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on 5 September 2016
Everything in American music begins with the blues. They are the motherlode, the source of jazz, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, even hillbilly music — bluegrass, old timey, country & western. All are its progeny. All borrow from its cadences and rhythms.
America as told through the blues is a tale of dispossession. The songs come out of the swamps, fields and tin shacks of the Delta, their mood bleak, mournful, tragic, the music of a people treated badly by the failed promise of Christian charity and generosity. They were chattel, bought and sold as property, beasts of burden, not human. The blues are a lamentation, a cry in the dark, a plea for mercy and salvation. The sound is earthy, anchored in the soil, the opposite of gospel, which is lofty, spiritual, transcendent. Gospel is sung with eyes on the prize, the songs of souls ascending toward heaven, bound for the promised land and Sweet Jesus, the one who still loved them when all others had failed and forsaken them. The singers hunger for resurrection and redemption, as did Jesus. But the blues can’t ascend. They’re too heavy to rise. They slump toward the earth, sleep in drunken gutters or bleed on barroom floors. They toil in wretched fields and swing from Southern trees: strange fruit, the noose knotted tight round the bloated neck.
The blues are too weary to protest. Instead they offer anguish. With only three or four main chords they are simple. They get down to the nitty gritty and don’t mess around. You may turn to try to get away from them but can’t. The blues get under your skin and won’t let go. You done did them wrong and now you must face the music. They mean to haunt you and do.
It took dedicated musicologists from the 1930s onwards to trace the roots of American music to the blues. But once this happened, once the map of music was made, it was clear where genesis resided. It was also deeply ironic. The reason America has music is because of the blues. It is the voice of its greatness.
This fine series, aptly named a musical journey, takes us to places where the blues began — to Mississippi and the Delta, to New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and New York. We go abroad to London and Liverpool, and to the place where humanity began — to Africa, our motherland. We even make an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, a haven of rich white folk for the most part. Along the way we journey with musicians far too numerous to list here. Various filmmakers are brought together by Martin Scorsese to tell their versions or portions of the story. The collection is therefore idiosyncratic, formed by personal choices and points of view.
One example is Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders (one of seven films in the collection). His title is borrowed from a song title by Blind Willie Johnson, one of three blues musicians he profiles. The other two are Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, musicians unknown to the mainstream, even to the mainstream of the blues, if there is such a thing. I’ve chosen to review this film by Wenders now, but on the understanding that all the films in the series are worth seeing.
Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), known as The Blind Pilgrim, was a gospel blues singer who played the slide guitar. He was a bridge between blues and gospel, as his songs had religious themes. He lost his sight at age 7, apparently, when his distressed and distraught stepmother threw lye in his face. Why? Vengeance, it has been explained. Willie’s father, a jealous type, accused her of running around with other men, and to illustrate the point beat her black and blue. This still doesn’t explain much other than to say people can be highly irrational and children vulnerable. Poor Willie. Awful the way some things come down.
He was from Texas, black and blind. Not a very promising arrangement. Poor too of course, which he remained throughout his life. He preached and sang in the streets of several Texan towns for a living, though sometimes was fined and arrested as a public nuisance. In 1945, he was living in a house in Beaumont, Texas, but it burned down. With nowhere to go he slept on a mattress in the open air among the embers once they cooled. He was taken ill and died of malarial fever on 18 September that year. He was refused treatment at a local hospital, it is said, on the basis of being blind, black or both. He was buried in a cemetery in Beaumont called Blanchette, though the cemetery was not kept up and eventually forgotten. But it was rediscovered in 2009 and a monument was erected there to Blind Willie, honouring him and his music.
Why the fuss over this man? Because he didn’t sing in the dark, even though he was blind. His voice travelled because it was recorded. He sat for five sessions with Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930, recording 29 songs. Among these was “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, one of the first great blues songs recorded. It is so great that Blind Willie’s voice is no longer exclusively in our solar system. It is now voyaging far beyond our planetary system in the Voyager spacecraft launched by NASA in 1977. Aboard the craft is a platinum disc designed to be played by any intelligent life in the galaxy that happens to find the craft. On the disc are 50 human languages and other assorted sounds from Earth, including the voices of our wildlife. There is also music. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are interstellar travellers. This was to be expected. But Blind Willie? Who was the person in NASA in Houston who knew the blues, Blind Willie, and loved them both? There are only two other American musicians from the 20th century travelling with Blind Willie to the stars — Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, all inspired choices.
