Series may turn the blues pink
PBS special features directors like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — The blues turned 100 this year, and PBS is celebrating with a week-long party hosted by director Martin Scorsese.
Just what makes this year the birthday of the blues is a bit arbitrary, given that musicologists trace the roots of this musical form back hundreds of years to Africa. But for the purposes of the congressional proclamation that decreed 2003 The Year of the Blues, the blues were "born" in 1903 when cornet player W.C. Handy heard a slide guitar making melancholy music in a Mississippi train station.
Unlike public televisions' earlier 10-part musical opus, "Jazz," the seven films in "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey" beginning Sunday, are not chronological, nor are they comprehensive. They are the artistic impressions of the music as lovingly, even reverently assembled by seven different film directors, including Mr. Scorsese, Mike Figgis, Wim Wenders, and Clint Eastwood.
"This is a labor of love, it's about music and the blues," says Scorsese, "it's not that you planned to do it; you had to do it."
The films showcase an A-list of living blues musicians, as well as archival footage of early pioneers - B.B. King, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters. The filmmakers say they felt a need to show the roots of today's popular music.
"There are so many young people out there today," says German director Mr. Wenders, "not only young people, also middle-aged people and even old people, who listen to their rock 'n' roll or their rap or their hip-hop and they don't really know where all of this is coming from. I think that's why this is so important."
A native New Yorker known for gritty gangster films, series executive producer Scorsese says the blues have influenced his work from the beginning. "My work has always been fueled by music, and I have a very strong feeling about music, all kind of music, particularly the blues."
He adds that music has always been an integral part of creating movies. When he visualizes a film, he listens to the blues for inspiration. "I have lived with it over the years," he says, "and it's sort of scored my life in a way. And I think that's pretty evident in the kinds of movies I make."
Of the seven films, Scorsese's "Feel Like Going Home," which kicks off the series, takes the most conventional documentary approach, tracking the musical roots of blues and following them forward.
Contemporary blues singer and music preservationist Corey Harris travels to Mississippi and Africa, talking to famous musicians and common folk alike. Several musicians attempt to define the blues: One says that blues is what happens between a man and a woman.
When Mr. Harris arrives in Mali in western Africa, he says, "Everything felt familiar and strange at the same time." He means this both personally and musically, pointing out that slaves brought the rhythms and instruments of western Africa, such as the fife and drum, to the US during colonial America.
The social and political subtext of the music is what spoke to Wenders. "I discovered the blues in the early '60s, and for me it was an incredible ingredient of the image of America," he says. "I knew America through the movies and growing up in postwar Germany, through books and photography and magazines, and the blues was like a correcting voice to any of that.... The blues was another side of America and it was very clear to me it was at least as true as everything else, but it was different. It was the voice of truth."
This is a poignant statement, given how much the musicians themselves had to hide in their music - bluesman Willie King suggests that lyrics full of anguish over how a woman done her man wrong were actually aimed at "the bossman," adding with a shake of the head, that saying it straight out would get a man hanged from the nearest tree.
All seven of the films mix modern musicians with historical figures, partly to help showcase rarely seen archival footage of pioneers from the early part of the 20th century. But also to show what it takes to keep the music alive.
"If the genre is powerful enough," says director Mike Figgis, "it will retain its genius and will emerge. And it needs to develop, otherwise it becomes a museum culture of 'this is how it used to be,' " he says, adding that re-creating medieval music is interesting, "but you wouldn't want to spend the rest of your life listening to sackbuts and crumhorn."
Featured contemporary musician Charles Thomas King points out that many younger musicians face hostility not just from peers who don't understand the music, but from traditionalists who don't want to see it change. "There's no such thing as the right way to play the blues," he says.
"There's a lot of young artists that want to take part in the music ... but then people say, 'Well you've got to dress a certain way, you have to sing a certain kind of thing. It's got to be done in 12 bars, you can't rap it or you can't wear corn rows ... or baggy pants or something,' " he says, adding that this desire to keep blues "historically pure" won't work.
"All those things are really ridiculous because you can't separate the music from the culture, and as the culture progresses and moves forward, the music really has to represent that."