To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

Keeping The Blues Alive

January 20, 2003

Keeping the Blues Alive


"The sun's gonna shine in my back door some day. The wind's gonna rise and blow my blues away." — Tommy Johnson

The United States Senate has declared (with unintended irony) that 2003 is the "Year of the Blues." It has urged the president to issue a proclamation to that effect.

It's very difficult to overstate the cultural importance of the blues, which have been around about 100 years, were crucial to the overall development of jazz and gave birth about a half-century ago to a boisterous new music called rock 'n' roll.

The blues, powerful and bitter and mean and hopeful and funny, grew out of the brutally degraded condition of black Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. The music was like a salve to the raw wounds of men and women working literally like slaves in the cotton fields and corn fields of the Mississippi Delta, or struggling against the dire poverty and grotesque racism of other Deep South venues, or trying to survive on domestic and janitorial work in the unforgiving environs of the industrial north.

These were lives condemned to poverty and tragedy and desperation. Opportunities were few and life expectancies were pathetically short. And yet the people endured. The blues provided the soundtrack.

"I got to keep moving," sang Robert Johnson, perhaps the greatest bluesman of them all. "I got to keep moving, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail. . . . And the day keeps 'minding me, there's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail."

Now hold onto your hats, folks, because that music is about to make a comeback.

The filmmaker Martin Scorsese and some of his associates are raising the curtain today on a dandy project. "This is special," he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Scorsese and six other directors, including Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood, are nearing completion of seven feature-length films about the blues. Excerpts from five of the films will be shown today at the Sundance Film Festival.

All seven films will be shown on PBS next fall as the centerpiece of an even bigger project called "Year of the Blues." This will include a 13-part public radio series on the history of the blues, a companion book of rarely seen archival material, and a traveling blues exhibition and education program that the sponsors hope will reach up to five million children.

The "Year of the Blues" will begin more or less officially with a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York on Feb. 7.

The film project began about five years ago when Mr. Scorsese was the executive producer on a concert film with Eric Clapton in which footage of blues musicians from the past was used. From that, said Mr. Scorsese, "came the idea of doing a series of films that would honor the history of the blues."

The films are not straight narratives, or documentaries, but rather what Mr. Scorsese calls "interpretive, personal looks at the blues."

"The idea," he said, "was to take the archival footage, and then to take journeys, interpretive looks at the blues, and create an awareness for young people that, first, this is an art form, and then to understand how it happened, where it came from and how it continues."

Mr. Scorsese's film, "From Mali to Mississippi," is not yet finished. "I hope to complete it by March," he said. It goes all the way back to the antecedents of the blues on "the banks of the Niger River in Mali" and then follows the progression of the music to the cotton fields and juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.

The blues somehow flourished in those fields of oppression and went on to nurture nearly every form of popular American music that followed.

In his book "Deep Blues," Robert Palmer described a visit he made in 1979 to the Mississippi Delta home of Joe Rice Dockery, who had inherited from his father the remnants of a plantation on which an astonishing number of great blues musicians had lived and played.

Mr. Dockery had grown up on the plantation but had never heard the music.

"None of us gave much thought to this blues thing until a few years ago," he said. "In other words, we never heard these people sing. We were never the type of plantation owners who invited their help to come in and sing for parties. I wish we had realized that these people were so important." 

Copyright 2003 The New York Times CompanyPermissionsPrivacy Policy

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top