What is it about “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”? One possible answer: it’s a haunting as much as it is a song. It’s ghostly. It has no lyrics, just the bottleneck slide guitar and Blind Willie’s humming and moaning. It needs no lyrics for its emotive power. His moaning comes from some place of immense pain. It’s been called “the most intense and startling blues record ever made.” The song is now in the Library of Congress, preserved and protected in The National Recording Registry. Records deemed worthy for entry there must be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. Other remarkable recordings by him are “John the Revelator”, “Motherless Children”, “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and of course “Soul of a Man”.
Where to begin (or stop) with his influence? You may recognise some of these names: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Staple Singers, Fairport Convention, Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes and Kronos Quartet. Strange how NASA, that most geeky and egghead of organisations, set the tone for all these artists to follow. That’s what I love about science. When you flip it over its B-side is often art.
Wenders begins the film with Blind Willie and the Voyager launch. Perfect entry. Next he carries on and we meet Skip James.
Skip James (1902-69) was a Delta blues singer from Bentonia, Mississippi. He played guitar and piano and had a high-pitched, haunting singing voice. Have you ever heard a song from the Sixties called “Going Up the Country” by a stoned-out California hippy band called Canned Heat? They played at Woodstock. Skip sounds like that. He sounds like he was in Canned Heat.
Skip’s father was a former bootlegger turned preacher. He had the fear of God in him and let the world know it. The power of his father’s oratory must have stuck with Skip, because later he would also turn to the church, turning his back on the blues.
Skip took part in a blues talent contest in Jackson, Mississippi in 1931. A record shop there sponsored the thing. He barely got through the first two verses of “Devil Got My Woman” when the talent scout, staring admiringly at Skip’s lightning-quick hands, said, “Stop, sign here.” The scout knew right away.
Skip travelled by train to Grafton, Wisconsin, a world away from everything he knew. A Negro in those parts was rare, and he was no ordinary Negro. He was there at the request of Paramount Records. Word had come up by telephone that Skip was on his way. The scout must have been effusive about Skip’s talent because the reception in Wisconsin was nothing like Skip had known or seen in Mississippi. He was 29 years old, a man, not a boy, but among white folks this was the first time he’d been treated like a man, and an important one at that.
The recording sessions were intense. Skip laid down 18 tracks in one day (voice and guitar). The next day, 8 more (voice and piano). They put him up in a local hotel. White folks stayed in the same hotel. How about that? White staff even waited on him, and did so with politeness not sarcasm, a mindblower he hadn’t seen coming. So this is how America would look if it weren’t so backward and ignorant.
It’s hard to know if Skip was cheated or not. Probably not. But he should have had a manager or agent with him (if he could afford one, which he couldn’t). The recording contract terms were simple: $40 in hand now and all expenses paid (hotel, meals, train ticket back to Mississippi) or a percentage of sales. Skip must have seen those greenbacks and thought, “40 bucks from the hand of a white man for me.” He took the money. Maybe he thought he had to. How could he know if the records would sell?
As it happened, they didn’t. It was the start of the Great Depression and nobody had any money, especially for luxuries such as music. But radio was free, and it was there that people heard Skip’s music. It was distinctive — the guitar playing, fast piano licks, and especially that high-pitched voice that makes you jump when you first hear it. You don’t forget it.
Skip hit an emotional wall, just like his father before him had. He could play music, true, but so what? What about the important things, a higher calling, the things of the soul? He laid down his guitar, put on the reverend’s robes, ascended the pulpit, talked to his people and sang every Sunday in the church choir. Was he happy? Maybe. At least he was surrounded by a flock, a congregation who waited every Sunday for him to tell them what they wanted to hear — where righteousness would lead them.
But his sermonising forays into heaven were interrupted when Skip was rediscovered in the 1960s. John Fahey, the great blues and folk guitarist, went down to Mississippi and found his church. Actually, he found him in a local hospital. After Skip was well again, Fahey coaxed him into picking up the guitar. Fahey was a fan, an acolyte, a true believer in the music and told Skip he (Fahey) wasn’t the only one. Fahey and two other blues enthusiasts got Skip to the Newport Folk Festival that summer — the summer of 1964. Skip was back. Remarkably, after a hiatus of over 30 years, he was singing in public again. The crowd was mesmerised. Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and other tepid white acts had been on stage. Then Skip — part swamp legend, part ghost, part man — rose like Jesus from the grave. Imagine what that piercing wail of pain did to white liberal kids in Newport, Rhode Island. Their mouths fell open. They didn’t know what it was they were hearing but they heard it and wouldn’t forget it.
