone Walker, arguably the Jimi Hendrix of his day, lounging on a porch and playing “Call Me When You Need Me.” He’s followed by the more bucolic duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee shuffling through “Hootin’ Blues” with American Bandstand-style dancers, followed by suave pianist Memphis Slim nuancing his way through “The Blues Is Everywhere.” By Otis Rush’s visceral “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” if you’re at all a blues head, you’re totally hooked. The payoff comes during the last five songs, a Chess all-star lineup featuring Willie Dixon on “Weak Brain and Narrow Mind”; the weirdly serpentine Sonny Boy Williamson on “Nine Below Zero”; Otis Spann on “Spann’s Blues”; Muddy Waters on “Got My Mojo Working”; and Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim closing with “Bye Bye Blues.” Yeah, these guys were featured in Scorsese’s PBS series, but not like this.
Volume 2 begins with Sonny Boy Williamson playing “Bye Bye Bird” and “My Younger Days,” all coiled like some deeply strange hoodoo sorcerer. Other highlights include an ethereal T-Bone Walker performance of “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”; at one point, he appears to almost climb out of your television. It’s eerie. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ version of “Mojo Hand” is sufficiently jinky, too, and toward the end, there are three riveting numbers—“Shake for Me,” “I’ll Be Back Someday” and “Love Me Darlin’”—by Howlin’ Wolf, whose arresting voice cuts through dead air like a butcher’s knife through a hunk of raw meat.
What’s special about the American Folk Blues Festival DVDs is that they made the Year of the Blues come alive in a way the Scorsese series never quite did. But then, if you want to teach someone about whiskey, you don’t mix it with Mountain Dew Code Red. You give it to them straight.
And if it’s more of that straight hard stuff you’re after, a 90-minute documentary DVD, titled The Howlin’ Wolf Story (When the Sun Goes Down/Bluebird/Arista Associated Labels/BMG) will deliver enough high-proof sauce to lay you out cold.
Early on, there’s some circa-1965 footage that begins with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Mick Jagger telling Jack Good, the host of ABC’s teen-music show Shindig, why they’ve insisted upon putting an unknown singer named Howlin’ Wolf on the bill. What follows is sheer jinx-removing madness, as the Wolfman lays down a wicked version of his own “How Many More Years.” Watch closely, and you can see the corruption of America’s pristine youth taking place visibly, in real time.
The film that follows paints a fascinating portrait of one of American music’s most consistently arresting performers. And there’s plenty of fine music, too.
So, though the Year of the Blues may not have worked out as planned, with thousands of turned-on new blues fans rushing out to buy re-mastered copies of Electric Mud, there were a few very nice surprises.
And, to paraphrase Little Milton Campbell, the blues is still all right.