After that, massive change. Skip was hailed a hero, supplicants appeared, his music recorded by others. “I’m So Glad” — you’ve heard this one? Cream recorded it, Jack Bruce on vocals. It was a big hit. All the songs on John Martyn’s great album “Solid Air” (1973) were written by Martyn. All but one, I should say. The exception was “Devil Got My Woman” which Martyn renamed “I’d Rather Be the Devil.” Skip finally had money and long overdue recognition, but it came late in the game. He died five years later of cancer in 1969. So go the blues.
A section of the film shows Wenders as a young art student in Berlin in 1968. He’s playing billiards with a friend. There’s music in the background and voiceover by Wenders. He tells the story of how he came to discover J.B. Lenoir, the third blues hero in the film.
That year, 1968, Wenders heard a song by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, intense young British bluesmen. It was called “J.B. Lenoir is Dead.” Very clear in meaning and Wenders loved it, but who was J.B. Lenoir? He had never heard of him. Mayall obviously had because he poured his heart out in song, honouring his fallen hero.
J.B. Lenoir (1929-67) never had a proper first name. His father liked the look and sound of J.B., so he named him that. In print the name looks like initials but when you say it the look doesn’t matter. J.B. was J.B. He was born in Monticello, Mississippi, though his blues are associated with Chicago.
Early on, throughout the ‘40s, he played in New Orleans with Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He refined his guitar skills with these blues greats. In 1949, he went north to Chicago and met Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. There he found his niche with these convivial people. He liked the city too. It was welcoming. That’s the great thing about Chicago. Its response to the South was something like: “You don’t want your blues musicians? We’ll take ‘em. We love ‘em.” And they did. J.B. was happy in the Chicago blues scene. In 1951, he signed with Chess Records, the most important label for blues artists in Chicago (and elsewhere).
J.B. wasn’t shy. Actually, that’s a dramatic understatement. He was quite the showman. He had all his own clothes specially tailored for the stage. Thus, nobody looked like him. Bluesmen weren’t normally flamboyant. There was little to flaunt, considering the swamps they came out of. But J.B. was his own man and didn’t care about stage tradition. He wasn’t gonna hang his head and moan on about how his two-timin’ woman up and done did him wrong. His outfits were eye-catching: long zebra-striped coats, gold braiding, loud shirts, ties, socks. He wanted to stand out and did. As did his guitar playing. No acoustic stuff for him. He was an early Hendrix, bending the strings and making the wind cry Mary. In fact, Jimi probably copied him, consciously or not. “If J.B. can get away with that stuff, so can I.” For that matter, J.B. probably influenced Alice Cooper too, though J.B. never had any pythons on stage as far as I know.
What also made him different (and radical) were his song lyrics. He was topical and wouldn’t shy away from the issues of the day: civil rights, Vietnam, free speech. Classics such as “Down in Mississippi” and “Alabama Blues” were defiant, unapologetic, an angry black man voicing his opposition to unofficially sanctioned apartheid and fascism in America.
He died young, just 38, due to inexpert medical attention. He was involved in what seemed like a minor car wreck in Chicago. He went to the hospital but was dismissed after cursory treatment with only painkillers prescribed. But he died three weeks later due to internal haemorrhaging. Terrible also to learn that his music couldn’t pay all the bills, the usual fate of bluesmen. His last job before dying was washing dishes.
Breaks the heart.
Laurence Fishburne narrates, perfect man for the job. He assumes the voice of Blind Willie Johnson, narrating the blues from the inside.
Hats off to the British, we must say, for reviving the blues in the 1960s, for educating white Americans about neglected treasures in their own backyard. A tip of the hat too to Wenders, a German, who doesn’t have to love the blues but does and understands why. Rare thing.
Paradoxically, the blues can make you feel happy too. They connect you to the earth, to elemental things. Martin Scorsese knows this and wanted to tell you about it.